Why Is Human Resources So Confusing?

I recently had the opportunity to interview a Senior HR Leader in Silicon Valley to ask her a few of the tough questions about HR, the group we love to hate, and about her journey in that field. She has been a valued HR Leader in several technology companies and has had some unique experiences that have given her wisdom about the function.

I was looking to probe a little deeper into what Human Resources is, what it can be and how a seasoned leader has managed to do the right thing sometimes against some pretty engrained forces.

Question: How long have you been an HR Leader and what attracted you to that position?

Answer: Well, actually I had never planned on being in HR. I originally had a career in Corporate Treasury and Finance. However I couldn’t resist the offer to be one of the founding members of a start-up company…and guess what they needed? An HR leader! They needed someone, as they said, to handle the “personnel” side and they, like me, were not even sure what HR did! I liked the idea of doing something different and was told “you are a natural”! So I have been doing it now since 1990.

Question:What do you think it was that made you a natural for the HR role?

Answer: Interestingly, I was described as easy to talk to, level headed, a good problem solver and curious. My experience in Treasury gave be a good grounding in dealing with high stakes decision making where the risks are very high and maintaining perspective and a kind of rational approach is key. I was perceived to be unflappable and calm, though little did they know how I was feeling inside! I was “it” for the HR role and had to begin everything from scratch. I called friends in HR and just did my best to figure it out.  In those days companies used “temp agencies” a lot.  Fortunately, we partnered early on with an agency that was very well networked in the Silicon Valley so I learned a lot from them as well as from my network of friends and colleagues around the valley.

Question: What would you say was most challenging about starting the HR role from scratch?

Answer: The parent company of this start-up was located in the southeastern part of the U.S. and they had no notion of California Labor laws or in some cases Federal employment regulations. For example, they wondered why we couldn’t pay our people what they are paid in the south. At that time California’s minimum wage was twice what it was where HQ was located and the average salaries were at least 2 ½ to 3 times what they were in the southeast for engineers and professionals.
How do you answer that? Fortunately, the GM and I were well aligned and I let him know that if we weren’t going to operate legally, we should not have operations in California or at a minimum they needed to have someone else in the “personnel” job.
I also had responsibility for facilities health and safety including all of the OSHA records.  I had to take a crash course in industrial toxicology and get up to speed on Bay Area Air Quality requirements, water permits, training on the proper use of the manufacturing robots and chemicals – all of it.  I had to prepare an engineering presentation for a Bay Area Air District appearance – not something anyone in HR I know has ever done.
In the end the group was sold to a much larger competitor still in business today.  I was part of the transition team who worked on that but I chose not to stay with the acquiring party though I had learned so much.  Those are lessons I often reflect on to this day.

Question: What else did you learn and become involved with as a result of the sale of the company?

Answer: I learned a lot about the importance of cultural alignment from the perspective of the acquiring entity.  It’s so important that the acquiring team get a sense of how the new group has been operating with respect to how promotions are handled or how new hires are on boarded and what the value system has been from the top to the bottom of the organizations.
The interesting thing is when I look back, here I was starting a new career from scratch in a company pretty clueless about HR, where we went from 15 employees to 1,000 before we sold the company 4 years later, and I was working until 10 or 11 at night as a newlywed! I hadn’t been to lunch in 2 years! Whew!

Question: Human Resources has the potential to add tremendous value to any organization, yet it doesn’t always fulfill that potential. What do you find are the biggest mistakes HR Leaders make that undermine their value to the organization?

Answer: At this point in my career I’ve been in senior HR leadership roles in 5 companies ranging in sizes of 3,000 to 60,000 employees. Every single one of those companies had a very different HR support model, philosophy and relationship with the business leaders and employees in general.  Where I’ve been part of a high impact and highly respected HR organization is where the HR model and philosophy are directly aligned with the real organization culture and values.    If one of those values is that we treat each other with respect and work collaboratively with each other – then the HR organization reflects that in the way they are designed as a function and how they work.
Another example might be an organization that places high value on Innovation.  HR organizations aligned with that will put a lot of emphasis on designing programs and practices in partnership with the people who work in the business and who will ultimately use and benefit from these programs.  The really great companies seem to have a clear vision of who the HR organization is, what it stands for, and the value it brings.
Additionally, I think HR Leaders often do not ask enough questions or the right questions. Some HR Leaders act on what they have heard or read about what other companies are doing rather than going to the people working in and managing the business to discover what’s really going on, what’s not working and what the real needs are. Other mistakes I think HR can make are not setting expectations such as SLA’s clearly and not getting in on the front end of business planning. For example, HR needs to ask the business about their needs today and tomorrow, and to co-plan with the business.

HR also sometimes makes the mistake of being silo-ed within. The Comp analyst knows not what the Benefits person or HRBP does. That is sub-optimizing the function because each area needs to align and support the other areas.

The last mistakes I will mention, that I have seen HR Leaders and HR groups make, are these:

  • Questioning one’s own perspectives and observations, making them subordinate to what the organization claims to be true. (The “I must be crazy” model)
  • Adopting a “hero mentality” of going from one emergency, one urgent activity  to another without looking at the broader picture or more importantly, without connecting with other parts of the business who may be experiencing similar challenges.
  • Making HR about slide decks and presentations that attempt to justify or prove their work, rather than truly partnering with the business and achieving real results.

Question: For those individuals who are attracted to Human Resources as a profession, what are the risks and opportunities they should be aware of in choosing HR as a career?

Answer: Some of the risks include over-the-top idealism and a belief that you are only there “to help the employee”, lack of knowledge of minimum employee rights, and an unwillingness to stand up for what you believe in even if it isn’t popular.
There are many opportunities as well of course. The profession of HR is varietal, so there are many roles you can play. You can put processes in place that will truly enable the success of the organization and you have your hand on the pulse of the organization if you are listening which is very powerful in terms of being able to solve tough problems.

Question: Leaders too often are not sure how to utilize what HR offers to them. What should leaders know about partnering with HR to enable their success and the success of the organization?

Answer: As I mentioned earlier, HR Leaders need to make it a priority to educate and model what HR can and should be. They need to be able to draw a direct line to the work of HR and the business goals in as a direct result of input from people in the business.
Additionally, business leaders need to understand that they need to pay for the services they want and need. To be an HR leader in an organization that puts zero budget toward learning and development programs, policies and procedures, and yet complains about HR’s capability, is in a very tough place.

Question: What myths are common about HR? Why do these myths continue to be seen as reality?

Answer: That’s a great question! OK, here are some of the myths I can have seen and continue to see:
  • HR is there to HELP people. Anything else they do is not in their job description.
  • The role of HR in one company is the same as the role of HR in another company.
  • HR is responsible for paycheck errors! J
  • HR can fix any issue and quickly.
  • People naturally know what you do in HR.
  • HR is the place to call for ANY question…and, by the way, your worth as an HR professional is being able to answer the same questions over and over.

I am not sure why some of these persist, but perhaps because we as HR leaders sometimes believe them ourselves?

Question: What three characteristics do you believe excellent HR Leaders must have?

Answer: If it has to be three only then I would say the following are most important:
  1. Courage
  2. Credibility
  3. Trust in the organization and its employees

Perhaps I would add, be able to do what is right and important and that which enables the success of the business….and of course…do no harm.