Over the years I have often had young talent come to me asking for mentoring because they want to work in Human Resources. I love to mentor, but I like to do it for the right reasons. So I have usually asked the question: “Why do you want to work in HR?” More often than not the answer goes something like this: “I love working with people, developing them and helping them”. To which I usually respond: “If that’s what you want to do then you should work in operations or general management, not in HR.” This is often a shocking response, but it’s an honest one. The misperceptions that HR is a “nice” place to work because we work with people is pervasive, and often leads to the wrong kind of talent in the function.
To be fair, being nice is usually an expectation and requirement to be in HR. It’s hard for most people to imagine their HR partners as not nice people. But I think this is where some young talent gets confused. They see “nice” HR colleagues and leaders, perceive that the role is all about helping people, and mistakenly assume that being a nice person is qualification enough for the function. However, “nice” is only a starting point – it is not nearly enough.
Fair, Not Nice
As I was speaking to a friend and former colleague about this one time, he validated my point by pointing out that in Human Resources “we aren’t in the nice business, we’re in the fair business”. I believe this is a very insightful statement. Let’s consider a few Human Resources roles as examples :
Restructuring – Whenever there is an organizational restructure there are winners and losers. Dealing with the people that land on their feet is easy. But in any restructure there are those that lose their job, face demotions, or sometimes end up in a role that they don’t like. These people deserve a respectful and fair process. Nice is just not enough.
During my HR career I have been involved in a lot of restructuring projects. There was a time that my wife began calling me “Grim Reaper” because during that time it seemed that I was always leading and executing really difficult restructuring efforts.
I remember one person in particular. A colleague that I knew and liked, but who didn’t have the right experience/capabilities for the revised structure. When I informed him that there was no job for him, he took the paper I tried to give him with key data, crumpled it up, and threw it in my face. It was emotionally very painful, for both of us. I ran into him about a year later while shopping in a local store. He saw me and called my name. I braced myself for what might come, but he was as friendly as could be. He informed me that he had a great job, and thanked me for making it possible for him to be in a position to get that. This is a rare and gratifying experience, as usually we never get the back story. Sometimes they don’t turn out that well. But whatever the case, we must take satisfaction in treating professionals with fairness and dignity.
Recruiting – There are few things as enjoyable as telling somebody they got the job they were really hoping for. Unfortunately, for everybody that gets the job, there are many people who wanted it and didn’t get it. It’s not so fun to make those calls.
Compensation is about paying people what the job is worth, not what they want. This often causes disagreement and friction. HR professionals must learn to explain facts and reality not only to employees at all levels, but also often to their managers who feel they should just be able to pay more. Sometimes we get to give great news in this regard, but more often we must find ways to keep integrity in the compensation structure.
Talent management is about differentiating top talent and investing in them disproportionally. Delivering that news to the selected individuals can certainly be enjoyable. But for every top talent there are many who are not, and we often must explain why we have rewarded others disproportionally.
Learning & Development should be about giving people the training they need, not what they want.
Labor/Employee relations is about ensuring we have a consistent and fair work environment, not to make everybody happy with their circumstances.
Culture is about creating a great and/or effective working environment, not necessarily a nice environment. Great and nice aren’t synonyms.
It’s not hard to see that the common perceptions that HR is an easy place to work, nice, or fun, are completely misguided. Of course, it can be fun. But when done well, it’s difficult work.
I made a recent acquaintance at a conference. This gentleman started his career as an Aeronautics engineer, moved to Finance, and now works in HR. I asked him about his transition into HR, and I loved his quote:
“I was surprised about how difficult HR is. Designing airplanes that won’t fall out of the sky is a lot easier than managing HR.”
Empathy is the Key
I believe that what HR professionals really need is not niceness, but empathy. That is, understanding and taking into account how people feel. We must do the work, sometimes tough work, that our organizations need. Doing so with empathy, and helping other leaders have empathy, makes such a difference. As a function, we are often expected to give difficult news and feedback, or to help other leaders give such feedback. It’s always better to give it in an empathic way.
As HR professionals we have to keep it all balanced if we want to maintain sanity. Balance in life is critical, otherwise it can become overwhelming and tempting to slide into nice for nice sake in order avoid some of the tough work, which is not what organizations need. It’s important to take a breath sometimes and keep it all in perspective. I love my job, not because it’s “nice”, but because I find fulfillment in helping the organization achieve it’s objectives through human capital. It is strategic, but it is also an art that must be practiced daily to be truly good at it. Helping and watching people grow is great. But helping and watching the company grow through it’s people is even more important and more fulfilling.
So, if you want to work in HR, please take note of what’s really required for success and make sure you are pursuing this career for the right reasons.
If you already work in HR, take a breath, keep perspective, and focus on what’s most important. Have empathy, but do the right thing and don’t be afraid to give the tough messages.
If you’re neither of these, please go give your HR partner a hug and appreciation for what he/she does.
Brian Walker is an International Human Resources executive with significant experience in Latin America, Asia Pacific and Europe. He is passionate about strategic HR, transformational HR and culture. Brian currently resides in Flower Mound, Texas.
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