A few months back, I had the opportunity to attend SHRM23, the annual conference for the Society of Human Resource Management. Even better, the conference was in Las Vegas. James Taylor was playing the final night of a weeklong stand, and yours truly had to be there. I walked into The Chelsea and found my seat at the end of a row of five. Beside me were two couples who had been JT fans for years.
The man seated next to me initiated small talk, and we discovered that his eldest brother lives in my area. It truly is a small world. He then asked what brought me to Vegas. I explained that my background was in human resources, and there was a huge HR conference in Vegas over the next few days. The man got quiet for a minute. I took it he was processing the mental image of thousands of HR people running around Vegas armed with employee handbooks and disciplinary action forms. He then spoke up and said, “No offense to your work or profession, but I hated the HR lady at my company before I retired.”
I laughed it off and told him no offense was taken. There truly wasn’t. For years, I’ve run across various opinions and stereotypes about the field of human resources and those who adopt it as a profession. Movies and television haven’t been too kind to the profession either. The characters who play HR reps are portrayed to be aloof, uptight, strict, cold, have little creativity, and are always ready to shut down a good idea with a harsh “NO.” Could some HR professionals take on these stereotypes? Absolutely, but it shouldn’t be the norm.
Human resources is a valuable partner within the business that should always have a seat at the table but still has trouble shaking association with its “personnel” roots. What has evolved into the field that we know today was previously identified as an administrative function called personnel that employed mostly women. In fact, HR continues to be a female-dominated profession. So, how can HR professionals and organizational leaders squash the stereotypes and capitalize on the value of this vital component of the business?
Show’em the data! The employee experience is filled with emotions and needs that require empathy and understanding from HR professionals. This aspect of the role has resulted in the misconception that HR professionals somehow lack business acumen and the ability to think strategically. Infusing quantitative data into the qualitative characteristics of the people function will support business strategy while painting a realistic picture of the organization as a workplace. We must not forget that EQ is a significant element of strategic thinking and decision-making.
Be mindful of how communication is delivered. Often, HR is tasked with delivering unwelcome information, which plays into the stereotypes of HR being the principal’s office or the fun police. Remember, it is your job to collaborate at all levels of the organization. Incorporating andragogy principles by explaining relevance, connecting to past experiences, and allowing others to be a part of the solution are ways to include and educate colleagues without talking at them or telling them what to do. Also, avoid deploying the fear factor when trying to gain buy in or make a point.
Let people get to know you. This likely contradicts old-school HR department etiquette, but letting people get to know us at work is okay. Of course, necessary boundaries and sound judgment are required in this space, but there is trust and respect to gain by building connections through our human qualities. Even when we must put on our HR hats and have those tough conversations, our colleagues will recognize that we are simply doing our jobs. I’ve noticed that it typically isn’t until colleagues and clients get to know me that they see I don’t fit in the boxes associated with many HR stereotypes. This also applies if you happen to be sitting next to me at a concert.
HR advocacy has a trickle-down effect. If leaders do not respect or encourage the HR function, middle managers and other employees will follow their lead. When HR is set up to fail, so are the managers and employees who often need HR support and guidance the most. This further segregates HR from the rest of the organization, which is something leadership and HR professionals should be intentional to avoid.
Don’t take compliance personally. There are compliance aspects to all areas of a business, but compliance in the people function tends to hit the most nerves. HR compliance can be tedious and complex. It is a mix of all things employment law met with the behaviors, mindsets, and values of the people who make up the business every single day it operates. Allowing HR professionals to assess risks, share their expertise, and offer recommendations without condemning them for being the messenger will help to receive and apply this critical information as a key component of the business strategy.
Always have an HR strategy. Whether the company has one employee, one hundred, or thousands more, an HR strategy is always needed. Small to mid-size businesses may lean more on consultants (like Level Up Solutions) to support HR needs and compliance. This approach tends to be more economical, but know that just because your company hasn’t grown to the point of requiring HR on staff doesn’t mean the company’s needs and liabilities are any less. HR duties can easily fall in the lap of a Controller or GM, but the skills and knowledge required to offer sound judgment and decision-making will not be found as an add-on to another manager’s job description.
We can look at the bright side and acknowledge that human resources is in good company with other professions that are often stereotyped and offhandedly getting a bad rap. At the end of the day, it’s all about skills and knowledge. HR professionals and business leaders should check out the SHRM Body of Applied Skills and Knowledge to fully understand the proficiencies needed to be effective and how organizations of all sizes should utilize the HR function.
While there are still stereotypes to overcome, there is no doubt the field has evolved from its personnel roots. Some even say it has evolved past the name of human resources. No matter the title of our work, the purpose is to add value and support the organization’s longevity and success, including that of its people. HR is kind of a big deal!