A common cry among HR people is that they are ignored or dismissed within their business. It’s something that in my 30 years in HR has never gone away, and forms a staple of many an HR conference. The “how do we get a seat at the table” discussion has outlasted almost every topic or fad that the profession has debated.
For me, one of the problems is that, while HR people moan to each other about not being taken ‘seriously’, we rarely ask our colleagues, who are after all our customers, what it is they want. But, after 18 years, working with a wide variety of organisations in widely diverging industries and sectors, I’ve come to the conclusion that what most want from HR is
· To keep them legal – that means having a good knowledge of Employment Law and related regulation.
· An understanding the business and its objectives, and the ability to devise solutions to problems that achieve this.
· Good professional skills that no-one else in the business can provide – whether this is recruitment, employee development, handling a complex union negotiation, or an individual issue.
· Someone who will remind them that they are dealing with other people. It’s very easy for managers to become focused on the task and forget that other human beings are involved. Pointing out the human consequences of a business decision isn’t being a “bleeding heart” – it allows better long-term decision making and planning.
· Looking at ways things can be done, not reasons why they can’t
· Someone who brings in expertise and knowledge from outside that can ‘add value’ to the business they are working for.
Now, I’ve never conducted a formal survey among the 125+ organisations I’ve worked with, and this view is purely based on my perceptions. So I’d welcome comments from businesses – and other HR people. Perhaps if we better understood what business wants, we might finally know how to earn the mythical seat at the table.
There seem to be a lot of HR related blogs on authenticity at the moment. The concept of “bringing your true self to work” has gained a lot of traction for what are very understandable reasons. If we are looking to improve productivity and get the best from committed and motivated employees, then we need to counter the “reverse superman” effect (a phrase coined by Organisational Development specialist Ali Germain) where people who are talented, capable and innovative in their non-work lives suddenly turn into lifeless corporate drones as soon as they clock in. And creating more human, people centred workplaces may well be the way to attract people to work for our businesses in future.
However, I’m not convinced we actually want real authenticity. Let me give you two examples.
Many years ago, I worked with a senior manager whose life was dominated by his hobby of yachting. His office was full of yachting memorabilia, including a sailing cap he always kept on his desk. People used to hate being summoned to his office because, after 5 minutes of business, they would be subjected to interminable (and to non-sailing types, i.e. most staff) tedious anecdotes about his yacht, sailing generally or his days in the navy. He was being totally “authentic” but the real him was a dreadful bore.
More recently, I had to deal with a disciplinary situation where an employee was constantly rude and aggressive to colleagues, but never in front of her manager. Following a particular incident, she was suspended and ultimately dismissed. During the investigation, many people commented that it was good that management had now seen her true colours. In her hearing, she argued that she had done nothing that wasn’t warranted and that she had always been like that – even using the phrase “what you see is what you get”.
But even if we want to get the “real person” in work I very much doubt we will. There have been numerous psychological studies about how people modify their behaviour in different environments – as Shakespeare put it “one man in his time plays many parts”. It’s one of the HR clichés that you don’t have to be friends the people you work with – and if you aren’t, you probably won’t be comfortable with showing your real feelings or personality in the working environment – no matter how much you like your organisation, job or get on with colleagues at a superficial or professional level.
When we talk about authenticity in HR, what I suspect we really mean is that we’d quite like people to show some of the nicer aspects of their personality in work, maybe with the odd idiosyncrasy thrown in, not their misogynistic or racist views or even their tendency to drone on about their yachting exploits at the weekend.
Since Christmas, my social media timeline has been filled with articles and blogs about “Why Managers are scared to hire Millennials” “What Millennials want from the workplace” “How Millennials are disrupting traditional HR practices” and even “A Millennial Explains what Millennials are all about”.
What are these strange creatures who are causing so much angst? Apparently they live their innermost lives on the internet, exposing their most private thoughts and activities for millions to share. They get excited by sitcoms about people sharing flats, they don’t know what a video recorder is and they talk in emojis and strange slang. Worse still, when it comes to work, they demand to be CEO on day 1, want slides in work and have no respect for existing ways of doing things, despite the fact they have no experience. And they expect the companies they work for to be ethical despite having no loyalty to their employer and changing jobs every couple of months. And – here’s the really sinister part – they were all born in 1990 or later.
Now some of you reading this may think “hang on, aren’t these just young people? Behaving in the way young people have done for generations? Having unrealistic expectations and being idealistic? Liking new technology and having their own cultural reference points?” But that would be complacent and, if I may say so, dangerous thinking.
Millennials are different. There’s been extensive research to say so. Conferences are devoted to the subject. Scholarly articles have been published. HR professionals talk of little else. So it must be true.
Forget the war for talent. Forget the metrics. Forget all that mindfulness stuff. This is the one area you must concentrate on if you want to be on trend with current HR thinking.
Corrections and Clarifications
It has been drawn to the author’s attention that
- Millennials may have been born in 1985 or later, or perhaps 1980 or later, or – well just pick a date that suits you.
- There has not in fact been extensive research. Lots of companies selling products have produced nebulous statistics which are then re-quoted as facts
- While a few scholarly articles have been produced, most are based on small samples of US students and the authors themselves warn against generalising from the findings.
Every day, I get bombarded with emails about “happiness”, “wellbeing”, “mindfulness” and “resilience”. Now, no-one, including me, wants people – whether they are employees or not – to be unhappy, in poor health (physical or mental) or unable to cope with things. But, as is often the case in the world of work, too many in HR are spending their time trying to tackle the symptoms, not the causes.
So: you’ve got a manager who’s working 14 hours a day, spending every evening doing emails and is aging visibly before your eyes. It’s ok – just send them on a resilience workshop.
Or an employee on minimum wage who’s worried that they can’t feed the family all week. No problem – a bit of mindfulness meditation will solve that
Or that guy who can’t sleep because they are failing to achieve the ever demanding targets of the company – just stick a Fitbit around their wrist and give them some feedback on their heart-rate. That way they can worry about the fact they aren’t doing their 10000 steps a day as well as everything else. (And of course we can add to our HR metrics too, to optimise their work performance)
The issue is that all of these situations, the problem is passed to the employee. It is their fault they can’t cope. As responsible employers of course, we make sure they’ve got the tools to deal with their failure to cope with the situation; after that they are on their own. Rarely do we acknowledge, let alone tackle, the organisational symptoms that contribute to the problem. Instead, we shrug our shoulders and conclude that, with all the support we’ve given them, if they can’t hack it in our environment they know what to do.
After all, HR has no responsibility for things like pay rates, working conditions, culture, organisational development, performance management or training do we…?
Originally posted January 2011
Everyone has their own most disliked management phrase. Mine is probably the use of the word passion in the world of work. I don’t know whether it arose from an over-active marketing executive or is part of a general trend to use words conveying strong emotions in a way where their meaning becomes debased. But when I see a sentence in a recent blog like “we need more love, courage and passion in our workplaces” I cringe (and not only at the potential sexual harassment cases coming my way).
Setting aside its sexual and religious meanings, the most common definitions of passion are “a powerful or compelling emotion” and “a strong or extravagant desire”. Are either of these really the sort of behaviours we expect to see, let alone encourage, in the workplace? And do we want HR people to be “passionate” about our work, as I’ve read recently?
Let me give you an example using a different strong emotion. I’ve just redrafted a time off in lieu policy for a client, under which a small group of staff would be disadvantaged. In consultation, one affected member of staff told the Chief Executive that when she read the new policy she was “angry”. As a friend of mine commented “I get angry about children starving in Africa. I might get a bit annoyed if I didn’t like the way my company had changed one of its policies.”
So let’s be clear. I enjoy working in HR, I often find it fun or stimulating, and I can sometimes become very enthusiastic about aspects of it. But passionate about HR – no!