Don’t Drink the HR Haterade


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‘HR is there to protect the company, not the employee.’

The Internet

This refrain may have your HR/People Ops lead feeling pretty demoralized right now.

HR is woefully misunderstood as a discipline. It’s undervalued and often maligned. Even before recent stories featuring HR fails hit the news.

We so don’t love HR that we’ve rebranded it as People Operations. (See also, “fun police.”)

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: your company needs HR.

In early stage companies, the HR/People function is often managed by one single person, who juggles many balls. You ask them to be conversant in recruiting, employment law, people/performance management, diversity/inclusion, market research, payroll/benefits admin, vendor management, compensation. For starters.

Also, you ask them to be mediators, coaches, trainers, brand stewards, event planners and more. Your HR lead can only succeed when other people —  who don’t report to them — do things that they don’t really want to do. (Who loves performance reviews?)

So, your HR/People lead’s role is as complex as your role. It takes 10,000 hours to become a skilled people manager; it probably takes more develop into an HR expert.

I’ve worked with some HR masters. Some of them could have run the companies we worked for. (Shout out to retired HR exec Fran Snow! Her expertise, mentoring, and advice made me a better manager and leader.)

And yes, it’s their job to protect the company. One way to do this is by making sure that people are not breaking the law, or violating basic ethical values.

Harassment is breaking the law. Creating a persistently hostile environment is breaking the law. Assault is breaking the law. Yes, it’s all unethical, too.

The problem we’re seeing out there is not “HR.”

The solution is to value the role correctly. And the HR role is only what you enable it to be.

In growing companies, you may have a talented HR/People lead whom you’ve promoted from within. They may lack broad domain-specific experience and training; they may not have support from people with relevant experience and knowledge.

To develop and support someone with this profile:

  • Sponsor them for trainings and/or certifications
  • Connect them with external domain experts, like an employment attorney
  • And, oh yes: you need to make their authority clear in your organization.

You communicate their authority and their value by giving them seat at the executive table. Whether they report to you, or elsewhere:  they must have your ear.

When they bring you information you don’t like — and they will —  you must demonstrate that you’re listening, and willing to actively support actions required to resolve the issue.

Even if it means figuring out how to let go of someone you had thought was performing well.

If you’ve had hockey stick growth in headcount, the HR/People role may demand a more senior professional to further develop the function. And also to mentor, coach and develop your existing team.

After all, you probably wouldn’t recruit one of your talented community managers to be CFO. It’s not supportive to allow anyone to struggle and fail in a role that has outpaced their ability to grow along with it, through no fault of their own.

Yes, it’s tough. And, it’s sometimes how it needs to be.

Photo: adapted from Lemonade Stand Poster by Carissa Rogers, via Flickr, under CC2.0 license.

(This is a follow up to What You Disregard, You Accept: Red Flags for CEOs, which I wrote in June, 2017.  I’m also cross-posting this to Medium.)

Also, Dear Wonderful People who follow my blog by email.   You are used to getting 5-6 posts a year from me.   You’ll probably get that many from me this month, as I finish the series of followup posts to my red flags piece.   Thank you for reading, and after another post or two, I promise to drop back down to the usual dull roar.


Some of Your Skills Don’t Generalize to People Management




‘…in many domains in life, success and satisfaction depend on knowledge, wisdom, or savvy in knowing which rules to follow and which strategies to pursue.  This is true…for many tasks in the social and intellectual domains, such as promoting effective leadership, raising children, constructing a solid logical argument, or designing a rigorous psychological study.’

– Justin Kruger and David Dunning, ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments

Leading people in an enterprise takes a very specific suite of skills.  In a growing organization, you’ll need different skills at different stages — and if you’re a first-time CEO or business owner, nothing you’ve done has prepared you for this experience.

That’s ok.  Your experience also also failed to prepare you to run a winning baseball team.  To conduct a symphony orchestra.  Or to run a country.

Fundraising requires sales skill.  Technical and creative ability is key for product development.

Making sure every team member understands your organization’s goals?  Dealing with complaints about the guy who really needs to shower?  Or bigger things?

Active learning is key to building skills to handle these eventualities.

Some say that 70% of management development comes the hard way, from experience.  Many of your mistakes will be due to your inexperience.  (Not because you’re Evil.)

That said, your intentions don’t matter.  Results do.

Getting a group of people to perform at scale requires a lot of listening, communicating about goals and values, recruiting, delegating, coaching and cheerleading.

You’re not an expert at everything.  And you don’t have time — or probably the inclination — to master every function needed in a healthy organization.

That’s the point of having a team:  that’s why it takes a team.  (NB:  It’s not a family.)

One key to competence is knowing when your skills won’t generalize to the challenge at hand; if you’re operating in a new arena, you may not know this without outside input.

Confident leaders surround themselves with experts who bring different skills and expertise to the table.

A dream team of subject matter experts can give you a solid start.   Your capacity to listen to them, and act on their counsel, is key.

Photo:  cropped from Juggling in Glacier, by Evan Lovely via Flickr under CC2.0 license.

(Note:  this piece is also cross posted on Medium.  It’s one of several follow-ups to my recent piece, What You Disregard, You Accept:  Red Flags for CEOs, originally published here and also over on Medium.)