An interview with Professor Dr. Armin Trost, professor for HR management at Furtwangen University (HFU)
Diversity in HR management: Social diversity fuels variety in the world of work. How do HR managers deal with this, what challenges do they face, and what implications does diversity have for staff development? Professor Dr. Armin Trost, professor for HR management at Furtwangen University (HFU), answers these questions in an interview for TRANSFER Magazine.
Hello Professor Trost – societal, technological, and economic trends change the world we work in and bring new challenges for HR managers. What role does diversity play in this?
Diversity plays a major role, for several reasons. For a start, in times of digital solutions we face highly complex challenges and these require innovative, novel ideas. This is only possible in teams or networks, because these make it possible to take in different ways of looking at things. It’s of little use if you pull together a group of people who are of the same ilk and they all think the same – they quickly agree to the same things. You need a setting which allows really different people to come together, maybe even “wackos,” unusual people, lateral thinkers – so they can break the rules and really look at things from different angles, simply because they’re different and come from a different background or have a different social heritage. We know that diversity can also result in a broader variety of ideas, but that’s exactly what we need these days in a world that’s stopped being predictable. But on the other hand, companies are having real problems finding good people in certain professions. The whole issue of HR recruitment and talent acquisition is still a major problem. Look at what we’re witnessing with companies in the automotive supply markets. They were always successful finding engineers or vehicle technicians in the past, but now they’re looking for software developers and these firms often don’t even have that kind of people on their radar. Looking for people with really tightly defined profiles and small differences in aptitudes is wrong, because they don’t exist, at least not like we think they do. What this means for companies is that they have to be more open. They have to recruit people who maybe don’t quite fit a certain profile but do offer certain kinds of skills that lead you to assume they’ll be able to learn other things. Skills shortages force us to attract people we might not have recruited in the past.
What does an effective diversity strategy have to offer in HR management, and what specific impact does diversity have on personnel development?
We need to move away from thinking in terms of neatly defined requirements. With diversity there are basically two options. One approach entails thinking in terms of numbers and the KPIs you’re trying to achieve: “Diversity is doing pretty good for us, we’ve already got 23% of women in management positions” or “One third of our senior management are now non-Germans.” But people confuse diversity with statistical variations and standard deviation. Although that’s also a strategy you can pursue. Another strategy is to not see diversity as statistical variety but as a way of appreciating individuality. With this approach, diversity is first and foremost a question of mindset – people’s attitudes, a way of thinking. People are appreciated for what they are, irrespective of gender, age, or origin. And this raises a further point: Companies often have talent pools with selected fast-track employees and people with strong potential. These people pools actually often do score well in terms of diversity – for example they contain lots of women. But when you track who later goes on to reach senior positions, again it’s often just the men. There’s something wrong here. There are clearly lots of women who have what it takes – they’re fired up, talented, and extremely well educated, but then they still don’t make it into senior positions. There’s a simple explanation for this: We’ve got this thing about management positions that’s somehow anti-family, and some would even go so far as to call it anti-social. Senior managers are expected to be always there and always reachable. They’re the first hands on deck in the morning and the last ones to leave in the evening. And if we keep seeing managers in this way, fortunately there are still lots of people – and that includes lots of women – who will say, “That’s not a price I’m willing to pay.” So we can’t avoid upsetting the apple cart when it comes to HR development, or talent management in particular, and that will also affect the overall setup and working arrangements. There are examples of this now in senior management, such as part-time management positions or job-sharing. But just imposing quotas isn’t going far enough – you have to change the rules, the underlying structures, and the processes. It’s the only way to change the values and culture of a company.
Modern personnel recruitment in times of digital solutions and diversity – where in your opinion do companies begin?
To attract good people, companies have to define their priorities. There will still be personnel requirements in the future when it’ll be enough to write a wanted ad (simple hiring). But then there will be other jobs or functions when a recruitment ad will get you nowhere and it’ll be difficult to find people (difficult mass hiring). One thing you always have to ask yourself at the beginning is what are your needs. Only when you know that can you decide what has to be done. Where should recruitment advertising go, do I need employer branding, do I need HR consultants? This is an approach I’m only seeing very few companies take at the moment. Most firms try a wanted ad and if that doesn’t work, they get on the phone to a headhunter and then things really get expensive. The money spent on HR consulting fees is going sky-high for most companies at the moment. But HR people should know when they can afford to write a really detailed job profile and when not – but from what I’ve experienced, that’s usually not the case. Not only that, but with some requirements I have to bring in the manager and make it clear to them that without their help, it won’t work. We have to work out where we want to look together and how we’re going to approach people.
In the future, there will be bigger and bigger differences between people as individuals and their various idiosyncrasies. How can – or how should – the HR managers of the future deal with this?
According to one definition of HR management, “We ensure the right people are found at the right time in the right place.” So the first thing we think about is who’s the right person, when, and where, and then we go and look for or train someone for the position. I do things with the people so they can become what they need to become. That’s exaggerating a bit, but it’s the way people have always seen things in HR management. More and more HR managers are shifting toward making people responsible for their own development, what they learn, and their future at the company. If you think in that direction, you leave more room for individuality. For lots of companies, that’s a way of thinking that’s still unbelievably far off. The key concept here is empowering people. And then as an HR manager I have to ask myself, what can I do to support people and open doors for them? As a fundamental attitude, this is becoming more and more important in HR management. But you mustn’t confuse individuality with being an egoist. It’s just about individuals taking on more responsibility for their own future and their contribution to the company.
Professor Dr. Armin Trost lectures and researches at the Business School at Furtwangen University (HFU). The focus of his work lies in talent management, HR recruitment, and the future of work. He was previously a professor at the University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt. For a number of years he was responsible for worldwide recruiting at SAP. Since 2005, Trost has been successfully advising companies of a variety of sizes and industries on strategic HR issues.