HR Roundtable: How Can We Actually Make HR Positive Again?

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Sep 23, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

The September HR Roundtable in Cincinnati ventured into sensitive territory because the topic was against the grain, but that’s what makes forums like this inviting!

The topic to be discussed was this: How can we make HR positive again?

There is so much out there that tears HR down that we wanted to see if it’s possible to turn things around. To get started, the small groups talked about these questions:

  1. How did the sentiments for HR get so negative in the first place?
  2. How can HR be positive as a function?
  3. How can you sustain positive HR throughout an organization?

The small groups were itching for the chance to jump in on this topic and it was difficult to pull them back out, but when we did, they had incredible responses!

1. How did HR get negative in the first place?

  • The gatekeeper perception — It’s intriguing that being a gatekeeper is negative. That’s true because gates swing both in and out. However, the gatekeeper stance that is most associated with HR is to keep things out. It’s easy to see HR negatively if their primary action is to push things out or away. Not a healthy approach at all.
  • We live on the “dark side” — We do. HR has to handle the great issues of employees as well as the seedy ones. The challenge is that most people remember the “dark” ones. This is a part of the job that we need to come to terms with and not let it be the majority of work we do.
  • It’s emotionally heavy work — This may be the best description that has ever tried to capture what Human Resources is. It’s not only heavy in the depth of the lives of others, it’s emotionally heavy for HR professionals. This may be the key factor as to why HR people get burned out and walk away from the field.
  • HR hasn’t grown in line with the company — HR does not adjust quickly or well. It seems to lag with how and where the company is moving. There may be many reasons for the lag, but it hurts the function to always be seen as being behind the movement of the organization.
  • HR is a dumping ground — Can I get an “Amen” on this one? HR is a conglomerate of responsibilities that are never consistent either internally or between companies. HR may be in charge of Safety at some companies, and not others. It may be the Social Coordinator, but only on certain events with certain levels of staff. It is never the same. Also, HR never says “no” when people bring work to them that should be in another department.
  • We’re overhead — Again, that’s a fact but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The company has overhead everywhere. HR needs to show how it contains overhead through keeping liability in check. It’s a strong way to show how HR contributes to the bottom line.
  • We’re all about rules and enforcement — It’s ironic that a company wants to set up rules, policies, and procedures and asks HR to generate the majority of those. The company then asks for HR to make sure the rules are being followed, and we get dinged for it. It’s a Catch 22 situation. How we approach the rules is the key!
  • We stay in our “hole” — This symptom is a tell-tale description of most HR functions. People are expected to go TO HR and not the other way around. When HR chooses to be chained to its desk, this will be the perception others will have even if an HR function is positive.

2. How can HR be positive as a function?

The reason this section comes first is that HR can’t “wish” itself to be positive, or seen that way in organizations unless its willing to become positive as a function first. Too often HR projects the behavior it wants to see in others, but this has to start at home.

  • Be confident — For some reason, HR is passive. Others see us as a group that wants peace and stability the most. We can be straightforward, decisive and direct in our roles and still be pleasant. The difference is that we need to own what we contribute in organizations.
  • Communicate the “why” of things — Context is not a dirty word. So many HR issues could be avoided before they blossom if people would just give context. Telling people why things are happening or why decisions have been made is needed. HR needs to  lead the charge on this and show others the value of context in our work.
  • Focus on the 90 percent instead — Today HR focuses on the 10 percent of folks who are trolls. It takes a giant shift in how the majority of HR is practiced today. The 90 percent are ignored because they’re performing and/or excelling. Often the turnover that occurs in a company comes from the good employees (90 percent) who leave. They need our focus now and always.
  • Deal with the “trolls” — Don’t ignore the 10 percent, but instead of dragging things on and on and on and on, deal with difficult employees directly. This is where context is rarely given because we rely on a discipline system. The system is really only the action you are choosing. Give folks some time and then explain, directly, what will happen if things don’t change and then follow-up. Don’t make idle threats. Be clear and consistent.
  • Develop great relationships across the company — If the only reason a person knows you as an HR person is to work on an issue, you don’t have a relationship. You need to really get to know people intentionally. The more you know them as people and in what they do for your company the better. Get to see how they contribute and take interest in it. Doing this will help you “learn” the business more than some org chart.
  • Be “human” yourself — Drop the “putting the ‘H’ back in HR” mantra. People respond to folks regardless of their role if they are genuine and authentic. You need to stop “playing work” and start being yourself. You’ll feel so much better about what you do if you drop the mask.
  • Enjoy HR! — This isn’t meant to be cliché. If you don’t like HR, you can’t be positive about it. It’s an extremely passionate field and it can be amazing if you choose to see it in that light first. The key is to surround yourself with others who also enjoy HR and make them your tribe so that you can all be positive together!

3. How can you sustain positive HR in an organization?

  • Little things matter — You need to make sure that you take care of the little things for others consistently. If it’s important to them, treat it that way. You need to take care of the “big things” as well, but that’s more of a given. If you can knock out the little things for people on a regular basis, you’ll build a bank account and a relationship with them. You can show them by your actions that HR is positive.
  • Lead intentionally — Sideline HR has never worked and it never will. Don’t wait on senior management to come to you. Go to them on purpose. Be in front of them to let them know that HR is present, willing and able. Get “caught” by them instead of them having to search for you.
  • Be an ambassador of the company — The days of being an HR person first are gone. You ARE a businessperson who represents your company and the company’s brand. When others outside of your company meet you they should identify you with the company brand and not just that you practice HR.
  • Teach people how to succeed — This is a complete turnaround for most of us. We typically spend our time in making sure people are kept in line or they fit a report of some sort. If you changed your efforts and taught people to succeed in their roles at all levels of the company, others would have to see the positive impact HR has.
  • Lead with transparency — Quit hiding behind the shield of HR. Most other departments don’t know what we do or who we are. Pull the curtain back and show folks who you are first and how you intend to practice HR. There’s no reason for HR to be seen as mystical. Be transparent.
  • Be flexibly consistent — Another way to look at this is to “swim in the gray.” Black and white situations rarely exist as concrete absolutes. HR needs to be the most agile, flexible and adaptable function in a company. If you take this approach, you will no longer lag what is going on because you’ll be in the midst of the activity.
  • Provide solutions — A great way to look at this is quit saying “no” just to say no. Say “no because” (all credit to Heather Kinzie for this one) When you tell someone no, it’s fine. However, back to the context factor, you need to give people reasons for your decision. The second part of this is to come up with a solution as well instead of staying on “no because.” Work with others to be a part of the solution.
  • Refuse to react — Now, before your freak out, this doesn’t mean to neglect things. What HR can do is to stop being the department that waits to react and move ahead of the curve so that you are leading the efforts of HR first. When you practice HR as a trauma unit, then you’ll always be in the mix of awful situations. Stepping in front of how people interact and treat each other allows you to work proactively. The reactionary situations will still come up, but they will no longer be the norm.

The Cincinnati Roundtable closed with Steve announcing the creation of a Linked In group called HRPositive along with his friend Paul Hebert. If you go out to Linked In and ask to join, you can get regular doses of positive HR that are happening all over the world. You should check it out and become part of the group!

It’s time for HR to be the positive force it was meant to be. I hope you take the time to look at the notes and keep them. Pull them out when you need a reminder and move forward.

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