Whoever came up with the name “Human Resources” deserves a medal. Such a descriptive, helpful, and seemingly useful name. Why yes, I’m human and I sure could use some resources. Purely viewed by the name, Humans Resources or HR seems like such a great idea. These are the people who are responsible for looking after your people whether it’s their health, compensation, or career.
So, why do we freak out when HR is in the building? What’s with the hush whispers when you see your boss huddled with HR in her office? Layoffs? Reorg? Has anyone seen Ryan today? HR’s presence typically makes folks paranoid. I’ll repeat that: the folks whose job it is to be resources for humans collectively gives us the shakes. What happened?
It’s not HR; it’s your culture.
Disclaimer: I’ve never worked in HR, and all of my observations regarding HR have been made without what I assume is the daily toil of having a gig where the expectations are so high, but corporate support is traditionally low. However, both as manager and as a former employee of an HR-focused start-up, I know a bit.
Simplification: There are all sorts of different jobs inside of HR and depending on the size of your company, your HR team may have one or all of them. Benefits, recruiting, compensation, training, it’s a long list. For the purpose of this article, let’s consider HR to be the folks who are responsible for helping a team thrive. They have many other jobs, but that’s the one I’m thinking about in this piece.
HR is a tough gig. They have constraints which often leads to unique behavior that affects their reputation. Two examples:
- Lack of clear measures. Just like managers, HR folks have fuzzy measures of success. You write code, you fix bugs, you make it 27.5% faster, and everyone can point at that work and say, “You did something of measurable value.” While engineering managers can ride the coattails of this work by completing meta-goals like “Ship on time” or “Deliver the features the customers needs,” HR often has fewer obvious concrete deliverables that directly affect the production and selling of the product.
As a support team and a cost center, HR traditionally does not receive a lot of investment. How many folks is your manager responsible for? Ok, how many is your HR partner responsible for? My guess is your HR person has 10x the number of people for whom they are responsible. This under-resourcing has interesting consequences.
First, because of their limited numbers, they logically gravitate towards informed decision makers because these humans are an early warning system regarding what is and isn’t going well. This network helps keep them informed as to the state of the company.
Second, because of their allegedly human-related skills, they are called in when there are people-related problems. This means you only see them when something is going down. These infrequent appearances when the sky is falling contributes to their grim reaper reputation.
Finally, when they do arrive because the sky is falling, they are informed because of the carefully built information gathering network, but when they start talking, they don’t sound like you. They, like every group at your company, have a language all their own, which when accompanied with the penchant for showing up when the shit is going down makes their language the language of trouble.
All of these attributes contribute to the problematic reputation of HR. Yet, in two decades of work I’ve discovered that when the team is freaked out by HR, it’s not HR, it’s the culture. Something is rotting.
Culture == Values
Your company has values regardless of whether you’ve painted them on the wall or produced an employee handbook. They exist as a result of the Old Guard employees working together, making decisions, and successfully building the company.
Values exist as stories. Back in our first building, Christine once stayed up all night working on a single performance bug that ended up revealing fundamental flaws in our architecture. The implied value? Persistence or perhaps craftsmanship.
Values exist as people. When I watch Brad run a meeting, I realize how poorly I run my own. The implied value? Everyone’s time is valuable, efficiency, or maybe constant improvement.
Values are principles or standards of behavior, and in a group of humans, they are first defined by the founding employees and then evolved over time by the leadership team. Painting them on the walls or writing them down in an employee handbook makes them accessible and obvious, but it is how these values are consistently applied especially during times of crisis that gives values value.
When I hear, “I don’t trust HR,” I ask, “Why?” The answers vary, “They are political. They are risk mitigators. They protect the company… not the employees.” There are humans in HR who exhibit this behavior. However, it is equally likely there are humans at every level of leadership who exhibit this behavior, and all are allowed to behave in this way because of the values of the company.
Has Anyone Seen Ryan Today?
The rule is: in the absence of information, humans will make up a story to fill the vacuum. When this happens, listen to the story because not only do they usually find the worst case scenario, it’s a situation that reflects the perception of your company’s values.
Where is Ryan? Well, he left early on Friday and was out all day on Monday. I think he’s checked out and you know what we do to checked out people here? HR fires them without warning.
No, HR doesn’t fire people without warning. No, Ryan is not checked out. He’s just sick, and his manager forgot to send a message to the team. The issue here is that the team believes HR has nefarious unchecked power and in my experience they rarely do. They are capable, overworked, emotionally intelligent humans who I call when I need help.
Yes, they swarm around disasters. Yes, they have access to a lot of information. You should hold them to them a high bar. More importantly, you should understand how in the world your team comes to hold seemingly irrational beliefs because their existence is not a sign of their character of your team, it is a sign your culture is rotting.