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I Hate HR!

Early in my career I was interviewing for an HR management role with a fast growing technology company.  They had one of the strongest employment brands in the region and an equally strong pool of candidates interested in working for them.  I was excited to meet one of the division presidents whose organization I would be supporting.

After completing my research and prepping for potential questions I felt relatively confident that I was ready for the interview.  The biggest question in my mind was why the preceding incumbent only lasted ten months in the role.

The Division President greeted me in the lobby with very few words and escorted me to his office.  I sat across his desk with an attentive posture as he stared silently at me for about 15 seconds before smiling ever so subtly and declaring, “I hate HR.”  This wasn’t a question, and no amount of interview preparation could have equipped me with a fitting response.  But I felt that I had to give an honest answer because at that point I had nothing to lose.  My reply was pretty succinct.

The opening was “There are many days that I hate HR, too!”  I gave a few examples that I’m pretty sure every HR practitioner can relate to:  in HR you tend to deliver bad news related to policies and people; you are focused on controversial topics that while very important to the organization may not be the primary business priority of the leadership team.  You’re faced with trying to navigate or mediate issues with other parts of the HR organization and are left feeling like you can’t move the agenda fast enough to meet the needs of the business.  Consequently, in many instances HR is not seen as a “business partner” but rather as a business impediment.  I concluded my response by asserting that there would be many days where he would need me and that I could help drive the business agenda, which historically was my strongest asset.

Less than five minutes into the interview the Division President rises, shakes my hand and says that he would recommend me for the job.  We walked back to the lobby.  I tried to process what just took place.  If they offered me the job, and if I accepted it, what kind of relationship would I have with this person? What would it be like to work for an organization that apparently viewed HR as a roadblock?

Ultimately I decided to take the job.  The experience I gained was tremendous.  The biggest personal reward was the level of autonomy I was given to execute business initiatives, and the degree to which I was able to be engaged in the business operations.  At the core of that positive experience was an appreciation of - and respect for the bottom-line orientation of the leadership team, and the trust they placed in me to support what the business was trying to achieve.  At the outset, I was given very simple and clear goals: staff the new business segments with the best talent within the budget we’ve established; determine the right compensation structure within these parameters; fix the issues in the customer service area.  The mandate was to go and do it.  

The message was clear:  I was accountable for making it happen.

As evidenced by the short tenure of my predecessor, the job wasn’t for everyone.  There were many challenges, and while the leadership team granted me autonomy they also gave autonomy to others, which meant that among competing agendas or approaches, some of the leaders weren’t necessarily inclined to collaborate with HR.

I often reflect back on that period of my HR career.  The takeaway for me is that I always considered myself a business person first and an HR professional second.  In that respect I may be within the minority of my profession.  That said, my approach, desire and ability to understand the business has allowed me to effectively communicate and partner with business leaders.  I’ve rarely had a problem with “being at the table”, which is a key frustration among many in our profession.

Being “at the table” requires developing a strong business acumen – which is vastly different from simply understanding organization development theories, the technical elements of human resources management or HR “best practices”.  Having interviewed hundreds of HR people in my career, the biggest weakness that I see is an inability to articulate HR concepts in non-HR terms so that business leaders can relate to them.  The skill does not come from a textbook.  It’s developed over time by a strong desire and deliberate effort to learn the business.  Developing a common language and trust is the goal.  It is the only way an HR practitioner has a chance to influence a senior leader.  The bottom line? Be ready when someone tells you “I hate HR!

Dan Simovic is the Managing Director at TAMS Group.  He works with a team of top-notch consultants to provide practical solutions to companies designed to improve employee and organizational productivity, attract, develop, manage and reward their most critical assets: their employees; and minimize workplace compliance risk.