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Jul 1, 2020
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

“I don’t see color.”

I had to gag. Here we were, just a few HR professionals discussing racism and conscious bias, and a veteran HR professional had to blurt out those four terrible words in response to how to create a more equitable and inclusive workplace. 

What a cop-out. It’s very similar to “say it when I’m out of earshot” or “yes, but I didn’t tell you that” or other sayings that some unscrupulous HR professionals convey to peers and employees as a means to look past, if not implicitly legitimize, bad practices.

Such behavior has contributed to a lot of stereotypes surrounding the profession. It’s why so many people think that HR is just a lackey of the organization’s leaders and that HR professionals only deal with compliance. Heck, there’s a reason why the most well-attended sessions at HR conferences and networking events are often the employment law session. Not saying that’s a bad thing, but it’s…compliance. And good HR is more than just compliance.

Likewise, a good number of HR workers may feel content with 9-5 jobs that are relatively comfortable, stable, and easy (especially if you play decent office politics).

Until now. 

The Reckoning

When President Trump was elected in 2016, a slow reckoning in the HR world began. That reckoning finally reared its head this year, more specifically in the past few weeks following the murder of George Floyd. While political, cultural, and activism-oriented discussions had been percolating since the election, Floyd’s murder has finally elevated them to centerstage. 

We’ve seen bad HR leaders like Barbara Fedida of ABC News and the HR department at food magazine Bon Appetit outed for their past responses regarding their treatment of Black and Brown employees. SHRM, too, has come under fire for botching its response to the murder, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ongoing protests (not to mention President Johnny C. Taylor’s alleged coziness with the Trump administration). 

Not all HR leaders have tried to sweep this under the rug. Many others, some of whom are highly involved on social media, have emerged as activists both online and in their own organizations. Though there are some senior-level HR professionals who are doing this, my impression is that most skew younger and are of a minority race or other protected class. They are fierce about their political beliefs and are not shy about going all Teresa Guidice on their organizations, flipping tables in every department to ensure an equitable workplace. 

Welcome to the new, culturally competent HR professional. If that doesn’t describe you, then you better shape up. Otherwise, this new crop of leaders will run you out of town.

The New HR Leader

What exactly do culturally competent HR people look like?

They Know How to Culturally Communicate 

The new HR professionals know that every single piece of communication matters. Every. Single. Piece. More importantly, they understand cultural nuances of communication. Not only do they recognize that employees in Saudi Arabia might communicate differently than those in France, China, or Kenya, but they understand that even workers in the same city on the same production line might communicate differently than individuals in corporate roles.

They are also aware of communication differences between high-context versus low-context cultures, as well as the need to send out messages in various forms for all to understand. 

They’re Culture Fiends

Part of being culturally competent is embracing what every person brings to the organization. Culture add, not culture fit. The culturally competent HR person asks, “How might an employee add to our set of values, and how can we customize this person’s experience at the company?” It’s about helping employees maximize their time at the company. 

Culture fiends are always looking for ways to embrace differences, from having an intermediate level of understanding of employee resource groups to promoting holidays not often celebrated in business (Juneteenth anyone?). For them, each person’s culture is something to celebrate, and new-age HR pros know that by doing so, they are encouraging their employees to bring their whole selves to work.

They Are Employee Advocates

HR literally stands for human resources. And HR leaders are themselves resources for humans. Therefore, employees should be your priority before everything else. 

(The sound I just heard was every C-Suite exec shutting the door on me.)

Culturally competent HR leaders know that employees are the backbone of the company. However, there are many instances of the C-suite and upper management being so far removed — physically, emotionally, and financially — from day-to-day employee life that some of the policies they create don’t even make sense. But modern HR professionals have a deep understanding of equity and know that for employees to succeed, there have to be equitable processes and policies.

In short, culturally competent HR people aren’t just order-takers. They’re challengers.

They’re Self-Aware

This one is big and broad. Many traditional HR people deal in black and white and don’t understand the nuances associated with working in the gray. Moreover, some don’t understand, or fail to see bias. (I’m not even talking about the ones who intentionally ignore or even practice it.)

Culturally competent HR pros are different. They are constantly working to figure out both their conscious and unconscious biases, both in how they communicate and how they think. They also know that life begins outside of the SHRM Body of Knowledge, meaning that they know HR is ever-changing, and there isn’t just one place to find ways to grow as a leader. Today, it’s important to learn about the lived experiences of fellow employees. And sure enough, the best HR practitioners are self-aware enough to understand that their Black colleagues might be having a more difficult time than other workers right now. Consequently, they are working actively to ensure that these colleagues have needed resources and feel supported. 

Better yet, they’re self-aware enough to understand that their organization might have a problem, even if they as individuals do not. Or rather, that their company’s problem is their problem.

They Take a Stance

Companies and CEOs have always privately taken sides. Don’t believe me? Just go down a PAC donation rabbit hole. The difference now is that they are taking public stands, as are their employees. No longer is HR the Switzerland of world issues. Culturally competent HR people are keenly aware of what is going on in the world, and they take stands…on Pride, Black Lives Matter, defunding the police, war, and other issues because they know their fellow employees are passionate about such matters. HR practitioners who plead neutrality on world issues only cause employees to be leery of them.

Now granted, I hear plenty of HR people who feign ignorance on these issues. I hear statements like, “we value all lives at our organization” or “we don’t want to offend anyone by putting rainbows in our offices.” But employees are smart enough to see through that. They’ll find ways to get receipts and put you to task. 

It’s Not Just DEI, It’s Anti-Racism

The culturally competent HR person knows that moving an organization forward is more than just diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) — it’s being actively anti-racist. Less “we need diversity and inclusion” and more “what can we actively do to break down potentially racist barriers in our organization?”

Being anti-racist combines the self-awareness of privilege with the commitment to building equitable systems with the no-neutrality stance on calling out institutional and day-to-day racism. It’s about not only eschewing anti-racist beliefs in the organization but also acting swiftly when race-based issues arise.

Such HR professionals are also constant questioners, almost to the point of annoyance. But for good reason. They know that if you aren’t practicing anti-racism, you will never get true DEI. 

Ultimately, this is just a small list of the ways that the new HR professional is taking over the industry and moving HR in a more positive direction. Those who aren’t part of this movement risk irrelevance. 

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