What it is like to work in HR

This post is for all you great HR people out there. It is often the most rewarding, but sometimes the most lonely job of all. We might have nice job titles such as “HR Business Partner”, but let’s face it, most of us will never be seen as equal peers. Because:

  • In HR you know all about the salaries, perks and special agreements of your colleagues. The fines they incurred with their company car. Their alimony obligations for which their payroll had to be adjusted. Their shady expenses their boss or finance discussed with you, and in the end decided not to address just yet, but let you scrutinize from now on. Most HR people have had at least one experience where they had to tell a more senior manager he shouldn’t have claimed his cappuccino at the airport, or the newspaper at the hotel, kindly pointing out the purpose of their generous expense allowance.
  • You discuss your peers extensively with their line manager (who often happens to be your own manager as well). You influence their appraisal scores, salary raises, promotions, demotions, as well as the communication around these issues. You and your colleagues probably never discuss this, but you know that they know. Because during the appraisal cycle, or when they’re applying for another job, they suddenly woo you: paying you social visits, supporting your view when normally they don’t bother, giving you a compliment. People are suddenly acutely aware how much your opinion about them matters.
  • Managers in your company desperately need you. For example for firmly taking over that discussion with their underperforming employee that otherwise would have gone nowhere, because they were procrastinating delivering much needed feedback. It saved them an excruciating moment, and gives them the opportunity to blame you afterwards. You ensured the necessary improvement actions are taken, while they can maintain a good relation with the employee (“otherwise we will get into trouble with HR”).
  • In intense situations, for example a serious incident in the workplace, a jailed employee, terminal illnesses, a fatality, a suicide (attempt), everyone turns to HR. Not only to ensure the right actions are taken, but also for emotional support, for guidance on helping employees through sorrow and despair, for talking about the difficult stuff others just don’t know how to deal with.
  • You know all about the performance issues of the managers you work for. Their employees give you an interesting perspective on their management style in exit interviews, or in procedures for whistleblowing, or any other discussion you need to have as HR in the unpopular role of internal affairs. Of course not everything is true. Or you’re asked not to act upon the information, because employees are afraid for the backlash. Over the course of a couple of years you are quite well positioned to build a holistic view of most line managers you work with.
  • You might also know things about their private life that you really could do without. Someone’s wife calls, to check which hotel her husband is in on his business trip because she can’t reach him, while you see in the system no hotel is booked for him and he actually has taken a few days leave. Or, my own darkest moment, after IT has given you a list of visited internet pages that didn’t pass the standard screening, giving you a pretty clear insight in the sexual preferences of a senior manager, you have to face that manager to remind him (accompanied by a serious written warning) he isn’t supposed to watch certain explicit internet content during company hours, on company property. Guaranteeing an extremely polite but cold and distant relation with that manager for at least a few weeks…

Often we can’t explain to our non-HR colleagues what our job is like. I can safely say HR is one of the most interesting, weird, frightening, emotional, rewarding and important jobs one can have. Especially in cases where others find it hard to be strong, or soft, or consistent, or flexible, or emotional, or tough, we need to provide what others can’t manage right then.

Because of all of the above, HR people can be deeply feared, sincerely hated, highly appreciated, or a mix of those. But we need you. Please keep going, as I know you are influencing at least one person or situation positively every day.

With this post I salute all HR people. Thank you for all you do!

Dare to make a choice for your organizational structure! (no matrix, please)

There are many organizational shapes, forms and sizes. Some CEO’s spent a lot of time with their management teams thinking through how to organize their company. They painstakingly take into account what products or services they sell, what their production processes are, what their business model is, etc. They choose an organizational model that theoretically fits best. Other CEO’s go with their gut feel to design their organization. Some let their organization grow organically to see what works best at any given time.

Does it really matter what you choose as your type and form of organization? Yes, of course. Is there a perfect model? No.

What most don’t realize, is that the type and form of organization you choose, determines the type of problems the organization has. Did you choose your company to be run per country or region? Then people go for the optimal result in their country or region, and there is little cooperation between the same disciplines across countries or regions. Do you choose to run your company per discipline worldwide? Then you strengthen your disciplines and potentially build a strong brand name worldwide, at the same time introducing a lot of travel and little transparency in cost and profit on country level.

The point is, there is no perfect organizational model. You WILL have to accept the downsides your choice has. Embrace them! Don’t confuse the organization by trying to have the best of both worlds.

Be consistent, be clear.

You choose a certain type of organization, because it fits your organization best. And yes, that has downsides and negative consequences. However, they are unavoidable in order to have the benefits of the model. In psychology, it is well-known that people rather forego on a potential win, then accept a loss. So as soon as people notice their organizational choice has a downside, they devise ways to limit the downside to a minimum. But in that case, you are weakening the potential win you want your organizational structure to provide. When you decide to introduce any kind of matrix organization, you inevitably forego on the win, in order to minimize the loss.

Please, don’t think you can have the best of both worlds. As soon as you start to compromise and introduce patches to decrease the downsides of your choice, you confuse the organization, increase bureaucracy, increase cost and give conflicting messages to your employees on what the priorities are. Power fights break out because both regions and disciplines start to increase their influence where possible, claiming responsibility of the grey areas you introduced. Time is spent on coordination, on determining who gets the credit for results, on finding out who informally is the decision maker (instead of the formal appointed boss), on having to talk to several bosses before a decision can be taken. With a matrix, you introduce time-consuming and resource-wasting politics and complexity into your organization.

Choose what organizational structure fits best, whether it is regional or discipline driven. Embrace the imperfections that come with it, and don’t try to patch them by devising a compromise matrix structure. Those imperfections are proof you dare to choose firmly and deliberately.

How to avoid (a culture of) fraud in your organization

A friend of mine, working for a multinational company, was traveling in South-East Asia together with a very high-ranking colleague. In a local coffee-shop, my friend bought them both coffee, for just two dollars. When they finished and got up, my friend left the receipt on the table. He thought it ridiculous to claim two dollars in his expense report, even if they were on a business trip. His extremely well-paid companion (we’re talking $300k+ base salary here, plus sizable benefits) asked: “You won’t be using that receipt?” My friend shook his head. “Mind if I take it?” And the well-paid high-ranking manager folded the receipt carefully in his wallet…

This makes my alarm bells go off immediately. Why on earth does an overpaid just-below-board-level hot-shot claim a receipt he didn’t pay himself? More or less openly? If I had been HR manager in that company, I’d have given this guy a serious warning.

Some managers I’ve had such discussions with would say: “We’re only talking about two dollars. The company makes enough money. Why make a fuss? It isn’t worth the time to sit someone down, just for two dollars.”


It is crucially important to correct this immediately and spend fifteen minutes grilling this guy on his unethical behavior. Yes, who cares about the two dollars. But no organization should tolerate people in a company with these morals. If a manager feels he can cheat the company out of two dollars, he will cheat the company out of much more.

Even worse, if a manager does so in front of a high-potential who looks up to him, he has no clue about leading by example and developing the leaders of the future. He just doesn’t deserve his high-ranking well-paid job.

Sure enough, a couple of months later it turned out this guy had done several things not quite kosher. Unfortunately, the only consequence he faced was being sidetracked and never making the final career step to board level. He just sat out the last couple of years until retirement in his cushioned job. And that is exactly the reason the company had this problem in the first place. When you avoid confronting people with small dishonesties, it inevitably leads to bigger dishonesties down the road.

Also small-time fraudulent activities need to be nipped in the bud. Ruthlessly. Most people who become a manager, don’t realize they sign up for this frustrating task. But if you follow the tips below, you will spend less time in the future on frustrating fraud cases.

  • Check your employee’s expense reports. Never sign them unseen. If you have the luxury of an assistant: ask them to do the first check. I’ve found that secretaries and assistants go over them in scrupulous detail and will invariably spot liberties taken or violations committed.
  • In case of irregularities, address the employee. Ask questions if you don’t understand a certain expense. In grey area cases, or cases where there is a good explanation, use common sense to decide whether you let it go. You don’t have to apply policies always strictly and rigidly. But discuss the grey areas, so they know you’re on top of it. You need to reiterate what you expect of them, and let them know you will be less inclined to tolerate liberties next time.
  • Address the behavior you are disappointed with. Emphasize the morals. It isn’t the two bucks, it’s the personality trait or behavior you want to address.

Yes, it can be time-consuming and dispiriting to do this. But imagine the frustration and fuss around a serious fraud case. The irritation you were apparently wrong in your hiring decision. The personal insult, that a promising protégé thought he could get away with it on your watch. The broken trust, that will hang as a shadow for quite a while over all your personnel decisions.

Be the manager who actively shapes the company culture you want to see. You’ll best reward will be to see you’ve developed good, mature employees who you can fully trust.