There’s been a lot of smack lately about how much people hate HR. Sure, some of this talk comes from disgruntled employees who had their unfortunate endings in an HR office like mine, in which I calmly told them about COBRA and handed them their final checks. But most of the hate is coming from managers, business leaders, and even HR professionals. Only HR would hate on itself.
Someone who’s known me for years—who thinks I’m sort of a nice well-intentioned person—says that me being in HR is like Gandhi carrying a Nazi card. Thanks, Michael. I think that’s a compliment. I’m no Gandhi, but I do care about justice and the well-being of others, their prosperity included. After he said this, I had to take a step back and analyze HR’s bad reputation. How did it happen? What are we as an industry doing wrong? Most of all, how can we turn it around in 2014?
Don’t be a change killer. HR has this reputation of being the Debbie Downer “at the table”—if we’re even invited to “the table” (more on this whole “table” thing later). That’s because we spend a heck of a lot of time managing risk. We have seen and lived through the worst case scenarios more than once, so we’re quick to let you know every darn thing that could go wrong. We’re literally the company party pooper. And even if we don’t show up to the table to voice our concerns, someone will surely blame HR for stopping a project or plan. I’ve seen it happen. Managers will just automatically say, “HR wouldn’t let us, or HR told me not to,” when we didn’t even know about the proposed change. These are the managers who are too afraid to own up to “no” and crush someone’s creative energy.
But we in HR know how to manage change. We are experts. We certainly can lay out the possible glitches, but we can also collaborate with managers on how to overcome these obstacles. We can assist them through business plans and communication implementation. We can breathe life into change rather than simply assessing its risk.
Don’t be inflexible; be consistent. There’s a difference, you know. Look over your policies today and get rid of the stupid ones, the ones that cost the company money and destroy the morale of your people. If you keep doing things just because that’s the way they’ve always been done, you’ll be called inflexible. If you refuse to EVER see an exception no matter the circumstances, you are an inflexible HR department. However, these exceptions need to be consistent. There’s the rub. If I make an exception based on certain circumstances, then I will make it again for the same set of circumstances. Staying consistent with practices and procedures is a good thing. The only problem is that some HR folks are too scared (or maybe they’re just tired) to consider just ending a dumb practice altogether. They get attached to the practice and do it “just because.” “Just because” will make people hate HR. Have sound reasons and stay consistent. Also be willing to collaborate with company leaders and employees rather than simply opening up a handbook and pointing to rule 12.5.
Stop whining about wanting to be “at the table” without understanding basic business tenets. So you want to be “at the table?” You want to make decisions with other company execs regarding revenue and the latest marketing campaign. But what do you bring to the table, HR? I hope you have an answer. I hope you can read a P&L and make decisions based on statistics, on data. If you are at the table, might I suggest you focus on HR’s real value? HR should know the company culture, its values and mission. HR should be hiring good fits for this culture and can be of value at the table with this knowledge. Every business decision should be filtered through the company culture, and HR should be this filter. The worst HR departments know nothing about the actual business they serve. The best HR departments are staffed with former front-line people who understand the business inside and out. Making decisions based on business needs is a biggie—but how can you do that without understanding what those business needs are?
So much fuss and talk and resumes and LinkedIn pages focus on HR as a “strategic business partner,” and there are many definitions for that. But, frankly, the whole SBP thing is tiresome. HR has always been a business partner—hiring, firing, managing performance, training, on and on and on. If that’s not partnering with the business, I don’t know what is. The only problem is that we’re not linking and showing the ROI (on paper with MATH!) how much of a business partner we already are. You want a seat at the table? Put your big boy pants on and show the company you’re worth the empty seat.
Hire smart people with good ideas rather than do-gooders and people persons. Like I said, I’m not Gandhi. And, sure, maybe I’m somewhat of a do-gooder in that I care about society as a whole. I care about justice. I care about things being fair. I care about employees and want them to have a happy and safe work environment, a solid esprit de corps. Employees who have the above are simply more productive. So the business thrives.
But I wouldn’t call myself a do-gooder. Nope. As nice as someone is, I won’t hire them unless they are well qualified, fit into my company’s culture, and can do the job better than the other candidates. I’m not a “mercy hirer,” no matter how much I like the person personally. I’ve also had to fire friends. Try that hat on a do-gooder. I’ve been involved in downsizing, during which people were on their knees begging for their jobs. No true do-gooder could survive this without medication. And I don’t take medication. It’s my job to do these things, and I do what I have to do.
“Oh, you’re in HR! You must be a real people person!” I get this one sometimes. The truth? I’m rather anti-social outside of work. I read a lot. I prepare reports. I write this blog. I hang out with my family. I’m not one who must be around people. That said, I have been called approachable, easy to talk to, and I will keep matters confidential to my grave. I can also read most people; and if I can’t read them—it usually means they’re up to something sketchy. But after so many years in HR, well, I’ve had to deal with quite a few bad eggs, bad bosses, and crazy circus bad behavior. HR folks know what I’m talking about. People can get on your nerves after a while. Am I right? Anyway, I came to HR to improve the workplace, lead my business toward a better tomorrow, and maximize productivity in the process. Not to save the world. I’ll do that after I retire.
Overcome our reputation as the principal’s office. I hate it when I call someone, and I can hear fear in their voices. So how did this happen? When did people start thinking a call into HR meant they were in trouble or getting fired?
I know. It’s when we started doing all the firing and disciplining. It’s when managers and company leaders started using HR as a scapegoat, so they didn’t have to manage the performance of their own people. I’ve actually heard managers say that HR is making them issue a warning notice or corrective action. No, we’ve actually just advised them to do so in order to help the employee improve. The manager actually wanted to just fire the employee straight out. HR folks all know what I’m talking about.
So the answer is simple. Train managers on how to manage performance. Empower them to do their own disciplinary actions and separations. Of course, you should be consulted to avoid grievances, etc., but it’s their staff! They know their staff better than anyone. Incidentally, you’ll need a good solid group of managers to pull this off, so you might want to start there.
With all the above, it is important to remember that HR should act as the gatekeeper for ethical behavior, and it isn’t all that damaging to a company to have “a principal’s office” to prevent misconduct on the grandest scale.
So, as we get ready to start a new year, we’ve got some work to do. We can stop all this hate if we work collectively together as an industry to become the heart of the company culture, which is what we are if you really think about it. I like the idea of being the HOTCC better than a SBP any day.