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Oct 20, 2016

I have 40 years of experience as an HR executive, authored a book about Repurposing HR, and have a healthy following in social media on my articles related to positioning HR as a business partner. Heck I even got an “HR seat at the table” article published on the Harvard Business Review blog. My experience and study tells me that HR has an opportunity to dramatically influence organizations both in business and in the human aspects of the organization. I don’t think we are doing that; at least I hear that from colleagues.

But I’m beginning to sense that there is a semantics issue for those that do have “a seat at the table.” I’m pretty sure that the CAO/CHRO for Wells Fargo had a seat at the table. She was actually listed in their proxy, meaning that she is one of the top executives in the organization.

So assuming she had the seat at the table, and held the influence that denotes, why are all the stories coming out about how HR let the employees down, and ultimately, let the company down. I’ve talked before about the HR role being a dual advocacy — for both the employee and the organization – because at the end of the day, a damaged organization isn’t much good to the employees.

After talking with an HR journal editor it struck me that simply having a seat at the table is woefully insufficient. Unless the seat includes trusted relationships, sound business and HR expertise and the ability to use both to influence effectively, it ends up being just a seat.

The editor asked, “What could HR have done in the case of Wells Fargo?” Given what I’ve read, and my own experience as an HR executive in banking, probably not much. The insidious culture seems to have been cemented down to its very core. This issue first came to light in 2005, that’s several years to learn how to play ostrich. My guess is that HR tried, but at some point in a toxic environment that doesn’t seem to want to change, you leave or you stay. And if you stay, you do it their way.

I’m gonna make a wild assumption for purposes of this article that most organizations: A.) want to be ethical and honest, and B.) don’t have such a deeply ingrained negative culture. With that assumption, I can offer what I believe to be an approach that HR could take when faced with a cultural climate that is not good.

Build relationships

First and foremost, there has to be a solid foundation of trust. I don’t just mean trust that I’m a good person, but trust that I have the capability and capacity to provide what you need.

I have to laugh at we women in the 1990s who learned to play golf in the hope of building business relationships. Looking back, you can talk the talk in golf, but if you can’t help the business they still won’t use your services.

Building relationships in a business environment is all about letting others know what you can and should do (and why), addressing their needs, helping to solve their business problems, and following back up to “market” what you just did and how it helped. Some may call that following up to make sure the solution worked, but I add “marketing” because sometimes folks just need to be reminded of the part you played.

Building relationships means building that trust before you have to ask them to do something, or before you have to challenge them.

Use data the right way

Too often, I see HR handing out multiple pages of data and asking if anyone has questions. And the eyes roll, and everyone tucks those three pieces of paper into their folder along with 40 more pages from everyone else in the room.

It isn’t about the amount of data that counts. It is about the dialogue that occurs when people analyze, hypothesize, test and evaluate the meaning of the data. Is 40% turnover too high? If one division has 40% while all of the other divisions are running in the teens, it just might be too high. But what if a new leader is appropriately cleaning house? What if that division is a training ground for individuals to grow in the organization? Maybe not.

What IS NOT important are the numbers. What IS important is the collective discussion that interprets information and learns from it.

HR has lots of data. It can sow the seeds for great questions, which leads to my next point.

Ask good questions

It isn’t just HR. We humans want to show others how much we know, so we tell, we explain and we pontificate. The success of that approach is wholly dependent upon our charisma and ability to persuade. A better approach is to ask good questions.

By asking questions, we bring others along in the thinking process. Instead of, “We need a performance management process,” perhaps start with, “How well do you think that our employees are performing?” You may have to probe a little deeper if you get the proverbial “fine,” by asking something like, “Do you think that all of our employees are as productive as they could be?” Which might cause an executive to say, “Do you know something I don’t?” and opening the door to data and dialogue.

In an earlier article, I wrote about using an organization’s values statement as a starting point for asking questions, with the idea being to align behaviors to performance and ethics. A good starting point might be, “How does [insert issue] line up with our values statement?” The immediate response might be to ignore or make light of the question, but good questions like that tend to make people reflect at a later time, and perhaps revisit the question and seek an answer.

It’s about cultural alignment

Will these three tips help HR do more than just sit at the table? I’m not sure that the real work is actually done at the table. Rather than strive for the seat, let’s figure out how to align the behavior of the workforce to the strategy of the business.

It isn’t easy. Too many “whys” might get you labeled a whiner. But it isn’t the quantity of good questions you ask, or data you provide. It’s the quality of your relationships, your data and your questions that provoke thought, reflection and help shape behavior.

This originally appeared on Carol Anderson’s blog @the intersection of learning & performance.
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