Will the Real HR Please Stand Up

There are plenty of articles written about strategic HR. This one is about just HR. If you really understand human resources, you’ll know that adding “strategic” before it is superfluous. Because HR, by its very nature, is strategic – if you’re doing it right. And strategic HR isn’t just reserved for executives of HR. Whatever your function within the department, you should be approaching it with a broader view. Yes, there are many HR departments that don’t act strategically. But that just means they aren’t doing the job right. Or aren’t empowered to.

First and foremost, if you’re in HR or thinking of becoming an HR professional, make sure it’s for the right reasons. To be clear, the right reasons do NOT include any of the following:

1) You love working with people. Yes, in HR, like in almost every job, you need to deal with people. Liking it won’t necessarily make you a more effective HR professional. For as important as it is to do what you like, you won’t be of any value to an organization if your love for interacting with its people yields no return for the company.

2) You get along with everyone. If you get along with everyone, chances are your priority is being liked over being respected. And it probably means you don’t offer up an opinion on anything or stand up for what you believe in. Neither of which is productive in the workplace. If it’s important to you to be liked by everyone, take a self-esteem course. Unless you replace “everyone” by “you”, you’ll be too busy trying to get people’s approval to be able to achieve what you otherwise could if you believed in yourself. If you value yourself according to what others think, success will elude you in an HR role (or any role).

3) You want to help people. Then consider working in a helping profession or volunteering, but steer clear of HR. While you may end up helping people in your HR role, that’s not what it is about at its core. HR isn’t just about people. It’s about people in the context of the business – always. And if you put people before business you are ultimately not helping the people.

So what is the right reason to choose HR? Because you want to help a company realize its potential by harnessing its people via programs and initiatives that maximize their potential while keeping them engaged and committed to the company’s success, without ever forgetting that you are doing so to help the company achieve and maintain profitability. If you are an HR practitioner and you function with something other than that in mind, you will likely always be viewed as a service provider and not a strategic partner. Sure, there is a service component to HR. But that comes into play only AFTER you’ve established the strategy.

Let’s take a group insurance plan for example. You may be thinking, “that doesn’t seem like something particularly strategic”. And in and of itself, it’s not. Once the plan is in place, it then becomes a service to provide to employees, but the reason for which it was established (ensuring a competitive offering so you can attract and retain employees) and the way in which it was conceived (analyzing the company’s demographics to ensure the plan meets the needs of the population), and insisting the plan is revisited as the company and/or the industry in which you are in grows or changes, should all be strategic.

In order to be a strategic partner, you also need for the company to see HR in that vein. So how can you tell if a company values HR? The telltale sign is if HR falls under any department other than that of the President or CEO. If the function is reporting into Finance or Operations, HR is likely not considered a strategic player in the organization. Which means your effectiveness will likely be constrained, because it is practically impossible to have an impact if your voice isn’t heard directly at the top and if you don’t have buy-in at the top. And being in that unfortunate position is often the reason behind the bad rap HR resentfully bears. Because when managers aren’t effective or when there’s not enough training offered or when compensation isn’t competitive, it’s inevitably human resources whom employees hold accountable. Not senior management, where the blame should lie, for enabling these issues to surface and for not valuing and empowering HR enough to do anything about them.

How do you make yourself heard? Your success will depend on your ability to demonstrate the value of HR and on your ability to influence. You need to effectively substantiate why your ideas will increase engagement and productivity. And you need to be convincing. But arguments like “employees are complaining that they don’t have a career path” will get you nowhere. A much more impactful statement looks like this: “Many of the issues we are facing stem from our lack of providing career paths. Employees are looking to grow with the organization, however that growth is being stunted by both a perceived lack of opportunity and by ineffective management. Almost 80 percent of the employees who left in the past year cited lack of career development as the number one reason for leaving. By doing nothing to remedy the problem we are losing some of our best people and perpetuating a culture of apathy, and one that will make it difficult to recruit top talent moving forward.”

And do you know what happens when high-potential people aren’t nurtured? Or when employees stop caring because they feel the company doesn’t care? When good people leave, and it becomes increasingly difficult to attract new talent? The company starts to suffer. Products don’t get released on time, or they are released in bug-ridden form. Customers start to complain. The company’s reputation in the marketplace starts to decline. And so does revenue. It’s your job to connect the dots between the problem and the short and long-term effects of that unaddressed problem. Once you have an ear, you can propose a solution tailored to the needs of the company.

How can you increase your credibility and effectiveness?

First, it’s critical that you understand your company’s business – including who its competitors are, the dynamics of the industry it’s in, its customers, its financial challenges, and the day-to-day operations. You don’t need an MBA, but if you are exposed to the overall business, you will be significantly better equipped to make convincing arguments and to align HR with the needs of the business.

Second, HR people who have a well-rounded background are more valuable assets. That could include having a business or legal degree, but primarily it translates into having actively participated in all aspects of HR. As an HR leader, how will you really understand what it takes to succeed in an area in which you have no direct experience? Furthermore, because all aspects of HR are so tightly intertwined, without truly understanding one function, you may fail to realize how significantly it impacts another. The more experience you have with, and exposure to, all aspects of HR, the more effective you will be in your role. To be convincing, you will need to speak from experience – yours – not what you read about.

As an HR professional, always remember this: You are not a union representative. You are a company representative. Your role is not to defend and support employee wishes or demands. It’s to ensure the business supports a culture in which employees are engaged – which may include providing them with some of their wants, but those wants never drive the decision to provide them.

Your role is not to be an employee’s friend. It’s to be objective and to find a win-win solution that provides for employee satisfaction in the best interest of the company. And if you are friends with an employee outside the office, make sure to leave work at the door. If not, you will compromise your integrity and the confidence employees have in your ability to maintain confidentiality. Some work stories make for great gossip. It’s not your job to share them.

HR carries a much bigger weight than it is often empowered to lug around. While some companies have, or are moving toward valuing HR for what it really is, there are likely more that haven’t. If you join the latter, be prepared for an uphill battle. And come sufficiently armed. If you are fortunate enough to be in an environment that values what HR can bring to the table, you still need to bring your armour. The fight will be less arduous, but the expectations of you will be much greater. Make sure you are equipped to deliver.

About the Author

Jill Ram is a Strategic Business & Human Resources Advisor with over 20 years of experience leading human resources for a variety of technology organizations in both start-up and mature phases.

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