2011: The Year of Reactionary HR

Posted By on Dec 31, 2010

Gearing up your 2010 reflective engines, you may let your mind soar over your personal and professional landscape in an attempt to observe and report from a dispassionate distance. There are moments you’ll be proud of, those which make you cringe and others whose outcome and impact are still somewhat clouded and unresolved.

As you float above the fray and attempt to make sense of it all, a distant object approaches at high speed. Suddenly buzzing past you are the 2011 wing-walking fools who squint their eyes into the blinding sun and pretend to see what’s ahead, often misinterpreting the smallest of clues as a means of preparing a seemingly interested world for what is most assuredly an uncertain future.

I am one of those fools.

But before I crash into the future, let’s take a quick journey back to December of 2009, a time when I predicted that 2010 would be the “Year of the HR Truism“:

2010 Scorecard

  • Prediction #1: The Vocal Minority Will Be Unhappy - Since these are truisms, this one was painfully easy to predict accurately, peaking in a crescendo of outrage over a certain association, the activities of said association’s board and their subsequent treatment of those who attempted to enlighten the masses on their alleged actions. Some were vocal and very unhappy but alas they were still the minority. Score: A+
  • Prediction #2: Technology Will Fix What Ails Us – Despite budgets opening up just slightly this past year, we did see signs that organizations were making the types of investments necessary for this particular truism to at least partially blossom. Per Towers Watson’s 2010 HR Service Delivery Survey Report, “not only were a great number of HR service delivery initiatives undertaken by organizations in the last 18 months, but they also (finally) delivered the desired results, often not just meeting but also exceeding expectations.” Score: B
  • Prediction #3: The Value Of Memberships Will Be (Passively) Questioned – See Prediction #1 above for the catalyst for much of this questioning, yet I believe this was a slight miss because there was absolutely nothing passive about it. Practitioners were quite vocal about this issue in 2010, with some describing exactly why membership adds little to no value while others rose to the defense of these same memberships. It was a very positive and somewhat heated debate, something I believe to be quite healthy for a function that could use some more time in the public square. Score: B-
  • Prediction #4: Managers Will Terrorize HR – This is a very tough one to assess and probably should have been eliminated from the outset. Of course I witnessed this to be true in 2010, but I also saw many managers step up to the plate and take on more responsibility for their people. This was a year of digging out of the recessionary rubble for most and I suppose the real HR terror might come in the form of what many predict as a mass exodus of top talent, but since we’re talking about 2010, this is a miss. Score: F

Not a bad performance but as purported truisms I should have nailed them all. This whole prognosticating business is such nonsense but why start bucking tradition now. Thus, I present you with:

2011: The Year of Reactionary HR

I’m not in love with the title but let’s spend a minute discussing why this may come true.

Over the course of the recession we found a function forced to eliminate a massive amount of its workforce, slash its operating and capital budgets, reduce its own personnel and co-depend much more heavily on third-party service providers to assist with a mass of regulatory and legislative changes, selective recruiting initiatives, globalization and technological rationalization and deployment. Meanwhile, a skeleton crew of HR full-time equivalents tried to keep the basics of payroll, benefits, compliance and other day-to-day activities in check and on target.

As the recession abates and we begin to poke our heads out of the Whac-A-Mole hole, we see mallets ready to fall on HR from every corner. Most HR and C-level leaders that I’ve spoken with recently are running to stand still, but the real crisis hits when they are asked to answer to their boards on systemic issues such as:

  • How are we going to stem rising benefits and healthcare costs without abandoning our population? Per Starbucks’ CEO, “We spend more on healthcare than coffee“.
  • How do we retain our employees once the economy fully recovers and they have a choice of employer? CNNMoney reports that 86% of Americans plan to look for a new job in 2011.
  • Will my current service providers continue to be in business and will our organization be a priority? Including notables such as Aon/Hewitt, there were dozens of M&A transactions among HR service providers in 2010, a trend that will likely continue to accelerate next year.
  • Can we service our own M&A transactions? According to Reuters, 2010 M&A activity grew to $2.2 trillion in 2010, and “next year could be busier still.”
  • Can we remain productive? The Bureau of Labor Statistics revised its third quarter productivity measures upward following recalculations.

There is no question that 2011 is going to be incredibly busy and that HR will be right in the middle of the melee. My fear is that without appropriate resources (be they financial, technological or personnel) HR will have no choice but to fight the fires as they arise. Thus, I believe we will witness an incredibly busy twelve months of largely reactionary activity.

But what do you think? Do you have suggestions on how HR can avoid this quagmire? Share your comments below, have a safe and spectacular New Year’s Eve and let’s keep the conversation going.


  1. Hey I can comment again! So true – there are all kinds of things we’d like to do in 2011 but many of them are likely to take a back seat to general firefighting.

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    • Heck, you can comment as many times as you’d like. :) I certainly hope I’m wrong about this reactionary business Laura but unfortunately I’m already seeing most departments on their heels.

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