You’re in HR…You Must be Good with People

That’s probably the most common thing a non-HR person says to me in a social environment when I tell them what I do. Maybe it’s just a “how’s the weather” statement – it has a literal meaning, but the comment is actually meaningless and simply something to say to attempt to continue a conversation. I think it’s important to realize, though, that being good with people is not what makes a great HR professional.

Really, though, I suppose that’s true – I’m good with people. But I’m not super human and being good with people to me is simply part of being a good person. I have empathy and awareness and understanding. I’ve lived and traveled all over the world and I have had a lot of exceptional opportunities to see how people work and appreciate human and cultural differences. I’m sure these experiences have contributed to the ability to work effectively with other people. That said, I don’t think that being good with people is the sole requirement to be good at HR and I think the role of an HR professional is much more than just handling people.

A prospective employer asked in an interview what my job as an HR manager would be. I said to protect the interests of the company. I got the job and they told me that was the biggest reason why. I wasn’t just going to handle my job as a series of transactions and tasks assigned to me, but I instead I wanted to be part of a team that would drive the company in the direction the owners wanted it to go. It was an honest answer, and one that I would still give. I think it’s a simple perspective that sums up a lot of different aspects of HR. The interests of the company are to be successful, to uphold their values, to accomplish their goals or to do whatever the company has stated as its mission and direction. HR is a huge part of that, especially in the service industry where the company’s success is dependent on the employees that represent the organization. HR is there to efficiently staff the company without wasting money, to find the right employees, to keep the valuable employees, to ensure compliance with employment law, to help people understand the link between organizational goals and their own job responsibilities…if it’s related to people in a company, HR is it.

Having such a perspective about the role of HR isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s the company leaders go astray. They say they value one thing and then act in another direction. This is probably the most challenging aspect of higher level HR positions, as the interest of the company is best protected by bringing this issue to their attention and an uncomfortable conversation can result. It’s facing these challenges and overcoming them with professionalism and composure that really makes HR an asset.

I teach a lot of future HR professionals and I have observed a tendency to define HR as an employee advocate and no more. I think this is shortsighted. HR can certainly be an employee advocate, as it is often in the interest of the success of the organization as a whole. But our job isn’t just to protect the little guy from the big bad company. If you’re an HR professional who resents that statement, think about whether it’s that big bad company that signs your paychecks that you so willing cash. If you want to protect the little guy from the big bad company, don’t work for the big bad company. Then you’re in conflict yourself – taking the pay to do a job that you don’t believe in! Instead, work for a company whose mission and goals align with your own so you can protect the interests of the company and take care of the employees all at the same time. Find a company that recognizes the value of employees and works hard to protect that relationship and put that check in the bank so you can sleep better at night. We are advocates when we need to be, but we need to realize when to be an advocate for whom.

There are a lot of ways to do a job and be just fine. But as a company do you want an HR representative that is just fine when you could have someone great? And if you’re a career HR professional, do you aspire to just be ok at your job? A great HR professional should do more for the company he or she represents. More than being good with people, HR professionals need to be big picture people who think critically. We have to consider the company’s goals and culture and then act accordingly, whether we are selecting benefits for the next plan year, recruiting, establishing flextime options, participating in strategic planning, or planning the company holiday party. If we can’t see the big picture, we lose sight of what we should be focused on and we end up just being good with people. . . and that alone doesn’t make a great HR professional!