A list published last year of the “ten largest HR consulting companies in the world” begins with Deloitte (335,000 employees), followed by Accenture (537,000 employees) and Ernst Young (299,000 employees). The list drops to 50,000 employees or less for the next seven consultants, but includes widely recognized brands like Bain, Boston Consulting, McKinsey and Mercer. The field of human resources consulting appears dominated by large, established corporations, with a global reach to line up with their global clients.
In turn, it is easy to imagine the conversation between consultant and client corporations to be focused on the client corporation’s business strategy. Shared understanding at this level can help the consultant to extend its HR services through the major operating units of the client corporation. When these services reach the individual employee, they will predictably constrain that employee’s career choices.
But need it be that way? Instead, is there an alternative approach to HR consulting that keeps you, the career owner, in mind from the start? My search for this kind of career-sensitive consulting led me to the boutique Human Resources consulting company Inspired HR, and its CEO Debby Carreau, located in Vancouver, Canada. The company promotes nine distinct HR Services, of which eight—such as recruitment and executive search, payroll, employer branding, crisis management and communications—focus on the needs of the client company, while “Career Transition and Coaching” stands alone in addressing career ownership. Yet, Carreau asserts “My unwavering belief is people are the key differentiator in business performance and in order to perform they must be engaged and productive.”
Michael Arthur: It seems fair to say that most HR consulting has been directed at improving the corporate bottom line, and that along the way career ownership has often been neglected. Does wanting people to be “engaged and productive” mean that you see things differently?
Debby Carreau: That’s something I’m happy to talk about, because if I fast forward to think about my legacy, I want to make the workplace better for as many people as possible. My way of reaching that is through helping employers do a better job in terms of engaging their people, motivating their people, and retaining their people.
The average worker today spends more than half their waking hours at work, commuting after hours, returning phone calls, and exchanging emails. Yet, the data tells us constantly that people aren’t happy, and there’s got to be a better way of working. So if we can help employers, workers, everyone, do your work a little bit better, we’re going to be better as a society. That’s my overarching reason for doing what I do.
I work for organizations because I find all too often that managers find the tough conversations with people very difficult. They tend to avoid those conversations, or try to solve them by using so-called “best practices” or reading a book and saying ”This is how we’re going to solve it,” without ever talking to their people. Our response is to get involved with businesses and help them do a better job across the whole spectrum of HR activities.
Arthur: Why do you promote the outsourcing of HR services?
Carreau: In terms of why outsource versus in-source, I don’t think it’s an either-or question. The workplace is getting more and more complicated, and it’s much harder today to have any single generalist be able to take care of mental health, recruitment, training and development, succession planning, and so on. Leaving HR services to any one person is just too much. But if you can have a team of people supporting you as needed, it seems to be a much more effective way to go for a lot of different organizations.
Arthur: I understand that you can provide a range of support for different HR challenges. But are there ways that those challenges unfold with growth, where to be able to grow an employer needs a company like yours by their side?
Carreau: If we look at, say, the last six to 12 months, we’re seeing significant layoffs in the US. Most notably Twitter, Meta and Intel have recently announced major layoffs. We’re seeing other industries, such as hospitality, have critical labor shortages. We’ve got employers that are saying they can’t make ends meet because wage inflation is so high. But when you look at it from the employee perspective, real world wages are actually going backwards because inflation is growing faster than wage growth.
We’ve got this whole return to the workplace, office versus remote work versus hybrid work dilemma, running alongside the “great resignation.” Elon Musk has just canceled all remote work for Twitter, and other business are following suit. It’s all being thrown at employers, but how can they sift through the headlines and find out what they need to focus on? Leaders are saying. “This is overwhelming. Where do we start and strategically what do we focus on?” As Rebecca Homkes of London Business School has recently put it, in these times every company in the world is “off plan.”
Arthur: If you focus on the employee, and want to help that employee be better able to represent their career within the company, what kind of issues do you see?
Carreau: The biggest issue is the tidal wave of a mental health crisis that we see coming in the workplace, and how this is going to impact people’s careers. Alongside that we know, and there’s lots of data to support, that the vast majority of workers are burned out. COVID’s taken a big toll on people across financial challenges, pressure from outside of work, taking care of children or aging parents, the time and cost of commuting, and above all that job security.
The best employers are learning how to address this head on. However, all too many employers today are skirting around and trying to appease people and solve their “unhappiness,” for lack of a better term. We need to engage with both employers and employees in saying “What if these challenges are real?” How can we help an employer to help keep people productive and on track in their careers? How can we help prevent employees from the unintended consequence of complaining too much, turning off their boss, and sabotaging their careers?
Here’s where the road leads for white collar workers. Many of them believe that we’ve worked from home and proven over the last two years they can do that successfully. They’ve performed well, met their objectives, and more. They believe they’ve earned the right to work from home. Why waste precious time and money commuting, and meeting caregiving expenses?
CEOs and their direct reports are just saying, no, no, no, we believe that we lose collaboration, innovation and mentorship for our younger workers by having them all work remotely. We want them back in the office. So there’s inherent friction behind what employers believe versus what employees believe. It shows in employers wanting to measure productivity and put what’s essentially spyware on their employees’ computers, whereas employees don’t like that at all.
Arthur: Where would you take that observation?
We’re also starting to see there’s an unintended consequence when you give everyone the option of working remotely or in the office. It is that more and more women and groups of people from equity-seeking groups, such as very low-wage workers and people with disabilities, are opting to work from home. Whether it’s because of family commitments or financial constraints, we’re seeing many more men come into the office and gain a “proximity bias” from being more visible, more likely to join conversations, get wage increases and earn promotions. Along the way, it has a direct bearing on a company’s efforts to promote greater Diversity, Equity and Inclusion across the workforce.
Arthur: A common concern for DEI targets – and for all employees – is, how can we help them do what’s best for their careers? What needs to be done there?
The first thing is, we need people to be strategic about their own careers. Leaving that to chance is not going to give you the outcome that you want. And so, when I have conversations with people about their careers, it’s really about “What do you want your career to look like in 12 months, five years, 10 years, and what can be the path to get you there? What do you need to do? What’s under your control to enable you to do that? What plan do you have for your own career? Yet, very few people, if you ask them, have actually developed a plan for their career.
It’s so important not to leave it to your employer or mentor to put you in a high potential program that they say is going to develop you. As an individual you need to make sure that your career stays on track the way that you want it to do. That may involve getting your organization to help pay for a coach, or taking advantage of the many different options out there to support you to take charge of your own career.
Meanwhile, the recruitment system favors employers. Recruitment firms ask a hefty fee to provide great data on the employer’s behalf, while in most of the US and Canada recruitment firms are not allowed to charge employees at all. Employees are left out of the conversation. People don’t realize that an executive search firm, by the nature of how it’s structured, is not set up to support them in their careers.
Arthur: I recently spoke to a recruitment firm that was very proud of how it scouted out candidates and brought them forward into the potential employee pool. I asked “What do you do for the person after that?” and the answer was to bring together information technology and psychological testing.
Carreau: IT learns, but unfortunately it also learns from humans and it learns our bad habits and our unconscious biases as well as the good things. There’s a huge push to engage technology in what have been traditionally human functions, hoping to solve employment problems. However, sometimes we’re not solving the problem, we’re just moving it into a technology-enabled version of what we were doing before. We’re still trying to figure this out.
Regarding psychological testing, I would never use a test to rule out a candidate, but I would use test data to help people ask better questions in the interview process. I also like tools that help build teams for diversity, not just in terms of race and gender, but in the way different members think and learn.
Arthur: Can you say more about how a company like yours can generate revenue from an employer company and at the same time seize the opportunity to support its employees’ careers?
Carreau: Thank you for the question. At Inspired HR, we see an obligation to the employees as much as we do to any employer. That’s our code of conduct. It’s not about “How do we take advantage of the employees for the sake of the employer?” We respect but don’t just focus on company strategy or profitability, because we think it’s really important to discuss how we can help in the whole space of the organization. This goes back to how complicated everything is today. We respond by having specialists in all the different HR areas – in recruitment, employee relations, DEI, succession planning, salary benchmarking, and so on.
For companies that aren’t extraordinarily large, they’re not necessarily going to have that all in house. So, for a lot of the clients that we work with, we deliver specific parts of their HR services, such as in, say, recruitment and outplacement. It’s really nice that we’ve got people who can go deep into different areas for companies that might have a generalist or two in house, but maybe don’t have a salary benchmarking expert or succession planner. We want employers to get full value across the full spectrum of HR services.
Arthur: A closing word?
Carreau: The world is so complicated for both employers and employees right now. For each party, it’s really important to be able to talk to other people about what’s happening in the world, and find out what other organizations are doing and what other people are doing.
At Inspired HR, we try to find out how companies are trying to navigate this crazy world that we’re all living in, and what they are doing to take care of their employees – in helping them address the mental health crisis, accommodating preferences on where to work, or brining in coaches to work with them on career development. Helping employees build their own skills and capabilities is a critical part of employee retention, and I don’t ever want to lose that connection.