Far from a static discipline, human resources is a living process. It evolves constantly, especially in this day and age when new technologies regularly cause drastic shifts in the ways we work and hire.

Talent management and career transition services consulting firm Keystone Partners recently celebrated its 35th anniversary. To mark the occasion, we connected with Elaine Varelas, managing partner, and Ralph Roberto, president, to talk about how HR has changed over the past 35 years. HR was a very different animal 35 years ago. What are the biggest non-technological changes you’ve seen in the industry since Keystone Partners’ inception?

Ralph Roberto: Thirty-five years ago, HR was seen as an overhead function that was focused on making sure business processes such as hiring, compensation, and employee relations were handled. Today, HR is viewed more as a business-driver and a core competency to help achieve corporate business strategy. The basic HR business functions remain important, but are no longer sufficient. Higher-level strategic support for the business is crucial. Today, much more so than 35 years ago, HR is seen as a core competency that is directly related to organizational success and profitability.

Elaine Varelas: The days of personnel are over. Human resources, talent management, [and] people investments are all strategic investments in a company’s success. If HR still reports to the CFO, and not the CEO, you can tell how valued the field is or isn’t [by a given company].

HR was an administrative and legal function only in the days of personnel. Keeping track of people, hours, and employment law and “don’t let us get sued” were key issues.

Personnel reported to legal or finance. As business became more competitive and the economy changed, resourceful executives looked at where and how they could be [on the] leading edge, and those with key insight recognized talent as a key imperative. HR people who could transition to strategic human resource business professionals were promoted and became peers to finance and legal. Those who remained tactical were left behind.

Every true CHRO looks at reporting structure and will only consider new roles where HR leadership is valued as a competitive advantage for the business … and seen as the opportunity to turn around a struggling organization.

RC: This industry has seen drastic changes in the way candidates are sourced, interviewed, and hired. How has the development and adoption of new technologies influenced the way HR professionals operate?

plantRR: Today, HR needs to be on the leading edge of using technology to source and hire the very best talent available. HR must have tech-savvy employees who are familiar with the tools and know how to use social media and big data collected through their various business systems to create a strategic advantage in finding the best talent.

EV: Accessing people has gotten easier, but sorting through qualifications remains challenging.

Unfortunately, the technology which has made it easier to recruit has minimized the personal impact of recruiting. Candidates are often not treated well. Not responding to email inquiries is understood, not responding to every cold call coming in is totally acceptable — the sheer numbers don’t make it possible. But when a candidate is interviewed, they deserve a well-orchestrated meeting or series of meetings, and a communication plan that is carried through to conclusion.

For all this technology, networking remains the way 70 percent of job seekers get their jobs [according to some estimates]. Being connected and developing relationships continues to lead to successful sourcing and hiring.

RC: What’s on deck for the next 35 years? Are there any current trends that you think need to be followed into the future? Is there anything that the industry is failing to do that should be addressed?

RR: Several trends are developing that will have great impact for HR thought leaders over the next 35 years. How will emerging artificial intelligence technology be used in both sourcing and selecting the very best talent available? How will it be used to help in building a sustainable corporate culture that helps an organization compete in the future?

Another key area will be how we build a meaningful sense of purpose and satisfaction into jobs of the future. The competition for the best talent will hinge on creating true purpose and work that employees can really connect with. The organizations that thrive over the next 35 years will work on how to create this not just for the top or elite members of an organization, but for all employees.

EV: Human resources professionals need to lead HR. Don’t let other business leaders take over the leadership of HR like another rotation in management development. Trained HR professionals can bring a level of value to an organization beyond just hiring the right talent. They can inform culture, keep an organization competitive, and increase productivity. These talents should not be ignored.

Metrics-driven HR will continue, and HR staff [will] need to be able to quantify impact and move past anecdotal information.

Finally, HR executives need to ensure their own development takes them through the business lines so they can be true strategic business partners.

RC: Can you explain how unemployment cycles have affected HR and what we can learn? How have these cycles changed our perspective on employer branding and reputation?

RR: Economic cycles and disruptions created by new technologies have always posed a dilemma for HR. Too often, organizations have treated downsized employees as necessary casualties to be separated efficiently and at the lowest cost possible. [These organizations] then pay a price when business conditions change and they are back in the market looking for talent.

An employer brand and reputation once tarnished is not easily changed. Maintaining a brand reputation should be carefully thought through and seen as a good investment for the future. Economic cycles will always be there. However, the pace of disruption from changing technology and other social innovation is accelerating and will create more opportunities for employee dislocation. Companies should make the necessary investment when the down cycles occur to truly help employees with their transitions and help maintain their brands in the marketplace. These former employees may be back, and most certainly they will be in the market shaping the public opinion of you as an employer.

EV: Reputation and brand are heavily influenced during periods of high unemployment. How companies treat employees and separated employees is more public than most organizations know or are willing to admit. If companies only treat people well when in “war for talent” times, they will not get the candidates they need or want.

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