Not just human beings, but human conditions also, have evolved over time. The way we engage with nature, work and labour, intellectual pursuits, and technology; the way we innovate and build; what we imagine and dream; and even how we engage with one another, has been in constant flux. The potential for what we can become endlessly extends with the aid of our surroundings and our creations.

As a modern practice and Profession, Human Resources seeks to better understand our condition and then apply the ever-changing learnings and best practices to our work. There is nothing fixed about HR.

The Evolution of HR

Over a short span of time, the HR Profession has evolved at rapid speeds:

  • The First Industrial Revolution is widely recognized as the catalyst for the modern Human Resources Profession. Factory workers and child labourers were suffering an unenviable plight in unsafe conditions with six day, 60-hour work weeks. The creation of Industrial Welfare Inspectors and evolving workplace standards led to the eventual organization of workers who demanded rights and safety not be compromised by employers. 
  • Trade Unions played a major role in improving the lives of people and, in many progressive industrial settings, factory owners saw Unions as an ally that elevated the working condition and thereby enhanced output. 
  • Around the mid 20th Century, the “personnel” function became its own discipline within academic institutions. 
  • In the later half of the 20th Century, social changes and workplace safety expectations stimulated robust employment legislation, which placed obligations on employers to keep workers safe, to maintain proper record keeping, to limit their days and hours of work, and ensure satisfactory rest periods.
  • Globalization and technological change served as catalysts to seismic shifts in labour supply and demand. Organizations with a global footprint adapted to pan-cultural needs.  This period had a significant impact on data collection, tracking, and measurement and signalled the development of the modern HRIS systems to meet record keeping obligations in every jurisdiction.
  • Today, HR functions are highly variable and the roster of accountabilities and expectations are scaled to the size, complexity and often times the sector in which the organization operates.  “HR” can be a team of one or it may be a team of hundreds with highly specialized sub-disciplines across a broad spectrum of accountabilities like learning, change management, total rewards, safety & wellness, talent acquisition, and labour relations, amongst others.

Why does this history matter? It matters because there is an assumption built deep into our contemporary and Westernized DNA that suggests the ills of our working past are, indeed, in the past. It assumes workers’ rights are protected by law and worker performance and overall productivity increases when they are treated well.

Make no mistake – we have advanced – evolved – by great strides. Together, employers, employees, and HR teams have made incredible advances to protect workers and improve working conditions.

But, we need to acknowledge the great pockets of vulnerable populations and workers who continue to face hardship.

Most importantly, I want to ensure the HR Profession helps workers and mitigates the harm or risk they endure.  When practiced at its highest levels of professionalism, HR is an essential tool to help business leaders and workers come together and enhance overall corporate performance.

Today, Risk + Potential Harm at Work Still Exists

The notion of a thriving and highly profitable business is not at odds with maintaining worker rights. In fact, profit and freedom from harm can coexist and often have a positive influence on the other.

I’ve had the privilege of working at and bearing witness to highly progressive organizations that believe a talent-first agenda will create competitive advantage. These companies see that their culture and talent capability can be an unmatched intangible asset for organizational success. 

That said I’ve also seen the opposite – where workers are still viewed as commodities and treated as such. Today, many workers’ rights are not being upheld. Regrettably, in some cases, the drive to achieve bottom line results at the cost of people persists.  The examples are many: workers in less-reputable staffing companies forced to accept cash payment with no health & safety protection; those who show up for work in unsafe conditions where minimum health & safety laws are ignored; employees who just want to do their job but are subjected to bullying, intimidation or harassment.

There are real risks to workers in workplaces today and everyday in Ontario. The Ministry of Labour has already issued 37 COVID-related stop-work orders, for lack of physical distancing in lunchrooms and other common areas, improper mask use, and failure to conduct an on-site screening process.  It is heartening to see this provincial authority utilized effectively in these challenging times to protect workers and organizations. Just think of how high those numbers would be if it weren’t for the hardworking HR professionals that have been keeping workplaces safe and functioning over the past eight months.

These risks impact Ontario business overall. Precarious work or high-risk environments can easily de-rail a company’s strategy, CEO’s reputation, and customer confidence.

The role of HR must be to help drive shareholder and stakeholder value for the organization, while actively seeking to remove risk and harm faced by employees and employers.

Potential Organizational HR Risks Have Increased. Significantly.

HR Professionals are involved in leading workplace investigations for wrongdoing, harassment and discrimination.  Done wrong, the consequences are severe. HR is also expected to ensure that workplace practices, leader conduct and worker behaviour is compliant with all provincial and federal laws, such as: pay equity, human rights, health & safety, ESA, statutory remittances, pension/benefit plan compliance, and data protection & privacy.

HR is also facing increasing pressure to source and acquire top talent, often with incredibly scarce skills, in a highly competitive labour market. When the company can’t procure the right talent, its progress is weakened. 

HRPA Research into Risk of Harm

This past year, the HRPA has focused on the area of professional risk.  Said another way, this is really about what risks does the company face or do workers and leaders face if HR professionals don’t perform well.  We call this ‘Risk of Harm’ arising from the practice of HR. Human capital risk is a business reality that is largely misunderstood, under-represented, and not adequately measured within an organization’s assessment of the potential risks it faces.

If we do not measure the risk, we cannot change behaviour, regardless of how ‘real’ or ‘factual’ the risk and harm derived from improper HR counsel or performance may be.

In partnership with Research Firm Environics, HRPA used evidence-informed approaches to understand the risks of harm that stem from the practice of Human Resources. We conducted comprehensive qualitative research to dive into the understanding of the HR Profession and the implications of malpractice by interviewing employees, employers, labour & employment lawyers, and HR Professionals. 

The research suggests:

  • Many employees interviewed still see HR as a fairly transactional business service focused on paperwork, hiring, discipline and onboarding. 
  • Employers tended to see HR as an important resource to protect them, to avoid risks with safety, employment and human rights laws.
  • Lawyers generally saw HR as credible and able to navigate workplace matters effectively but warned that context counts and often times HR Professionals are asked to practice outside their scope. 
  • HR Professionals find themselves spread thin and often not consulted in advance of key business decisions where their expertise and insights may have resulted in different decisions – they felt they could enhance decisions or avoid ‘fixing’ issues after less than optimal choices are made by the C-suite. 
  • The one thing all the stakeholders agreed on was that HR is playing an active role in protecting the organization from harm by avoiding and managing human capital risk and that the beneficial consequence of doing it well is enhanced reputation and confidence in an employer.

The intended use of the research is to shape new guidance to HR Professionals and reduce overall Risk of Harm incidence while continuously evolving HR competence.

HRPA has incredibly high standards for certified HR Professionals.  There is a thorough academic program required (offered at Colleges & Universities) and then two extensive examinations to prove both sufficiency in the body of knowledge of HR and understanding, interpreting and applying employment law.  Once certified, HR professionals are also obliged to maintain their currency by satisfying requirements for continuing professional development.  Finally, they’re obliged to comply with HRPA’s Rules of Professional Conduct and Code of Ethics.

Why is this important?  At HRPA we believe that well-run businesses are essential to a thriving society.  We stand against broken workplaces that fail to fully utilize the potential of their people. If organizations want to stand apart from their peers or competitors, it starts with their people. The practice of HR should drive performance and raise standards. Simply put, Better HR makes Business Better.

Survival of the Fittest

There is unquestionably risk of harm to businesses, workers, teams, and leaders from poor practice of unqualified and unprofessional HR practitioners. But, of equal importance, businesses and business leaders derive direct benefit – tangible and intangible – from strong HR contributions.

HR Professionals have advanced skills to help a company optimize their use of human talent and to create positive change that unlocks organizational potential.

If your business wants better results, we encourage a firm commitment to the best and highest use of HR Professionals.