Posts in Get Real
The Land of No HR

Lately, I have been working with an organization that had little support or guidance in the way of HR, for many years. It is of a size that needs it desperately, and in an industry where extra care should be taken with workers to ensure production of a quality product or service.

I’ve been around a while, and I’ve seen a lot of team dynamics. I’ve worked with toxic leaders and dysfunctional departments. But I must say I was lulled into complacency by this team at the start and then was reminded how things work in the Land of No HR.

The first rule in the Land of No HR, is that no one knows what HR is supposed to do. So everyone is glad to see you when you get there. They have an idea that HR is basically there to save them from the mean leader who is making life hard for them and the changes in the organization that are causing anxiety and upheaval. They think HR is there is be a representative for them to take their complaints to their own managers and force them to listen.

They’re on the right track. I’m there to help them develop communication skills so they can be candid and solution-oriented with their leaders about what’s not working so they can move on to summiting mountains and slaying dragons. I’m even ready to be a mediator where ancient, fetid, ugly problems that have been festering for years are coming to the surface. And I can help leaders clarify strategy, performance, and how resources and people fit together in the plan.

I’m not there to wave a magic wand and make the challenges go away, or deliver disingenuous platitudes to feral managers who have never been held accountable for leading or delivering results that contribute to the organization’s success. In a lot of ways, I’m there to challenge, listen, empathize and push a little, and make sure everyone has the training and guidance they need. I want people to feel understood, valued and empowered, but to get there, they must take responsibility for their roles, their work and their own behaviors.

We’re working on it. By the time I move on, they will have the tools, an informed and capable business leader who understands and values an HR presence in the organization, and hopefully, a permanent HR resource in place. But the future is truly in their hands. I hope they are wildly successful!

Photo credit: johanferreira15 via / CC BY

Transforming HR

I’ve been involved in some projects lately that promise to transform the way HR is delivered at the organizations where they’re being implemented. It’s an exciting time for these folks, and I know they will eventually be very successful if the will and resources continue to be there for them as they make this journey.

In the process, though, I’ve noticed (and shared) a few things that could make the job easier. I think these are typical missteps when it comes to proposing, and ultimately implementing, transformational HR initiatives. What’s the one common thread across all of them? Some HR executive leaders that may be removed from the front line either don’t fully understand or maybe even sufficiently value HR Operations. The transformations are commonly depicted as TACTICAL to STRATEGIC, and what’s lost in the process is that both are needed to deliver HR effectively.

The following failures can sink a big HR organizational change before it even begins to take place:

  1. HR leaders don’t always undertake to understand the current HR operational landscape. Benchmarking numbers of clients each front line HR professional should be able to support begins with an understanding of the service levels they are providing to their clients. Are there tech tools that are underutilized and creating inefficiencies, or are those tools incompletely implemented, with wires hanging out the back of them where another system should be seamlessly collecting information that is currently being entered manually (at great time and efficiency cost)? Is your staff supporting one on one because there is no centralized support currently being offered? Are multiple locations using different processes, or providing varying levels of service? Fully understanding the critical services and making small changes to standardize how they are being delivered today can help us begin the transition process among management to help them adjust to a new way of thinking about HR.
  2. HR leaders don’t fully plan for the nuts and bolts needed on the ground to keep the current organizational expectations of HR fulfilled. Failure to consider how to continue providing services during a seismic shift in HR delivery can deliver a fatal blow to any big HR change initiative. It’s not optional to keep things going on the front line-this is a core expectation of the business. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater on day one will just frustrate management clients and create an intolerable level of disarray in front line HR.
  3. HR leaders don’t think about how to clearly describe and communicate the changes to the business, so that expectations can be adjusted and satisfaction levels maintained. This is really change management at its core. If we don’t communicate what is changing and how we expect it to impact the business, they will make up their own version of what results of the change will look like (and it usually doesn’t look good). The quickest way to get the organization’s leaders to disengage and fail to support the changes proposed by HR is to let them be disappointed by unrealistic expectations, or, worse, come up with fatalistic versions of reality on their own that allow them to envision failure before an initiative even begins.
  4. HR leaders expect current staff to handle things like critical project work and technology implementation in addition to their front-line HR delivery responsibilities, for a long period of time before efficiencies from those HR technology changes are captured. Don’t burn out the people who actually can help you implement. Think about whether you can afford the high cost of turnover, and then take a lesser amount of that cost and allocate it to temporary resources, either to offload some of the everyday work of your current frontline HR employees, or to hire consultants to lead or supplement the project work needed to transform your organization.
  5. HR leaders tend to discount the value of the tactical, and even transactional work that is expected of HR. HR is absolutely capable of delivering on the promise of a strategic partnership with the business. We can increase the bottom line, and develop the organization’s people to be more engaged, productive, and successful. We can hire the right new resources and ensure they want to stay, and we can figure out how to reward them in ways that make them feel appreciated without compromising profits. We can deal with seismic shifts in the workforce, like the incoming Millennials and GenXers becoming the successors of quickly retiring boomers, and we can develop talent to be ready for the challenges of tomorrow. We can ensure our workplaces are compliant and protect the reputation of the company. We can do all this and more, but if we don’t make sure people get paid, understand their benefits and ensure that required paperwork gets filed, we will be considered a failure. Yes, HR should be sure we are not exclusively focused on the tactical, but tactical is not a dirty word. It’s our job as HR to execute each and every day on behalf of the organization and its employees.
  6. HR leaders assume that Business Systems/IT is a ready partner in troubleshooting and implementing HR Tech solutions. Unless there is shared accountability for the outcomes of HR Tech initiatives, there will not be shared ownership. HR leaders would do well to not only understand the capabilities of Business Systems and IT in their organization prior to making them a critical partner, but also ensure that they are on the hook for the results as well. Otherwise, there are plenty of other partners (many of whom generate revenue for the organization) who will be pulling away those resources from HR. Midstream is not the time to lock down this partnership if it’s critical to success. If a mandatory part of the plan is to use technology to increase efficiency in HR operational transactions in order to free up time to be a strategic partner with the business, HR can’t go it alone without an IT resource, whether it’s internal or external.
  7. HR leaders fail to provide clarity of expectations and exercise quick resolve to decide which team members are in the right roles, which ones will go forward in the new world post-implementation, and what kinds of new talent is needed in HR to make the change happen. It will become clear immediately which organizational structures will not be useful (or are not even currently useful) in a transformed HR organization. It’s not practical or helpful to let go of current resources on day one, but in an environment of courageous change, there needs to be an immediate realignment of roles to ensure that team members whose skills and/or motivation are not in alignment with the new HR vision are doing work that doesn’t currently require this. At the same time, those team members can be offered the development opportunities needed to bring their skills in line with the future vision of HR. With very few exceptions, front line operational HR work can be done remotely, and those without the current capacity and ability to perform project work in support of the HR transformation can absolutely keep the lights on while changes go forward that will eventually result in the efficiencies that justify a smaller team. Use your resources wisely and stop wringing hands over who should be let go. And when it comes to new talent, don't just focus on the fun stuff-we need operational expertise to make this happen, not only more ephemeral "strategic" thought leaders. We need both. Let me say that again: we need both to bring the results.

Thinking about these seven concerns before we make promises to the business and begin implementing large-scale changes in HR will increase our chances of success. We need to begin with an understanding of HR operations first, in order to make BIG HR changes happen.

Photo credit: Julie Raccuglia via / CC BY-SA

The HR Martyr

Why is it that everywhere I go, HR professionals work ungodly hours, are expected to drop everything at any time, and don’t feel they deserve work-life balance? It’s like we believe the hype the business sells when they tell the story of us as a cost center and a transactional, commodity-type service. The cheaper the better, the business says-watch out, because if you cost too much and don’t make it worth our while, we’ll just outsource you, replace you with technology, or not build you in at all, like many startups do today.

What is our typical response? It should be to show the value we bring in bringing success to the business, and in increasing the bottom line. It should be to prove our strategic worth, and stop being simply the department of “no.” It should be that we resist being seen as the party planner, the cleaner-upper, and the administrative assistant, and instead provide something more that the business can point to that brings them less turnover, a happier, more productive and successful workforce, more efficiently structured teams, better hires, and in turn, increased profits.

What do we do instead? Often it's more of the same transactional, tactical, check the box, frenzied activity. So much of it that we trick ourselves into thinking we are indispensible. We work 70+ hours per week, making our already relatively lower pay (compared with other critical business functions) lower still by spreading it over two full-time jobs. We tell ourselves we’re lucky to be working for such a great organization, and that some people probably appreciate what we do. We talk about how much we’re working, how crazy busy it is at work, and how it’s impossible to get everything done, but that we have to keep trying, because the people are important to us. You know HR, right? It’s always like that. And we don’t deserve any better. No one thinks we’re important. They just think we cost money, and they are always looking for ways to cheapen the outflow of cash in our direction, because they don’t understand or appreciate what we bring to the table.

Poor us. But one thing is certain: they will never know if we sit back and hope they'll notice. Telling isn’t enough, either. And just working long hours isn’t going to do it. We have to bring the goods and push our way to the table, and show them.

Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis) OFF via / CC BY-SA

The Lifers

So, I’ve shared that I recently started a new gig at a big company that has a long, long history. Like other organizations I’ve worked in, it’s poised on the precipice of big change, so “change management” is front and center.

In my role, I get to see people every day who have worked with the organization for their entire careers. They aren’t at retirement yet, but they’ve been there for more than twenty or thirty years. They’ve seen HR people come and go, and heard about this or that change initiative that’s also come and gone. Some of it may have stuck, but mostly not.

Some of them know that they should get on board, but they are just tired: tired of working so hard to take care of their families, tired of worrying so much about whether they will be able to pay for their medical bills, and tired of hearing about this new idea that’s going to make things so much better. They also suspect that all this change will put money in the pockets of the people at the top, but won’t bring a lot of great things to them.

But others are actually energized by the change, even if they’ve been at the company for a long, long time. They know that the changes will make the company stronger and better, and when the company is stronger and better, we all benefit from greater security, pay raises, good working conditions, and the pride that comes with doing a great job and making the company successful.

Others still are just saying, “Let me do my job.” I don’t want to hear about any of this, and I just want you to leave me alone. And by the way, keep it down. You are disturbing my peace and quiet, and I was here first, long before you.

You can’t put the Lifers all in one bucket. They have different ideas, different feelings, and different motivations. But one thing they all have in common? They want you to recognize what they’ve already contributed and respect them for still being there. And I do.

Now, about those changes I mentioned…they’re still coming our way. And I’ll be there to help the Lifers negotiate them, the best I can.

Photo credit: Tim Pearce, Los Gatos via / CC BY

Communication Requires Actually Talking

I have a group of clients who like to use leverage. This means they will email instructions on a particular issue like they are a done deal, then tell you to move forward with their direction. They will simultaneously copy in other people not likely to agree with them, and pretend like there’s no further discussion needed.

While this does make for some laugh out loud moments on my part when I read my email, it doesn’t make for a functional, interactive and productive group dynamic when the person copied has a tantrum. In situations like this, I usually invite a leader to weigh in.

Except...sometimes they don’t take the opportunity to provide clarity. In that case, it’s up to me to recognize the need and take a stand with a firm recommendation. That recommendation is often not the last word, and the arguing continues. Even then, in some cases, a leader won’t engage to hear both sides, and make a decision to put the issue to rest.

It’s then I know we not only have a problem to solve today, but a development need for tomorrow as well. Communication requires actually talking to one another, hearing all of the details, risks, costs and benefits, and then making a decision that everyone agrees to live with and move forward under.

The decision is definitely important, and it’s up to the business to make one. But it’s also about the communication. That is something we can and must facilitate in HR.

Photo credit: jackracker via / CC BY