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Jul 13, 2017

Over the July 4th holiday weekend while many Americans were thinking about BBQ and fireworks, Silicon Valley’s tech scene was experiencing pyrotechnics of a different sort. The industry that strives to disrupt is in the midst of being disrupted due to high-profile revelations regarding widespread mistreatment of women. As a result, several titans of tech, including Uber’s founder and now former CEO Travis Kalanick and several high profile venture capital leaders, are finding themselves without a job.

And it’s not just the tech sector under increasing scrutiny for its treatment of women; over the July 4th weekend Fox Sports fired an executive for sexual harassment, Fox’s third high-profile departure for similar reasons in only a year.

Suddenly, business executives are interested in HR. Suddenly, there’s a realization that HR is more than just a payroll and recruiting function. Suddenly, there’s a realization that healthy HR best practices are a business necessity – for employees, for executives, and even for the companies themselves. Suddenly, LinkedIn and tech news sites are flooded with super VCs, entrepreneurs, and others all weighing in with their recommendations for how to fix the problem.

Notably absent from these HR-related conversations: HR leaders.

This is HR’s moment

People leaders, I have a message for you: This is your moment. After years of administrative exile, you can finally get what you’ve long craved: attention and respect.

Of course, HR typically receives attention when things go wrong, and these days far too much is going wrong, and far too many people are getting hurt. Here’s my advice to utilize this moment for maximum positive impact for your company, employees and other key stakeholders:

Use the news as an opportunity to step into your role

HR leaders have long talked about wanting a seat at the table when the business decisions that matter are made. Step into your role, lead the discussion, and take your seat.

How can you do this? Follow the news, and forward articles to your business leaders, adding comments about how your company is protecting itself. Use the news as an opportunity to make sure your 1:1 meetings with the CEO don’t get cancelled. If they do, use the news as an opportunity to insist that the meetings happen with some frequency. Beyond showcasing worst case scenarios, however, make sure you’re thinking through your own firm’s vulnerabilities and are proactively presenting thoughtful recommendations to your company’s leaders on how to protect the firm.

Now is the time to really bring your A-game. You have the executives’ attention; use this opportunity to impress the heck out of them.

Proactively shape culture before it needs to be fixed

I recommend reminding CEOs that it’s easier to modify a mediocre culture than to fix a broken one. Many CEOs think that culture is defined by perks such as free food or allowing employees to bring their dogs to work. Many also think that culture is purely an HR issue and not one they need to drive in partnership with People leaders. Not true. As Culture Labx describes, corporate culture involves the organization’s:

  • Purpose (why you do what you do)
  • Values (beliefs about what’s important)
  • Behaviors (collective set of what people say and do)
  • Rituals (traditions that establish a sense of community)
  • Cues (reminders that keep people in touch with their purpose).

Work with senior executives to agree on the company’s culture-related aspirations, champion the culture from the top, and provide you with resources needed to implement. Of course, this is easier said than done, but you’ll rarely have executives’ attention like you do right now.

Hold people accountable

Whether it’s properly investigating a claim or quantifying the diversity in your organization, the organization will change when you measure progress and hold people accountable. Do an honest accounting of how issues have been handled in the past and discuss how they could be handled better in the future. Review your vulnerabilities. Benchmark your hiring, promotion, and compensation policies, your employee disputes and whistleblowing practices and protections, as well as your diversity statistics vs. competitors and also vs. industry best practices. Review potential negative scenarios and work through how they should be handled. Then set clear goals and measures of success to make sure each party plays his or her role properly when and if the time comes.

While HR has rarely been more in the limelight, the potential consequences have rarely been greater. The threats of litigation and negative press loom large. In addition, companies must attract and retain strong talent in a competitive marketplace in which bad news travels quickly and one former employee can make a huge impact – negative or positive.

Today, positive HR practices are essential for any company’s survival, be it a multi-billion dollar megalith like Uber or Fox or a tiny startup like Thinx. For a change, HR will be allowed in the room where decisions are made. Use this opportunity to not only request a seat at the table, but also to insist your voice is heard.