A Pandemic of Unsure and Unsafe HR

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Jul 23, 2020
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

It was 1 a.m. on a Wednesday. I had been up since 5 a.m. the day before, and Chinese takeout boxes crowded the floor around my couch. My legs were numb from being tucked underneath me for so long, and my eyes were swollen from staring at my laptop as I furiously retyped a proposal that was due to the CEO in nine hours. 

I submitted the original proposal for my HR team to review a week prior to my sad late-night couch scene. Unfortunately, they waited to provide feedback until the day before I needed to get it to the CEO. During a bashing disguised as a meeting, two team members informed me that the proposal was “too radical” and would “never be accepted” by the CEO. 

Like so many HR professionals these days, I spiraled into the unsure and unsafe space that criticism can produce in an insecure practitioner. I rewrote the entire proposal overnight not because I believed in taking a more modest approach. I rewrote it because I allowed bullies disguised as teammates to inflate my insecurities instead of encouraging my innovation. 

The second proposal was less generous, less human-centered, less me. It gave more to the company and took more from the employees. It didn’t let me sleep better at night. It didn’t make me proud. 

This spiral of doubt and subsequent turn away from radical and powerful HR is a story that is playing itself out in companies around the world today. An epidemic of unsure and unsafe HR is sweeping the globe.

Unsure and Unsafe HR

How did we get here? Has it been the constant need to provide metrics that prove the worth of HR? The fighting for a seat at the table like we’re rabid dogs hungry for any morsel of approval? Desperation for praise at the expense of camaraderie to produce HR bullies instead of allies? 

No. It’s none of these everyday HR battles. It’s something else.

The silent killer of self-esteem in HR is shame. 

As researcher Brené Brown points out, shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change,” she explains in her book I Thought It Was Just Me.

HR professionals are humans first, professionals second. (Though isn’t everyone?) Between managing COVID-19 regulations, stepping up for our minority employees during the Black Lives Matter movement, and coping with countless other cannon-fire shots 2020 has hurled at HR, we are also questioning whether we’re capable of ushering legitimate change because we’ve been shamed. 

Personally, professionally, intimately, casually, we are walking around just like everyone else with shame that is silently killing our self-confidence. The only difference between us and those not in HR is that a key element of the HR lifeblood is believing to our core that we are capable of radical, remarkable, reliable change. 

Laura Mazzullo is an expert in unsure HR. A recruiter who specializes in placing HR professionals, Laura sees unsure HR all day, explaining:

“HR pros often blame outside influences, like executives who don’t approve their budgets. I can’t help but think this sense of remaining subservient or unworthy is coming from inside of HR. It’s the classic: Are you truly at the executive table or do you feel like an imposter? Maybe it’s because HR is mostly women. Maybe it’s because HR is historically undervalued. But now, I’d say it’s up to each HR pro to do the work! What we need more of are HR pros who are self-aware, self-reflecting, humble, and willing to evolve.” 

An Ocean of Empathy

We must move ourselves and our industry out of this unsure and unsafe pandemic and into the confident space where we celebrate each other, trust our own expertise, and don’t overcompensate with arrogance.  

Brown explains an antidote for shame: “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”

It’s time for HR to lean into empathy harder than ever. When our fears of looking stupid in front of Accounting rise in our throats, when that team member talks over us because their insecurities are masked by arrogance, when our stakeholders purposely circumvent us, when the business only sees us as admin, when the shame storm rages, we must drown ourselves and each other with empathy. 

That ocean of empathy will create the shame resilience we need to build an army of HR pros who not only believe they can but actually create actual change. 

“Say It With Your Chest”

Puffy-eyed with two proposals in hand, I walked into my CEO’s office conflicted with which folder to put down. When I came through the door, I hesitated at his desk, the shame spiral still sucking the resilience out of me.

Noticing both folders and knowing there was only one proposal I was supposed to be submitting, he looked up.

“Well, which one is it?” he asked.

“This one,” I said, setting down the original (“too radical”) proposal. 

“Say it with your chest then,” he replied with a smile. 

I hope we’ll all say it with our chest more in 2020.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.