Let’s Make HR Human Again

Sometimes it’s easy to forget about the humans.

I never studied HR formally.

Although I majored in education and I’ve always considered myself as someone who dabbles in different professional fields, I have come to realize that for the past 7 years my work has naturally developed towards more and more of an HR role, especially now that I am working as Chief Learning Officer (CLO) at Pershing Technology Services Corporation (PTSC) in Taipei, Taiwan. When I think about my current position, as well as when I look back on my most recent job role at The Hutong, it’s clear that my areas of personal and professional growth are mostly related to HR, management, and fostering healthy company culture.

Working in unison with HR at The Hutong was something that just happened organically because I worked in an organization that gave each individual ample amount of professional flexibility and personal autonomy to develop his or her own professional pathways. Also, there was no formal HR department, and talent acquisition was something that I have always prided myself on being quite passionate and drawn towards, whether it is with a job, an improv group, or connecting people and organizations together. Getting someone to join any group that I was excited about was something that excited me.

Leading a workshop focusing on the importance of 1–1 meetings between managers and direct reports. Fostering an office environment based on trust and honest feedback takes time but is extremely important for any organization.

From my own HR experience, talent acquisition and retention of employees were the two primary functions of HR. It’s also invigorating to be part of a process of building a company or group structure and knowing that the process itself is as important as the outcome, since outcomes constantly shift as areas of key results move forward. As the optimist, writer, and inspirational coach Simon Sinek puts it, leaders need to have “infinite mindsets” if they want their organizations to be resilient, healthy workplaces that their employees are proud to call home.

Organizations want consistency and stability, but they also need to be able to adapt, reinvent, and revisit their own systems and structures. This ability to evolve has never been more true than it is today as the goal posts constantly shift in the ever-changing reality and virtual spaces we currently inhabit where digital transformation is an unavoidable step forward. — Simon Sinek

Being part of this organizational structure-building process and helping to attract new talent to places where that talent is needed is what made me fall in love with HR.

In a conversation I had with another manager, he mentioned that many people have a negative view of HR and often see this part of a company as the department that “nickels and dimes” employees out of their salaries. This conversation struck me and gave me pause for thought. It never occurred to me that people would have a bad impression or negative stereotype of HR; and yet, this negative misperception of HR is not uncommon.

Does this situation feel familiar to anyone? Hopefully not.

According to former Fortune 500 HR SVP, Liz Ryan, “most people hate HR. They fear HR people….In many organizations the role of HR is to keep the company out of court. The role of HR is to keep the company from getting sued — by its own employees!” Reading these sentiments from someone who has been a leader in the industry for years was a splash of ice water in my face, and these cynical fears are mirrored amongst other HR managers and students of HR as well.

Founder and CEO of The Human Workplace, Liz Ryan addresses the roles we play at work as she talks about HR from an experienced and straightforward perspective.

HR Director of The Hutong, Marissa Kennedy, notes that many people may have the misconception that “we are all about payments and paying people less and looking at everyone with a critical eye. I think people have this misconception because of MOVIES and books and works of fiction.” The portrayal of HR as some sort of faceless, inhuman, and often “evil” presence who lords over the company from a separate office with Venetian blinds, hushed conversations, smoking gigantic cartoonish cigars, all the while pushing the underdog employee’s face in his dirty laundry is a prevalent theme in Hollywood. There are numerous examples out there with excellent dramatic performances, whether it is the sympathetic but useless boss who is the blunt of water cooler masculinity contests in The Art of Self Defense, George Clooney as the smooth yet heartless corporate down-sizer in Up in the Air, or Alec Baldwin’s hard-as-nails character in Glengary Glenn Ross who pits colleagues against one another in a bid to see who will be the top salesmen and who will be out on the street sweating out a hustle with a three-week old suit that hasn’t been washed in two weeks.

Incredible dramatic performance, check. HR competency performance, no.

It’s very easy to portray HR as the “bad guys” in the company…the ones who care just about numbers, or only have conversations with employees when there are problems. This does not have to be the case, however. Although there are loads of books devoted to HR and management practices, it’s important for people in HR to know that they can do HR in a way that works for them, the positive company culture they are trying to foster, and the people who make up the company. There are some straight-forward, but not necessarily easy steps HR departments can take to transform HR from ruling by fear towards partnering with compassion and understanding, hand-in-hand with the employees they are working for.

1.Proactively Create and Nurture Feedback Channels

One of the first mistakes that “traditional” management make is believing that people within a company will naturally feel comfortable enough to give and receive feedback on a consistent basis. 360 reviews at the end of the year, or even at the end of each half are NOT enough. Most likely if managers are having 360 reviews as a feedback channel, it’s probably the ONLY chance that employees have to give feedback, and in this case the employees are probably too scared to say what they are actually thinking.

“We have to continuously build trust between HR and other employees and let them know that we are all members in the company and we work together for the best of this organization.” — Emily Kao, HR Consultant at Corning Optical Communications

Unless there are a number of channels that are put in place in a structured way, feedback will not happen naturally, consistently, or honestly. It is not the job of HR to be the “sounding board” for the entire company where the HR department is responsible for being the kind ear whenever someone needs to complain to someone, or people need to get something off of their chests. HR can surely be involved in this process, but in order to have a sustainable and healthy work place there needs to be various channels that exist within the structure of the company in order for all the employees to feel comfortable enough to give and receive feedback. Each and every employee is an individual, and each individual expresses him or herself differently. Some feel more comfortable in writing, others feel more comfortable in one on one meetings, while there are some who like to give feedback in a group setting. See if your HR department can find ways to encourage feedback using one or more of these methods. Once again, the ideal company culture would be one in which feedback is happening continuously within departments and amongst managers and staff, but sometimes HR has to light the fuse.

Although creating a culture of feedback is ultimately the responsibility of management within the company, it’s important that HR continuously promotes efforts to develop this type of culture, making sure that leadership is listening and not just giving lip service.

To cite a specific tool that helps facilitate consistent online feedback, the previous company where I worked used an online platform called Tiny Pulse that sent out one question per week (it could also be customized manually), as well as providing opportunities for suggestions to work towards. There was a “Wall of Wins” that showed how management and the entire company were providing solutions to the suggestions made by individuals. There was also a section where employees could compliment one another based on individuals demonstrating the company’s core values in action. From this online platform, the company received real-time data about how happy people were at work, and this data was addressed and presented to the whole organization every half year. While the company only averaged about a 35% participation rate for this online feedback forum, at least the channel was there, and people felt like they had a stake in contributing ideas that were put into action by management.

Regardless of whether companies are using an online platform to get feedback, collecting data within their own internal operating systems, or doing it face to face, continuous feedback loops are an essential part of every organization that HR needs to push for consistently.

In this day and age where digital transformation tools are easier to reach than a diaper on a baby’s bottom, the options for feedback applications and platforms are numerous. Feedback needs to be happening both digitally and in person, maintaining a healthy conversation across departments within the company and providing an overall positive working environment that helps keep HR productive based on real-time employee suggestions.

2. Have a Growth Mindset

Companies need to have a growth-mindset in order for employees to feel they can succeed.

“Why do we have to do things this way?”

“Because this is the way we’ve always done it.”

After reading the above question and answer coupling, give a good hard think over your professional career. More likely than not, this is an expression, or this is a way of thinking that almost all of us have encountered at some point or another. It’s the same as a parent saying to a child, “Do it because I said so.”

The age old adage says that the only thing constant in this universe is change. If this is the case, then why should HR processes remain unchanged and set in stone for all eternity once they are put into practice? It’s true that we want to keep good practices and build upon these, and it’s true that we want to set up standard operating procedures that are sustainable for future employees. SOPs help streamline our processes within an organization, but we never want to think about setting anything in a fixed place.

A growth mindset teaches us that everything is part of a process and that there is always room for development. Mistakes and challenges are opportunities for learning.

We want to make sure that there is always the opportunity to revisit our processes, our SOPs, even our core values. Anyone working in HR needs to make sure that they are encouraging a growth-mindset within the company, rather than a fixed-mindset. Having a growth-mindset will encourage employees to seek new opportunities for learning and personal development, and these employees will not see mistakes as “failures” but rather as opportunities to learn and improve. By living and encouraging a growth-mindset, HR will inevitably be improving the rate of staff retention in the long run. Employees will not be working in an environment of fear where there is little to no room for professional development; rather, they will be working in a culture where they know they can take risks and they will feel more empowered as individuals.

Carol Dweck is the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and one of the world’s leading researchers on motivation and mindsets. Dr. Dweck coined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence.

3. Remember the Person

This one sounds simple, but we have to always remember that the first word in HR is “human.” It’s very easy to forget about this fact when we get into HR and we’re drowning in the (very valuable) world of SOPs. We might feel like we need to keep our distance from employees in order to be able to see the company in a light of fairness and equity. However, it’s important to remember that each and every person within the company is an individual who has his or her own opinions about professional development and career pathways. Sometimes it’s challenging not to get bogged down in the bureaucracy of labour laws, salaries, and dealing with new company SOPs, but we have to remember why we entered this industry in the first place — to connect with people.

Coco Wang, who works with 遠東新世紀 Far Eastern New Century as their Employee Relations Administrator says, “For me, HR is a job which needs to “communicate with people frequently”, and this is my strength. Also, there is no specific major that relates to HR absolutely. I think personal traits are more important than one’s major regarding being an HR professional because we can gain knowledge with time and experience.”

As an HR professional we need to be able to take time with individuals within a company and help work with managers (who are also individuals) regarding the best way the company can help grow appropriate career pathways for each and every person in the company. This will most surely mean taking time to have 1–1 meetings, lunches, or just casual chats with employees. HR professionals need to be interested in people, in the humans within the company. Without the humans, the “resources” do not exist.

4. Make it a Team Effort

It’s simply not realistic that an HR team of 1–5 members in a company of 100 or more people can fully control or be the human resource for the entire company, and yet many companies of this size only have one or two full time HR staff. This is why when companies start to go about talent or recruitment drives, they have no choice but to turn to the nearest online job-seeking platform in order to find talent. However, in a company with strong values and a healthy company culture, the need to recruit can be a responsibility that is shared across all personnel.

Talent acquisition is much different from recruiting, and it’s important that HR departments are able to make this distinction and know where they stand from their company’s HR perspective. Recruitment involves having a mindset to fill an empty role and hire people. Talent acquisition, on the other hand, is a much more sustainable and long-lasting vision of how to encourage employees to learn, grow, and stay with the company. This is the type of mindset that a healthy and successful company will have.

Cultivating a healthy and attractive company culture is the best friend of any HR professional when they are recruiting great talent.

Additionally, if talent acquisition is simply left up to those with HR in their job titles, it will be very difficult not to slip into the pressure-cooker cycle of recruitment. In a healthy company culture, everyone within the company is actively on the lookout for good talent, helping HR scout perspective candidates. In these types of companies, the culture and brand attracts talent, taking the stress off HR so that they can focus on higher leverage HR responsibilities. In a company with a positive and healthy company culture, everyone wants to have A-players join the team, and employees are excited about the company and excited for the chance to “spread the gospel” amongst their respective networks of potential talent. If this type of positive spirit about a company spreads within the organization, non-HR staff will organically become involved in the HR talent acquisition process — everyone will be on the lookout for talent. If you loved your company and its culture, why wouldn’t you be actively flying the talent acquisition flag as you try to get others to work side-by-side with you?

HR never wants to be in a situation where there are a lack of candidates wanting to join the company. On the contrary, the feeling we want is to have people knocking on the door to get in, whether a specific position exists or not. If we have enough A-players applying, we’ll make room for them to join the company as well.

5. Challenge yourself to try different Communication Styles

Although this one is last on the list, it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s the least important. As mentioned above, each organization is made of individuals, and every single one of these individuals has his or her own unique communication style. Some people like to tell you what they are thinking directly in one on one communication, others prefer composing lengthy e-mails, still others prefer to read the room and then say what they are thinking in a round-about way after the meeting has wrapped up.

Be that person in your company who really observes and listens to the way that your colleagues communicate with one another.

Just one of the many personality based tests available for HR professionals to utilize, the Clifton Strengths Finder Assessment helps members in an organization to have a firmer grasp over their individual strengths. HR professionals can help colleagues recognize their own strengths, as well as how these strengths can be used to effectively work with and communicate with other colleagues.

There are multiple personality tests out there that are available to HR professionals — Myers Briggs, DISC Assessment, Gallup StrengthsFinder, etc. It’s important for HR professionals to find the tools and the assessments out there that are most useful for their team as they learn about one another in a continuous effort to improve interpersonal communication. HR professionals need to be the ones who are the trailblazers on the team in putting these assessments into action. All of these assessment tools are just that — tools. The action comes in when we examine the results and make adjustments and observations in how we communicate and co-work with one another within our organizations.

A World of Discovery

These deep dives into communication styles and taking care to nurture personalities on a team are all part of the adventure of what can make the world of HR a world of discovery and growth. The journey is challenging, filled with twists and turns, but as long as we keep in mind to have a growth mindset along the way we can appreciate that our own growth within our chosen company also echoes the growth of the organization, one step at a time. HR is not easy, but that’s not why we chose this path.

American residing in Asia since 2004. Blogs focusing on life observations, improv, food, creating a learning organisation, management, and stretching time.