Scandals may shape the future of HR, but they need not define it

By Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP
Every year I ask myself, «How the heck is it January again?» The jump from one Times Square ball drop (or in my case, the Miami orange drop) to another happened again before I knew it.
The beginning of the year is also the time when I ask my closest colleagues—all of them seasoned HR executives and industrial/organizational psychologists—to reflect on the year that was and help me see what’s coming around the corner. They act as my sounding board, my sense-making cabal, my SEAL Team 6 for the HR profession. Each of my confidants is ready to provide a thoughtful retrospective on last year’s events and a forecast for the future at hand—and all it costs me to receive such wisdom is a glass of peaty elixir from the Scottish highlands.
When I asked my usual three questions this year, however—What event defined 2017? What’s your vibe when you think back on 2017? What did 2017 teach you in preparation for 2018?—the immediate reaction from most of my peers was that there wasn’t nearly enough scotch available. I promised a finer single malt—and more of it—to cajole them into providing the answers that follow.
 Q: What event defined 2017?
A: Endless scandals.
Every one of my colleagues had expected the presidential election to be the defining story of 2017, regardless of their political leanings. When they reflected upon actual events, however, they had to admit to the sad fact that «scandal» was the word for 2017. Thanks to the host of scandals that arose—from harassment revelations to data breaches to volatility in global policy—the HR profession is suffering from scandal fatigue. The good news is that, more than ever, people are seeing the value of HR. The bad news is that people are wondering why HR was unable to prevent these scandals in the first place. The other good news, though, is that the bad stuff is fixable.
 Q: What’s your overall vibe when you think back on 2017?
A: Reimagining empowerment.
Most of my colleagues used the word «empowerment» to describe their general sense of the passing year, an admittedly odd way to recap a year defined by scandal. But reimaginingempowerment is the key to that vibe for the business community. For victims of scandal, empowerment is coming forward, knowing that organizations are listening. For perpetrators of scandal, empowerment is taking accountability for your actions and changing your behavior. For organizations experiencing scandal, empowerment is the opportunity to bring about positive change in workplace culture and look ahead. For the HR profession in the wake of scandal, empowerment is sitting at the intersection where all these drivers converge, delineating a clear path for reconciliation and repair.
Q: What did 2017 teach you in preparation for 2018?
A: Don’t get distracted from progress.
For many of my colleagues, the question that will need answering in 2018 is «Ugh! When will it all end?» Scandals necessitate organizational change. But even great organizational upheavals cannot distract from great organizational progress. My confidants stressed the importance of not losing sight of other organizational priorities when dealing with culture derailers. To succeed in 2018, they noted, every HR business partner and CHRO must implement these three forces for change:
  1. Continue to focus on talent acquisition, which is made particularly challenging by shifts in domestic and global policy.
  2. Continue to integrate automation and artificial intelligence in the employee experience. («If you haven’t already integrated these features in basic functions like applicant tracking systems, you’re dead in the water,» one colleague said.)
  3. Maintain a focus on continuous learning and development geared toward competency-based education.
To sum up: while scandals may shape our future, it is important to make sure that they do not define our future.
What do you remember most about 2017? What events most affected your day-to-day functioning? How will you use your competencies as an HR leader to ensure that 2018 is a success for your organization? You deserve a hearty thanks for all you do, and a toast to the new year—whether it’s with a fine scotch, a glass of champagne, or a strong cup of coffee as we get started.
Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is SHRM’s senior vice president for knowledge development & certification.