June 24, 2018

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HR Guilt, Roles and Opportunities

Part 2

In Part 1 of this series (Part 1), we looked at the fact that HR isn't a career area of choice for people who need to feel satisfied upon completion of specific tasks. The work is never done. Fortunately,however, that also makes it enduringly interesting and filled with opportunity.We now discuss additional challengs and opportunites for HR professionals.

Why isn't HR given the recognition it deserves? We're snubbed often enough to begin feeling it's our problem. It's not. At least not if we're doing our jobs well and keeping up with changes...and most, if not all, of us are today. The image of the old-style HR administrator, more concerned with the policy manual than results is quickly disappearing. Maybe CEOs just haven't caught up...or maybe there are other factors we need to look at.

Finance and IT get razzed too, but in the end people fear the specialized knowledge needed in those areas. Such clear expert value isn't perceived to exist in the HR field... in the minds of many people.They recognize important clerical knowledge in benefit programs and somewhat more in legal issues, but fail to see the value-add of what appears to them to be just "common sense" understanding of more complex HR issues.

Is HR just common sense? From the hiring interview, to assigning, coaching and evaluating an employee's work, everyone imagines they know the best ways to handle HR tasks. Why not? It's just conversation, isn't it? Yet they've encountered HR professionals who told them something different, something they didn't like or agree with or worse, treated them improperly in their view. Right off we have a problem - your common sense or mine! How can anyone admit their "common sense" is inferior to ours?

There's the problem of all those "ridiculous HR laws" that prevent one from asking "obvious questions" in interviews, from freely and openly expressing one's opinion of people in habitual, comfortable ways or from just firing employees on the spur of the moment when you feel ticked off. The HR policing role runs afoul of just about everyone in the company sooner or later. Where people may disagree with a financial policy, say for travel allowances, it will still be clear enough for them to comply. HR policies, when handled well, require more judgment than policy and it opens the door for people to argue.

Trying to nail everything in writing in manuals isn't an effective answer today - not when we're trying to introduce real "common sense" and flexibility into our workplaces. We must help people get visibly better at "common sense" - not the easiest task. I've lost track of whoever said, "It's impossible to teach people things they believe they already know." We stumble over that many times in HR.

This sets the stage for people at every level of a company to think they know at least as much or more than HR managers on any number of issues daily. We could hope CEOs see the value of logical process and trouble-shooting exceptions with care and understanding, but it isn't always so. They're about equally likely to see this as a big clerical role "that anyone can do" rather than a fundamental driving underpinning of the all-important "culture" of their company.

One description of culture is "collective habits." Habits get taken for granted... and so do the HR folks who carefully shape the habits of the company through steady, logical application of policy, ideally preventing those policies from dominating, interfering or becoming so complex that creative behavior is stifled.

HR carries a burden of a huge job and even bigger expectations. People naturally trust their own judgment in what appears to be common sense matters despite the fact they've never worked in the area. Where they may not be able to comment on the latest memo from IT requiring specific technical procedures, they feel free to criticize HR practices and rules they don't like - after all, aren't they the customer? The problem is that there will be staff who disagree whichever way the policy is written and it doesn't matter to some of them that the majority want it the other way. Then there are the times when the CEO is the "majority of one." Driving effective HR policy against his or her judgment can be a challenge. We can individualize and offer cafeteria choices more, but we can't simply allow anarchy or single-person rule and be effective.

Such issues are inevitably personal and emotional. We wouldn't want it otherwise. People must be able to express opinions in an effective culture. We just wish they wouldn't always be opinions about what's wrong with HR practice first and foremost. Don't shoot the messenger or the consensus-builder.

Opportunity lies within each of these challenges. We have the potential to be seen as the last resort for common sense if we play our cards right. That's a big hurdle - one that surely warrants a seat at the highest of executive tables. To hold oneself out as the bearer of wisdom presents huge risks, representing as it does, a very high standard. Few sales executives, in that supposedly riskiest of all positions, rising and falling on daily, weekly, yearly sales targets, face the risks of being seen as a failure to the extent HR routinely does. If sales are up everyone applauds. Not so in HR. There will always be those who think it could have been handled better.

OK. We've established the job's tough and we're tough and smart enough to do it or we wouldn't still be doing it. So what should we focus on to give our companies the biggest bang for the buck? How should we be measured? Incidentally, what would it take for people to actually notice that we're good? Most of all, when the heck are they going to start giving us credit for having common sense... and how do we show them that? These views will be explored throughout this series.

-Dave Crisp