Don’t Drink the HR Haterade

‘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 HR/People 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 one of a series of follow ups to What You Disregard, You Accept: Red Flags for CEOs, which I wrote in June, 2017.  I’m also cross-posting this to Medium.  The series:

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.

Hookups and Startups: It’s Time for Some Game Theory

It was our first week of business school.  50 students, strangers at that point, had formed into small groups for a game theory exercise.

The professor introduced the concept:  when two parties know they’ll negotiate repeatedly, cooperation emerges.  With only one round of negotiation, individuals have more incentive to optimize for their own best result.

It was time to practice.  Our groups conferred, and appointed lead negotiators.

The game was a variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma; if you expect to play only one round, you can win by cheating.  We were expected to play multiple rounds.

Our team lead faced off with a group led by The Banker.  As the faux-negotiation unfolded, The Banker opted to cheat in round one, winning it all, and leaving my team faux-broke.  The Banker laughed about having subverted the rules; our team lead was sheepish.

The game concluded, and the professor announced that it was time to choose study groups.  We were to walk around, talk to people, and choose our teams.  He closed with, “We’ll stay in this room until the market clears.”

Study groups would be our core social and work units during our first year; switching groups would not be allowed.  I eyed The Banker, and walked to the other side of the room; I didn’t want him in my group.  Over the next 2 years, people who became my friends told me of having made similar calculations.

Dude had thought he was playing a one-time game.

This spring, two new books crossed my feeds, Dorree Shafrir’s satiric novel, Startup (library) and American Hookup (library), by sociologist Lisa Wade, a professor at Occidental College.  I read them in quick succession, thinking about how romantic (for want of a better word) relationships affect our workplaces.

In Startup, a young woman is secretly hooking up with her boss, the CEO of a NYC tech startup.  After she ends the hookups, the consequences reverberate through the community.   At first, I mowed through it as chick-lit, a beach read.

Next up, Lisa Wade’s American Hookup, a readable account of her research into “hookup culture” on college campuses.  It shines light into some pretty dark places.

Wade points out that hookups aren’t news. and millenials aren’t having more casual sex than Boomers or Gen-Xers did.

What’s new is hookup culture, and its pervasive belief that un-caring casual sex is possible, normal, and easy.  Easier than relationships, which require communication, care, and feelings.

The rule of hookup culture is that you take ‘loving’ and ‘casual’ on a binary, when they are the opposite of that.

Lisa’s research subjects, students, kept journals; you hear their voices in American Hookup.  The students pointed me back to Startup’s fictional characters, and I decided to give it a closer second read.

Startup is funny when it rings true.  (36 is old.  Hashtag lol.)  Hookup culture in a fictional workplace?  Gave me pause.

It’s a small imaginary leap between non-fictional behaviors documented by Wade’s research subjects, and behaviors we can’t tolerate in our workplace communities.  Like harassment.

I wanted to talk with Lisa Wade.  She graciously agreed; quotes in this post are from our conversation.

My central questions for Lisa:  when you employ many recent grads, might you expect to see hookup culture at work?  And, how can managers act to create healthy working environments?

“Hookup culture can disrupt a healthy occupational culture,” Lisa told me.  “If I were a manager, I’d remind my employees that every co-worker relationship is valuable, precious, needs nurturing, and that my co-workers deserve respect and care.”

In hookup culture, students are expected to treat one another with the opposite of care:  when you’re done hooking up, you simply stop communicating; this ends it.  Care-less-ness is projected and performed as an aspirational state that’s both possible and normal.

For one thing, Lisa said, this is a lie.  “We have to acknowledge that ‘casual’ is not easy,” Lisa said.  All relationships require communication.

Lisa observed that a co-worker relationship may be more valuable to you than a hookup.

“Adding sex?”  Lisa said, “You’re accountable.  It will change the relationship forever. You are responsible.”

You may think a hookup with a colleague will be a one-time thing.

Actually, it’s not.  Like my classmate’s “win,” your hookup will be one of many interactions you’ll have with your co-worker.  And you’re part of a greater community.  It’s hard to reach shared goals if you stop communicating with a colleague — it’s also not fair to other co-workers.

Sex is great, but it’s really not that valuable.  Is it really worth the kind of trouble you’ll create?  We really over-value sex.  And yet it’s not that big of a deal to have sex with that person.

I also asked Lisa about relationships between people at different levels in an organization.

“Psychologists say that we’re not rational, we’re rationalizing,” Lisa pointed out.  It’s not rational, or smart, to hook up with a junior person. “It’s fraught with possibility that you now have to handle.  You’re courting drama.”

It’s risky, and naive, to ignore the power dynamic of a sexual relationship with a more junior colleague, casual or not.  Even if they’re not on your team.  Not a great idea.

This is one reason that some organizations have policies around relationships at work.

Policy is not a complete solution.  In reality, people will have relationships.  They can be part of healthy workplace cultures — when people involved take personal responsibility, and heed Lisa’s advice to be caring, and careful, in all of our relationships at work.

As the real, surreal, fake — and satirical — emerge on our feeds, we also must own the stories that we hear and share about what’s “normal.”

American Hookup points out that campus hookup culture advantages men.  It’s hard to see it working differently in the workplace.  (Um, Fox News.)

Here, I give Startup a big thumbs up:  three strong young women move through Shafrir’s world.  And yet the book doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test – perhaps intentionally.

If you speed through Startup, it may seem as though it ends on a girl power moment.  And like real life, the ending is actually a bit more ambiguous.  (And smarter.)

Is hookup culture part of startup culture?  I’m not entirely sure.

American Hookup and Startup emerged nearly simultaneously.  I’ll take this as a signal to pay attention.

When people act without concern for others and their feelings, it’s toxic.

If you’re a manager, be clear about how you want people to be treated at work.  And you can watch yourself, and treat others well; people will behave according to how you act.

Also remember, we’re all part of a bigger community.  And not just for today.

As Lisa pointed out, “Positive co-worker relationships are precious…if you tend to them well, they will serve you for the rest of your career.”

Work, careers, networks:  if this were all a game, there would be many iterations.

And, it’s not a game.

Thanks to Ida Benedetto, Gary Chou, Kirsten Lambertsen, Katherine Pan, Amy Vernon for reading earlier versions of this post and helping me improve it.  Ida’s observations on the etiquette of a sex party circuit as experience design are also relevant.   

Many thanks to Lisa Wade for investing the time to talk with me; I fear that I didn’t do justice to the very real distinctions her work outlines between hookups and hookup culture.  Do read her book, especially if you’re a parent, grandparent, uncle, or aunt to middle-schoolers.  We need to make a difference.

Also, when I first tried to buy a copy of Startup, it wasn’t on sale yet.  I requested and received an advance review copy.


And this supersized blog post started as a piece for my May 2017 newsletter on the topic of relationships at work.  It quickly got too long and complex for the (already published) newsletter.  Sign up here through the end of June, and you’ll receive access.

June 9, 2017 update:  this post, and the newsletter, went out before this info hit the tech press: not “normal;” not ok.