The discussion was getting heated.
A group of about seven of us were in a performance calibration session. You know, those year-end meetings HR facilitates with business leaders to ensure everyone is being rated fairly (yes, we were still doing those, but more on that later).
One of the managers had gathered feedback from all of the employee’s clients and was reading the emails to the group, to justify the rating. The emails went something like this: “Eric is always ready to brainstorm with me to find a solution to my problem”, and “Eric goes above and beyond by responding to emails on time”, and “I love working with Eric; he’s part of our team”. The manager’s own feedback was along the same lines.
“Hang on,” I said. “Everything that you’ve said about Eric is great. But I would expect that of every employee. What has Eric done that has exceeded expectations?” At this point, all eyes were on me, and a moment of stunned silence ensued. Then all at once, everyone started speaking.
“No, he’s the best employee we have!”
“We need more people like Eric on the team!”
“Eric is way farther ahead than his peers!”
Then one of the VPs turned to me and said:
“Eric does far more for his clients than anyone in the HR department does for me!”
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. It was like a slap in the face. The argument deflated pretty quickly after that.
When I got back to my desk that afternoon, I had to think hard about what the VP had said.
And it reminded me of other times I’d heard similar things, not about me, but about HR in general. When I tell people that I’m in HR, they give me an almost disdainful look. Oh, it’s very subtle. Guilty by association. In the early days, I was puzzled. Then I started calling people out on it. Why? What has been your experience with HR? Some would fumble and give me platitudes, but most would look me straight in the eye and tell me their truth:
Hinderance to business, unhelpful, just a mouthpiece, Catbert (with a smirk), narrow-minded, useless. I swear, I’m not making this up.
It hurt. Knowing that I didn’t want to be like that, and so many HR people I’ve worked with didn’t either. We genuinely want to help our clients. But the perception stays. Why is that?
I mean, I respond to emails. Sure, I’m not always prompt about it, but that’s because there’s so much work to do all the time, and sometimes emails fall to the bottom of the pile. And I try to give them options, but the policies we have in place are very clear on what is possible and what isn’t. I try to understand their challenges, but I didn’t really know what they do. And it’s hard to brainstorm with clients when they just come to you and tell you what to do, usually the very things they can’t do because of policies or the law.
So, if we don’t want to be that way and work hard not to, is the fault with us, or with the system? And isn’t the system defined by the people within it?
When the #MeToo movement began in 2017, it started with one man, but it was a movement against a flawed system. A system that was not merit-based, a system that forced women to do things they didn’t want to do if they wanted any measure of success. Women were victims and, finally in 2017, men were called out, but the reality is that women were part of that flawed system for decades. They were complacent members of that system. Everyone knew what was going on, but it took until 2017 for women to speak out.
We have to take charge of our own reputation and our own place in the corporate world. I’m so tired of waiting for the system to change.
I read HR magazines, and I hear about HR executives who are making transformative changes to their organizations and making HR more business-centric while balancing the needs of the employees.
But, let’s be really honest here… unless you’re part of that rare progressive company, most of us are stuck with the same HR practices that were put into place 30 years ago. Annual performance review forms that nobody likes, bonuses that are uber subjective (if there are bonuses at all), terminations at will (even in Canada, though we have better severance packages), bureaucratic org structures, cumbersome systems, rigid policies, and the list goes on.
In other words, the tools of the trade have changed, but the trade itself is exactly the same!
So, this article is for the regular HR folks out there who are disenchanted with their HR department’s internal practices. For those HR folks who want big changes but can’t get their Senior Leadership Team to see their value. For those HR folks who have bosses who are too scared to go against the norm.
I’m talking about a grassroots shift in the way HR is perceived at your company. The way you are perceived in your company.
Grassroots movements start with small changes, at the individual level. The way to change the HR system in your workplace is to do something yourself. Let’s not wait for permission. Let’s not wait for them to figure out how to fix the system.
Let’s make 2019 the year HR professionals speak out about HR. Don’t let the system define who we are. Reclaim your right to be respected!
So, here’s what I’m asking us to do, starting today:
Respond to every email and voicemail the same day.
This is from countless people I’ve spoken with, and such a simple one, but it does wonders to increase the perception of reliability with your business partners. Even if we don’t have an answer, acknowledge that we’ve received their email/voicemail and will get back to them with an answer. Then get back to them with an answer or provide regular updates on the status of the answer. Let’s aim for a client to never have to follow-up with us.
Take the time to sit with clients at regular intervals without an agenda
The first rule of building trust is to get to know our people. And allow them to know us as people. I’m talking about frustrations, likes, dislikes, aspirations, interests, strengths, fears. The more we know about them as a person, the more effective we’ll be in our communication with them, and in giving them advice and guidance when it really counts. In time, they’ll see us as a trusted friend, not the HR adversary they have to brace themselves to deal with.
I’m talking about all employees, not just the managers and leaders. This is so important because many times we get a one-sided view of the business: the managers view. When we aim to get to know all employees, we can add more value to leaders.
Make time to understand the client’s business
Let’s set aside a part of our week to learn the business area that we’re supporting. Talk to people about what they do, learn their jargon and business terms, then practice with them. Ask to be invited to their team meetings so we can see those business terms in practice. Book coffees and lunches with people to learn about what they do in the organization. At first, this will be hard, but if we come at this with a genuine desire to learn, people will warm to us. Aim to talk to all employees, not just the managers. We want to learn the business inside out, their processes, their practices, their relationships with internal departments.
Get a handle on tasks and get organized
This sounds easy but is so hard for most of us, and it’s so crucial. One of the biggest complaints people have about their HR departments is that their request goes into a black hole. Let’s organize our emails, our tasks and project manage the large initiatives we’re involved with. Listen to productivity podcasts, read blogs, watch videos. Pick a system that works for each of us and implement it right away.
Work hard to come up with non-standard HR responses to questions.
Let’s blow our clients away with solutions that don’t involve the phrase “you can’t do that”. I’ll talk more about this in future posts, but for now, whenever we have the urge to tell someone they can’t do something, follow it up with what they can do, and if possible, offer several options. As we keep doing #1 to #4 above, this will get easier, because we’ll know our people, and we’ll know their business, and that’s 80% of the solution.
Lastly, the only way to fight this fight is to be passionate about what you do. If you’ve lost your passion, then now is the time to change that. Life is too damn short, and work hours are far too long, to live without loving every single day.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll go deeper into how we can turn this conversation about HR on its head. How to build trust with clients, how to be courageous, how to change the limiting beliefs about our potential. Because once we start doing these things, a wonderful thing will happen. Those around us, our peers, our clients, will start to emulate us. We’ll change people’s lives without citing a single policy or writing a single performance improvement plan.
Now I’d love to hear from you. Do you agree? Disagree?
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