05/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Peaceful Revolution: Thought Leadership from HR to Navigate the Global Financial Crisis

Since December 2008, Aequus Partners has been tracking the response of human resource (HR) professionals to the global financial crisis (GFC) -- in terms of agility (how quickly can HR turn on its toes and change tack -- e.g., from talent acquisition to retention?) and thought leadership (how can HR help pull businesses back from "knee jerk" retrenchments?). In particular, we have been looking at whether and how HR professionals have been able to wrap their minds around a new agenda for flexibility and the centrality of that agenda to business survival.

Of course we have been looking at public reports, but to identify under-the-radar practices, we facilitated a workshop on "Navigating rocky business waters with flexibility" at a national conference of HR professionals last week in Sydney, Australia. Our intention was to stimulate a discussion among HR leaders about the strategies they have been using to position flexible work practices (e.g., reduced hours, taking voluntary leave and working from home) as critical and viable alternatives to layoffs, because these practices can help reduce capital and labor costs yet retain talent for the upswing.

Our bottom line proposition was that the global financial crisis provides HR with a unique opportunity to demonstrate its value to business -- namely, how to survive, if not thrive, under extremely challenging conditions. One hundred percent of the HR attendees agreed that talking about flexibility was relevant to their business' needs, so what was distressing was the lack of quality of the discussion among this group about what they are doing (indeed 77 percent said that the information we provided was new to them so they were nowhere near the "how to" phase ). It's as if they are looking for someone else to lead the way.

To be fair, we are all working this out as we go along. But what I want to say is: this is the moment HR has been waiting for, so seize the day. Lift your heads up from processing layoffs to think strategically. HR can be the business partner it should be by developing a sophisticated flexibility versus layoffs equation (which takes into account the obvious and hidden costs -- e.g., the lower levels of engagement demonstrated by "survivors"), and then presenting business with clear, step-by-step, flexibility implementation options. Those options include developing a flexibility policy with an authentic statement of intent (i.e., communicating that flexibility is good for business because it will help to navigate the GFC), offering flexible work practices to staff across the board, skilling up managers to be able to implement the new agenda (e.g., by addressing their negative mindset or lack-of-confidence issues), and looking at job-redesign. As the Chinese proverb says, a crisis in an opportunity riding the dangerous wind. It's not rocket science that is needed right now, but smarts and the courage of HR professionals to step up and demonstrate that we can help navigate this crisis with thought leadership.

A Peaceful Revolution is a blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with, read a new post here each week.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste.