Take an HR colleague to lunch… I dare you.

I have taken many HR colleagues to lunch, including myself, over the years and always been pleasantly surprised by how much fun it is. The humour, ability to cut through the crap and see things for what they are, amusing anecdotes about crazy employees and the list goes on! But I was always conscious it was HR having lunch with HR…. and that got me wondering.

My wondering about the lack of lunch dates was further propelled recently when I was part of a discussion on Harvard Business Review about how HR can help with the gender pay gap. Whilst there was quite a bit of debate as to whether there is a gap at all and some suggestions on what HR can do, I was surprised by how disparaging some of the comments were about HR.

Now it is not uncommon to hear people complain about HR just as they would Finance or IT or Marketing. It’s what we do as employees and managers and a lot of it you can brush off. But the comments this particular individual made just left me flabbergasted and angry but then reflective and made me wonder why he (and some others) would feel that way and how much of it the HR function brought upon itself.

So, his comment was (and please note, I am writing it exactly as he did so the lack of punctuation is all his), “HR is the most useless counterproductive group in any company. they are only there because no one else will file stuff and do the paperwork the law requires for hiring and firing.” Some of you reading this may agree with that statement. I do not agree so immediately jumped to the defense of my profession, colleagues and friends and responded by suggesting he hadn’t hired the right HR people or made enough effort to understand the value HR brings and leveraged it in the right way. Bear in mind this commentator was supposedly a CEO (according to his profile) so my assumption was he had some control over how and what his HR team did.

Now I could continue to get my knickers in a bunch and tell everyone how great HR is and how unfair his statement was but I think it’s more helpful to review what HR can do to help themselves because it’s not the first time and won’t be the last time I have heard similar sentiment or felt the function is not being leveraged as well as it should be.

Regardless of how useful you think HR is, they have an integral part in any organisation, big or small and here are five ways HR can help others i.e. employees and managers by helping themselves first. These suggestions are based on my own experiences working in a team in a large MNC as well as being a neutral observer of other HR teams in my role as a Consultant.

  • Do the opposite: Deciding how you are going to mentally approach things can be the difference between success and failure. We become our own reality, so if we constantly think we don’t have enough time, then typically we won’t have enough time. We need to change the thinking and realise that at times you get greater benefits from doing the opposite of what common sense might suggest. HR has to deal with sensitive information and at times confidential issues so the default position of any HR person is to protect this information as if lives depended on it. Now, people don’t like secrets, especially if they’re not in on them, so naturally people become suspicious of HR because of all the ‘secrets’. I found doing the opposite from the default worked in a couple of different ways:
    1. Having regular, scheduled conversations with the managers, as a group and also individually where we discussed the sensitive issues and I would share as much as possible helped build trust over time and also made me more connected to what was going on.
    2. Managing the airwaves and pre-empting the gossip by telling trusted and experienced managers some of the more sensitive information, for them to disseminate to the wider teams. Gossip becomes rife because people don’t have enough information, so they make it up and often make mountains out of molehills. If HR can be proactive in sharing information through the right people, the airwaves can be quieter and with less suspicion.
  • Keep it Practical: People don’t like what they don’t understand (my friend on Harvard Business Review being a case in point) and quite often HR will do things people don’t understand, for example redundancies, not hiring internally and paying more for external talent, creating pointless policies and so a dislike starts to build. Explaining why something is happening and giving people a context can really help bridge this gap. It is not about justifying what we are doing but explaining it to the lay-person in a language and a context they understand:
    1. Whenever there is a change in policy or business direction, over communicate, never under-estimate how much communication is required for employees to feel informed. To the point where it becomes frustrating! However this is an essential step to helping people understand why things are happening.
    2. Critically think through what you are doing. Look at it from an employee’s perspective, go to the lowest common denominator and see what it looks like. Does it make sense? How can it be communicated so people will understand at all levels of the organization?
    3. Sense-check any decision with a trusted colleague or your partner, have them pull it apart and ask questions so you can be sure that when it’s communicated it is as practical and non-fluffy as possible.
    4. Provide data points, rationale and numbers if necessary to explain decisions and show the rigour that has gone into the process; link to wider corporate initiatives or organisation goals to remind the skeptics of the strategic role HR plays.
  • Keep it Simple: This is similar to keeping things practical and just means make it easy for someone to do. HR’s biggest challenge is influencing people positively. Yes, we can wield the big policy stick and turn into the Secret Police and force people to do things but this only encourages the dislike and lack of trust. It is much better to encourage people to do things for the right reasons and empower them to do them. But this requires time that not everyone has. I learnt early on that if I spent time with my managers helping them understand the rationale, giving them the tools to do it right and coaching them in different scenarios my life was made easier. Pain in the short-term maybe but complete gain in the long term for the manager and me:
    1. Think about what tasks you can do and what would help your managers, take away some of their pain (especially if you intend to add to their workload).
    2. Break things down into chunks, provide handouts, talking points FAQs, advice on dealing with difficult employees and regular face to face time for them to discuss and ask questions in advance of any action they need to take.
    3. Role-play a scenario with them, playing the role of the disgruntled employee so they have a chance to practice. This can also provide some light-relief for the manager.
  • Be Nice: This may sound fluffy and people may cringe but I often think we have forgotten the niceties of life: smiling at each other, saying “good morning”, thanking someone, congratulating them on a job well done, recommending them for an award or simply just buying them coffee / lunch. This is a good reminder for me as I was often so caught up in what was going on in my head and all the emails I had to deal with, I would not take the time to connect with people. I missed lots of opportunities to build strong relationships, especially in my earlier days in Singapore when I didn’t appreciate how important eating together and chatting was.
    1. Plan lunch with someone in your network (not from your function) and at times not from the same business.
    2. Be aware of when you are Mentally Slumping and change tack – do something different, do the opposite for a period of time and come back to it so you remain fresh and focused.
    3. Say ‘Good Morning’, even if you never get a response, smile at people in the corridor, even if you never get a response. Respect people and their emotions.
    4. Make working with you a nice experience; make your desk / office a place people want to come to for a chat. Have biscuits at the ready, some nice tea bags, interesting articles or magazines.
  • Finally, Support Each Other: This is linked to the point above about being nice and it is simply to support each other. Every function has its stresses and challenges and I think HR has more because of the nature of the work we do and that everyone has an opinion on it. So support your team mates and help each other navigate the maze:
    1. Make sure there is a chance for the team to talk through difficult conversations, troublesome employees or just frustrations. Maybe you need a swear jar to encourage people to really let go and also raise some money!
    2. Have a Fishbowl where you would each write rewards on a piece of paper (no matter how big or small) and place them in the bowl. When the team or a team member has had a success, take a piece of paper from the bowl and that is the reward. It could just be a motivational quote but it is something to recognize the hard work and effort of individuals.

In essence, HR may not be your favourite function in the organization and that’s OK. To quote Winston Churchill, “You have enemies? Good. That means you have stood up for something, sometime in your life”. And there are definitely things HR can do to help itself, to keep the road less rocky, things that will help others. But, invite us to lunch because you may be surprised and if nothing else, you may hear a witty anecdote about another “not to be named” employee that will make you feel more normal.