Air France confrontation thrusts HR onto frontline

French prime minister Manuel Valls, centre, flanked by Xavier Broseta , left, and Pierre Plissonnier the day after union militants tore their clothes off their backs in a protest over redundancies.

Violent scenes and attacks on human resources managers underline the volatile balancing act specialists have to achieve writes Kyran Fitzgerald. 

Over the years, some passengers must have felt that they have been overcharged by Air France, an old fashioned full service national flagship airline which financially at least, has seen better days.

Many customers have shifted to low price operators like Ryanair or easyJet, or have been seduced by heavily subsidised operators based in the Arabian Gulf.

Last week, the chickens finally came home to roost and for a pair of top Air France PR honchos it turned out to be an uncomfortable experience indeed.

Xavier Broseta, the airline’s HR and labour relations executive, was on hand to deliver some bad news to the company’s workforce which is generally considered to be too large for its current needs. A colleague, Pierre Plissonier had also agreed to participate in a press conference.

Put starkly, Air France is like a boxer caught on the ropes by its opponents.

It has amassed debts of €5.4 billion and has run up losses of over half a billion in the first half of 2015 alone, all of this despite a retrenchment programme leading to the departure of 5,500 staff members between 2012 and 2014.

The hapless HR men were about to announce the largely enforced departures of almost 3,000 more staff members when a large group of workers apparently led by militant union activists burst into the meeting and put the executives and their security detail to flight.

The two men ended up with their shirts ripped off their backs and with one attempting to scale a fence in order to escape the baying mob.

Fortunately, loss of dignity for the individuals concerned, for the airline and for La Belle France was the sole end result.

The trade union leadership dutifully condemned the actions of its militants and Mr Broseta indicated that the talks on the redundancy programme would resume, with presumably a rather larger detail of bulky security men in shades and gadgets hanging out their ears, on hand.

A generation ago, another attack, altogether more lethal , was launched by two female members of a militant leftist group called Action Directe on the former chief executive of Renault, Georges Besse.

His assassination outside his home in 1986 caused widespread outrage.

Mr Besse had managed to turn around the ailing state run car company, but he only managed this, having implemented a programme of 21,000 redundancies at a time when unemployment had reached record levels in the country.

In the 1970s, the head of Germany’s employer organisation and a top bank executive were assassinated by another radical group, the Red Army Faction while militant Marxists have also murdered senior executives in Greece.

Fortunately, today, most activists opt for meting out humiliation over more gory outcomes.

But in France, in particular, there remains a strong tradition of direct street action that calls to mind the storming of the Bastille, Madame Lafarge, the guillotine and more recently, the events of May 1968.

French farmers have frequently blocked thoroughfares and taken to the streets, torching the occasional lorry filled with hapless sheep.

Recently, at Calais, a staging post for migrants seeking entry to Britain, French port workers complicated matters for the authorities by staging blockades.

Such direct action has found its way into political life in Ireland, though to date, workplaces have largely remained free of the tensions that simmer and occasionally boil over outside.

Last week’s siege of the Tory conference called to mind, at least in part, the heyday of the poll tax protests across urban Britain at the end of the Eighties.

Such actions reflect in part a sense of powerlessness and frustration at events that appear beyond people’s control. In the case of Air France, a mixture of fury and fear of a competition, fair or unfair, that is sweeping away people’s living standards and sense of security.

The dishevelled Broseta and Plissonnier, characters straight out of a Tin Tin book, appear to symbolise the powerlessness of large sections of the human resources profession.

These are the guys who were left with the muck detail, packed off to face the music by the faceless guys with the real power on the top floor.

The guys from HR, formerly known as ‘personnel’ have often appeared as front of house figures there to sweet talk staff, or as gentle souls offering tea and sympathy to staff members faced with demotion or worse.

The power of HR executives has tended to wax and wane depending on trends in the labour market, reaching its peak when human skills are in greatest demand. Human resources managers often feel undervalued, and with good reason it seems.

One Australian study in 2007 found that 80% of managers outside the field did not understand, or were unsure about what the HR department does.

Many critics claim that HR managers focus too much on ‘administrivia’, lacking vision and strategic insight.

Ironically, while many bosses dismiss HR, its practitioners can get up the nose of employees and managers at the shop floor coalface.

Peter Capelli, a professor at the Wharton School of Management in Philadelphia, has written recently in the Harvard Business Review of reports from managers that “no other group in organisational life, not even finance, bosses us around as systematically as HR does”.

Yet when things are going smoothly, managers, it seems, tend to think : ‘what is HR doing for us anyway?’

The spreading tentacles of employment law has certainly led to the rights of staffers and contractors being pushed up the agenda, but much of this area has been colonised by legal firms adept at finding their way round the minefields laid by the legislators and judges.

Mr Cappelli believes that HR executives need to fight their corner more effectively in a managerial world dominated by bullish CEOs, diligent chief finance officers, aggressive marketeers and process driven engineers.

They also need to adapt to a world that has been transformed utterly since the gray flannel suit, ‘Mad Men’ era of the 1950s when the vast majority of jobs were for life with promotions gifted to internal candidates, typically men who drove home to be greeted by cake-baking wives in neat suburbs.

The Wharton professor believes that the profession is beginning to adapt in interesting ways and that leading firms such as GE have abandoned traditional top down techniques of performance management in favour of approaches designed for the needs of a fast moving, high employee turnover economy.

But for some, such as the hapless Messieurs Broseta and Plissonnier, such transformation cannot come soon enough.


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