Why do professionals decide to go into human resources? For most, it isn’t a lifelong dream. I’ve met plenty of children who have said they wanted to be firemen or astronauts. I’ve never met someone who, at five, said they wanted to be a human resources manager. Somewhere along the line, people just ended up there – or they recognized their potential to help everyone become more effective. HR On Purpose is a book that can help you find your passion for people, whether HR was the destination or just where you ended up.
It’s All About the People
It’s easy to get confused. There are so many regulations and requirements. It’s easy to believe that the joy is about the implementation of policies and procedures. It’s easy to be deluded into thinking that it’s about the regulations and requirements. However, the job of human resources has always been – and always will be – about the people. Professionals can’t ignore the paperwork or the legal bodies; however, it’s not the point of the job. It’s like saying the freedom of driving a car is about the rules for getting the title.
If you can’t find a way to make the people the most important part, then you’re in the wrong spot. If people aren’t the most important thing, then you may need to look for other opportunities for yourself – inside or outside of the organization.
Dumping Grounds or Counselor
Counselors are paid to listen to other people’s problems. (There’s a myth that they’re paid to solve them as well – the reality is they’re paid to help people learn to solve them themselves.) It’s well known that bartenders and hairdressers often serve as informal counselors. Many churches have lay ministers that serve as counselors too. However, when they’re at work, employees are likely to come spill their problems at the door of the human resources professional.
Listening to other people’s problems all day is exhausting. That’s why psychologists and psychiatrists work so carefully to ensure that they’re doing the kind of self-care they need. That works well for them when their pay is higher and their only job is to listen. When the human resources professional is done listening to an employee vent, they’ve got to get back to that job requisition, health benefits plan, or one of the thousand other tasks that they have. The result is that, too often, human resources professionals don’t take the time to do the self-care they need to keep sane.
Sometimes, the result is, instead of feeling as if they can support the load of employee problems, they feel dumped on. It is possible to learn from counselors and their detachment from problems to ease the load. (See Creativity, Resilient, Burnout: The Cost of Caring, and The Happiness Hypothesis for conversations about detachment.) Whether or not we can find a way to detach from employees’ problems, we need to find ways to bear the load of them.
If you’re alone in your position in HR – as most practitioners are – finding a way to seek input and maintain employee confidentiality is difficult. In addiction circles, they say, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Unfortunately, there are some jobs – HR being one of them – in which you must keep secrets. The good news is that they’re not secrets about you. Still, the need to maintain confidentiality can be a heavy load to bear. It’s coupled with the necessary uncertainty about whether you’re doing the right thing or giving the right advice.
Employees Are Not the Enemy
Sometimes corporate executives develop the perspective that employees are the problem. They’re defiant. If the employees would just do what they’re told, everything would be good. The plans that the corporation makes would work if only the employees would follow through. This perspective is not correct. While some organizations have some employees that are actively working against the organization, most employees want the organization to succeed and are doing their best to fulfil their roles.
How successful would it be to ask your five-year-old child to drive you to another state? Ignoring the legality of this question, there are numerous gaps that make such a request impossible. There’s the obvious fact that they can’t reach the pedals and the steering wheel and look over the dash at the same time. There’s the fact that they don’t know how to shift into gear. However, more than that, there’s the fact that they’ve never navigated before. They don’t understand maps. They can’t plan for gas. There are numerous reasons why such a plan might fail.
We sometimes do this to employees and then wonder why they fail. We ask them to drive and provide them with the blocks to be able to reach the pedals and the wheel but fail to realize all the other gaps in knowledge and capability that they have. In the end, rather than blaming ourselves for failing to support the employees properly, we blame the employees for failing to accomplish our request.
It’s natural. Calling it fundamental attribution error, as Kahneman does in Thinking, Fast and Slow, doesn’t change the fact that it happens, and it’s natural for executives and HR professionals. It’s our job, as HR professionals, to fight our natural urges and to continue to support management in understanding that a failure to follow doesn’t necessarily mean defiance. It can mean a lack of understanding or a lack of skill.
Communication may be our greatest advance as a human society. It’s also one of our greatest challenges. Our ability to share our thinking allows us to work together in ways that even our closest primate cousins cannot. Despite this, we find ways to obscure our thinking and communicate in ways that make us feel superior, but we do so to the detriment of those that we are there to support.
We’re all familiar with legalese. We know it when we hear it – generally lower and faster at the end of the commercial. We see it in contracts. It’s a way that attorneys sometimes hide their true intention from one another in writing contracts. If you’ve ever had attorney friends, and you’ve asked them what something means, only to have them say, “I don’t know,” you’ve seen this in action.
When we communicate in corporate or HR speak, we’re intentionally making it more difficult for someone to understand us – and employees are necessarily suspicious. You are, too, when people adopt overly formal communication approaches with you. While the lexicon of a profession is important to use with other professionals, it’s not useful in communicating with non-professionals. (Lexicon is the specific vocabulary used by a profession to convey precise meaning.) When communicating, our goal should be to communicate, not demonstrate how smart we are.
Seat at the Table
In many organizations, HR isn’t strategic. There isn’t a seat at the executive table for the HR professional. Most HR professionals presume that this is because of their organization. Browne gently challenges the HR professional to start behaving in the right way and the seat will come. Rather than lamenting that you can’t be strategic or a part of the executive conversations, simply behave in a way that’s intentionally strategic and, eventually, the organization will notice.
In my experience, HR professionals are so caught up with the tactical execution that they fail to insist on the development and execution of a strategic plan. One of my technology clients in the long-term care industry has 120% turnover in their front-line workers every year. Admittedly, it’s a relatively thankless job, and the industry’s turnover rate is somewhere between 60-80% per year depending on which numbers you want to believe. Rather than working on the reasons why their turnover is so much higher than average, the professionals are focused on optimizing the onboarding process.
Optimizing the onboarding (and offboarding) process is important, but it’s not strategic. It’s operational excellence rather than strategic insight. Operational excellence doesn’t get you a seat at the executive table. Strategic insight to what must be done to stop the high turnover rate can.
The risk in sharing this is that someone will think strategically and perhaps even work on an execution plan for a few days or weeks and will wonder why the seat at the table isn’t coming. The problem is that the seat at the table isn’t a reward – it’s a natural outcome. When you’ve demonstrated strategic thinking for long enough, the executive team will want you at the table not to reward your efforts but because your perspective can help the team make better collective decisions.
Management by Wandering Around
Tom Peters in In Search of Excellence advocates management by wandering (or walking) around (MBWA). The idea is that, if you really want to know what is happening, you should go to the floor. If you really want to have a connection with people, you have to be willing to spend time to get to know them. Browne shares stories where his commitment to support the employees got him in trouble with the people in the office who felt his time was better spent doing other things.
At the heart of MBWA is a desire to “be with” people and to meet them where they are. That applies to the normal situations not just the crisis. It applies to how people want to be recognized for years of service. It applies to every aspect of working with people. Meeting them where they are at is an important aspect of demonstrating caring and one that few people overlook.
In my technology world, I heard a startling quote decades ago. Steve McConnell was speaking about the state of the industry and said that few developers had even a single book on their craft. I glanced over to my bookshelf and realized that I, thankfully, wasn’t in that category. While books may no longer be the only way to demonstrate that you’re staying up on your profession, they are still a way.
HR professionals rarely spend time investing in their personal development to get better at their craft. Too few professionals are certified. Those who are certified have continuing education requirements to help ensure that they continue to develop. Those who aren’t certified may – or, more often, may not – work towards ensuring that they’re developing as a professional.
The saying that sticks with me – perhaps because I travel too much – is “put your own mask on first before assisting others.” It’s a standard part of the safety briefing for a commercial airline flight. It’s an acknowledgement that, if you’re passed out due to the lack of oxygen, you can’t help others. If you’re always clear about ensuring that your needs are met, you’ll be able to give to others. If you don’t, you may find yourself burned out and unable to do anything to help the people you’re there to support. (See ExtinguishBurnout.com for more on how to protect yourself from burnout.)
We’re all busy. We’ve all filled our lives with stuff. It’s hard to find someone who couldn’t describe themselves as busy. Even retired friends report themselves as busy. In fact, many of them wonder how they had time to do a job given how busy they are in retirement. We must accept that we’re always going to be busy. The question isn’t busy or not busy. The question is whether our life is filled with the right or the wrong things.
If busy is getting in the way of your self-development, what can you do to remove things to give you space? There are some people for whom there is no margin left. They literally can’t take on one more thing. However, for most of us there are things that we do to waste time or enjoy ourselves that could be refocused on self-development or on more powerful opportunities to connect with our fellow human beings.
You may feel like you’re too busy to take something else on, but I’d encourage you to find space to do HR on Purpose.