• Kelsey Berends

How to Build HR for Real People

Updated: Feb 24

“Uh oh, HR just walked by. Careful what you say.”

“HR wants to talk to you? Yikes.”

“As if HR even cares.”

All common phrases I’ve heard from various people about various HR departments. In preparing this article I decided to do a quick google search. I typed “HR is” with the below result:

Clearly HR does not have a stellar reputation! What is worse, this reputation is often well-deserved. HR is typically synonymous with onerous policies, too many meetings, and stacks of paperwork; that watchful eye in the office making sure no one has any actual fun.

This begs the question: is HR even necessary? Or can it be better?

I suppose you already know my answer, given the “HR Lady” title, but let’s dive into that question.

First let’s think through what HR does. HR is responsible for assisting with talent acquisition, professional development, compensation reviews, performance management – basically everything that is needed to serve the body of employees. It is after all, resources for humans.

Now, how does that turn into “HR is a breeding ground for monsters”?

Because of one word I omitted from that list of responsibilities – compliance. HR is also responsible for doing what they can to make sure the company is not breaking any labor laws.

Somehow that word compliance, which should be a small part of HR, has managed to swallow every aspect of modern HR. Talent acquisition becomes obsessed with hiring based on a diversity checklist, rather than based on a person’s skills and abilities. Professional development turns into sensitivity training, to make sure you as a company are not held responsible if an individual says something stupid. Compensation reviews focus more on how an external auditor will see things instead of being part of an honest conversation with people around their growth. Performance management becomes a method to ensure everything is documented so if you want to fire someone you can prove to a judge you were right, instead of focusing on helping a person improve performance.

Suddenly, instead of protecting the company for its people, HR’s job becomes protecting the company from its people.

Now, it could be easy to see this as HR’s fault. And many of you, who work in small businesses that don’t have (or really need) a dedicated HR department, may think you don’t have to worry about this. “That’s big corporate, not us.”

But think about it. HR does not create the culture. You do. HR helps build it out. And if you are the kind of company that hires fast instead of hiring right, you are building for this kind of future. After all, if you do not hire people you can trust, you’ll need to hire someone to fence them in. If you don’t have a clear purpose and standard for culture, you do not have a clear standard for your employees. So when Bob insults Jane, suddenly you need a lengthy policy around sexism in the workplace and several hours of training for the company. Be the company where Bob knows from the start that you treat people with respect.

More often than not compliance is rework, which is frustrating and demotivating to all the right people, so HR in a compliance-obsessed world becomes filled with all the wrong people.

So how can HR be done well?

Put in the hard work early.

Work with HR to build out your company values. Those values should be descriptive of who you are, and should continually push you to do better. They should be alive in the company, not just words on the website. They should be central to interviews, the language you use in performance management, embedded in your reasoning behind any product release, and the list goes on.

Develop out a performance management system that facilitates conversation, rather than being used in place of it. If there are any surprise grievances in a performance review, HR should work with managers and direct reports to help them build a more consistent and transparent communication pattern.

And speaking of conflict, leadership and HR should refuse to be the “anonymous hotline” people can use to avoid conflict. We all know that confronting someone is uncomfortable, awkward, and intimidating. But conflict is inevitable – and in HR you should train your people so they are empowered to deal with it well (see our Crap Shoot episode on office politics).

Ultimately, you and your HR team should know your employees as people instead of as potential threats. You should know their names as much as possible, ask them how they are doing, make the time to be available for questions or concerns. This requires humility, and a desire to continually do better. Be a leader and an HR department that is willing to hear where you could improve, is willing to apologize for mistakes, and is excited to build better.

And how is this possible? Because you are building on a solid vision, instead of being reactive. I promise you, this isn’t an idealistic fantasy – I’ve seen it. I’ve been blessed to be part of organizations that did exactly this. It was never done perfectly, but it was done with a love for people. And we need more of that.

Remember, HR doesn’t create culture, you do. So build for people, and find the right HR team to help you continue that work!

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