The HR Leader Is Sticking Around

CHRO turnover has plummeted over the last three years. How long will that last?

The nameplate on the door of the human resources office hasn’t changed much lately.

According to a new study of Fortune 500 C-suite job stability, CHRO turnover was only about 11% in 2023, a dramatic decrease from a record high of 28% in 2020. The study affirms what Korn Ferry experts are seeing recently: There’s been a big drop-off in job openings for top CHROs. “A lot of organizations feel that they have the right person there now,” says Elizabeth Schaefer, practice leader of Korn Ferry’s Professional Search division.

To be sure, some experts worry that HR leaders could end up staying too long. For now, though, the average tenure of Fortune 500 CHROs is about 4.5 years, which is comparable to CFOs’ tenure, but higher than that of chief marketing officers or chief operating officers. The stability comes at a time when the importance of strong HR leadership has not only become more critical, but also more transparent. “The role is now viewed as much more critical than at any time in the past,” says Dan Kaplan, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s CHRO practice.

It’s a major change from 2020, when the CHRO role was somewhat of a revolving door. During the pandemic, HR bosses often had tough assignments—to devise remote options that were viable for employees, or to hold employee-facing leaders accountable for the safety of employees in workplaces that didn’t shut down. Back then, HR-boss turnover spiked, experts say, either because CHROs were exhausted or because CEOs, having lost confidence in them, replaced them.

No sooner did the pandemic subside than the Great Resignation began, which meant many HR leaders had to remodel organizational talent and compensation structures. After that, they had to design and implement return-to-office policies without angering executives or alienating top talent. More recently, HR leaders have played a leading role in efforts to develop and maintain corporate cultures that are both engaging and inclusive.

Companies are also paying HR bosses more. The median compensation for HR chiefs at the 500 largest US publicly traded companies grew in 2022 by almost 13%, to $2.2 million, according to another study. Companies are loath to let those highly paid executives go, Kaplan says.

On the flip side, top candidates for CHRO posts have become hesitant to leave their current posts, Schaefer says. The jobs they already have may also be highly compensated, and relocating to a different state or city may not be appealing right now. “Also, if people are confident in their own business and leadership, they’re less willing to look outside,” she says.

There’s another factor that may be decreasing CHRO turnover: being asked to help with CEO succession. Historically, incoming CEOs have installed their new executive team after assuming their new role. Today, however, there’s more and more trust between incumbent CHROs and boards of directors. The board often asks the CHRO to contribute to succession plans, then to assume responsibility for onboarding and advising the new leader.

Whether the low turnover is sustainable remains a question. Long-tenured top leaders in any role sometimes lose their ability to motivate and their openness to new ideas. Aging itself is likely to cause future turnover. Kaplan says there are several prominent CHROs who will likely retire soon as they reach retirement age. Many CEOs are also nearing retirement age, and even if boards are advocating more and more for retaining incumbent CHROs, new CEOs don’t always follow their advice. At the nation’s largest firms, 33% of CEOs hired in 2022 replaced their HR leader within 12 months. 


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