Over the years, I’ve met some doozies, some HR people who should have chosen different careers. Though I’ve mostly been charmed to work with some of the best in the industry, those few bad eggs sour HR’s reputation as a whole. Like law enforcement, our occupation has taken a nasty hit due to the mistakes of our peers. Rather than focus on these mistakes, let’s consider and take into account when hiring for HR what qualities a person needs to have in order to be a great HR professional.
1. Empathy. Whether we are business partners or on the sidelines providing support, we need to always remember that we are in the people business. Just a head’s up, but people tend to have our own ideas and thoughts and dreams and feelings. We are not an inanimate product and are often unpredictable. In any situation, a good HR person should attempt to understand what an employee’s experience might be. Even when making hard decisions, empathy goes a long way in managing the change that goes with these decisions. Please note, having empathy does not mean we are pushovers. Just because we understand what someone might be experiencing doesn’t mean we change our minds about what must be done. That said, decisions made without empathy are generally bad for the long-term health of an organization and for society as a whole, which ultimately injures economy and commerce. If we run our HR departments without empathy, we can’t be the heart of our organizations—and HR must be the heart if it’s to be useful.
2. Integrity. The worst HR people delight in the wrongdoing of others. That’s frank, I know, but I’ve seen it. The one thing they relish more than wrongdoing is punishing this wrongdoing. They pretend to be gatekeepers, when, in fact, they have personal vendettas and are out to get others. HR professionals not only need to be aware of labor laws, policies, and procedures, we need to understand and live by a strong code of ethics—of what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s not just about ethical leadership practices; it’s about living our lives as good and decent people. This materializes in best practices, consistency, confidentiality, honesty, and sound judgment both at work and in our personal lives.
3. A Belief in the Greater Good. HR people, like anyone else, have stronger connections with some employees over others. After all, we are people, too. We need to be honest with ourselves on this fact. If we understand our personal biases, however, it will make it easier to make decisions based on the greater good, not on personal attachments to certain employees. I can recall specifically a workforce reduction that I was involved with—those who worked in HR during the recession surely have similar experiences. Making decisions back then about who to keep and who to leg go had to be based on objective criteria. If my personal likes and dislikes had come into play, it would have been bad business. With the greater good in mind, we in HR need to hold everyone up to the same standards. If HR folks do not apply policies to everyone, the damage can be extensive.
4. The Strength to be Honest. The first time I was required to let someone go for cause, they wept and begged me to change my mind. I’d only been in HR a short time, and this was a shocking moment for me. I had to tell this individual in her darkest hour the truth about why she was being termed and that the decision would not be reversed. It would have been much easier to tell her everything was going to be okay or that I wasn’t involved in the decision at all. It would have been easier to let her know I would reconsider the decision and then send her home, only to later tell her through a letter or have someone else do it. I’ve seen this method of putting off hard conversations—which only muddles the process and could have legal implications. Also, HR needs to be able to tell employees what they need to improve on and what the consequences will be if they don’t improve. This must be done in a way that maintains the dignity of the other person, but it must be done. These are just a few of the hard conversations HR has every single day—in my career, I’ve had to tell sick people that I care deeply about that they’ve exhausted their leave; I’ve had to tell people that they need to shower more; I’ve had to ask tough questions and see people at their very worst. If you don’t have this strength, HR is not for you.
5. Humor. The best advice I’ve ever had was to take my work seriously, yes, but not to take myself seriously. Humor is probably needed in HR more than most jobs. I’m not suggesting HR folks goof off or become stand-up comics. I’m suggesting they make sure to capitalize on any appropriate humor they can. A truly funny person in an HR department can keep it from becoming worse than the DMV. So have a laugh at least once a day. Things can get pretty darn serious because we’re dealing with people, and people matter most in an organization.