Choose your HR person wisely

I love being in HR. For me, it is the sweetest spot in an organization. Okay, sometimes I am a tiny bit cynical about all we encounter on a daily basis, but still, I wouldn’t want to be in any other profession. Every day you work with people: the most intriguing, the most varied, the most flexible and the most important resources an organization has.

You might say: I don’t feel like the most valued resource when I talk to my HR person. I realize many people have mixed experiences with HR. But I’d like you to think of HR as the person(s) in the best position to help you move on in your career. Yes, also when you didn’t get that promotion, or that training you desired.

A good HR person broadens your view of the world. For example when you feel misunderstood, by your boss, or by headquarters, or by your subordinates. HR can share with you a holistic view of how other people see you. There’s an enormous value in hearing that kind of feedback. Don’t be afraid of it, don’t see it as criticism. Often your HR person is the messenger, who summarizes the broad base of information she has access to. By clarifying how others perceive you, you can see the causality of your intentions, your behavior, and the effect it ultimately has on your surroundings. This can help you improve, and achieve the impact you want to have on others.

A good HR person feels the responsibility for co-creating the foundation of a good environment for all employees. They hope to see someone developing greatly after finding them a suitable training. Or to witness a troublesome team turning into a tightknit focused team after a good intervention.

If you happen to be in the position to be able to choose an HR person, you want someone who helps you with all HR issues that come up. That involves a lot of routine tasks, for which knowledge and experience is important. But to choose the right person, that’s not enough. In fact, there is just one thing you really need to know. What is their motivation? You know you have the right person when you see they are genuinely interested in people, and feel rewarded in seeing other people develop.

Some choose HR for other reasons: they thought it would get them the quickest career; their girlfriend, brother or parent was in HR as well and it seemed an okay job; or they tried other areas of business for a while and now want an “easy” job. I’ve heard all of these for real. Usually from HR people that weren’t successful, and that had very little credit in their organization. This group isn’t genuinely interested in people. They won’t deliver the same results as the people who see HR as a calling.

So next time you recruit for HR, make sure you find out whether they are really interested in people. If not, they won’t give you the added value that HR can be.

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!