WHEN THE financial crisis rocked the business world in 2007-09, boardrooms turned to corporate finance chiefs. A good CFO could save a company; a bad one might bury it. The covid-19 pandemic presents a different challenge—and highlights the role of another corporate function, often unfairly dismissed as soft. Never have more firms needed a hard-headed HR boss.
The duties of chief people officers, as top human-resources executives are sometimes called, are critical. They must keep employees healthy; maintain morale; oversee a historic remote-working experiment; and consider whether, when and how to lay workers off. Their in-trays are bulging.
Once derided as “pay and parties” managers, by the early 1990s HR chiefs turned to compliance, keeping firms out of the courts (and newspapers). A subsequent string of corporate imbroglios raised their status, notes Patrick Wright of the University of South Carolina. Executive-pay scandals in the 2000s at firms such as WorldCom and Tyco got them more involved in remuneration. A decade later bungled successions at giants like HP, a printer-maker, left them with a bigger say in filling top jobs. More recently they have dealt with firms’ often very public “me too” troubles.
As recruiting and retaining skilled workers became CEOs’ big concern—four-fifths now fret about skill...
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