Difficult Qualities for New HR Professionals To Grasp

A recent post on another blog contemplated “Qualities To Look For In Hiring an HR Professional.”  This set me to pondering a few qualities that often are most difficult for new HR professionals to grasp as part of their role.

Two qualities that come to mind most immediately are:

1.  Ability to balance the needs of the organization (management) and employees

2.  Ability to influence without authority

Balancing the needs of the organization and employees

In a sense, HR’s toughest job may be finding ways to counter the wise admonition, “No man can serve two masters.”  An effective HR person needs to walk a fine line, being a valued part of the management team — while at the same time, being a trusted “ear” for employees.  This is often a difficult thing for young HR professionals to grasp.  One might come from an MBA program, geared up to introduce all of the new and innovative theories and practices that they’ve learned in business school.  On the other end of the spectrum, others might come from more of a “social work” or “employee advocate” perspective — coming into the role determined to be a “voice” for employee needs.

Both are necessary for being effective in HR — but neither can be pursued to the exclusion of the other.

(Sidenote: I once worked with an HR manager who was one of the most kind-hearted people you could ever possibly meet.  She was, unfortunately, in the very wrong position.  In getting to know her, I found that she spoke passionately of her first job out of college — a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in Africa.  This was a wonderful thing.  The only problem was she never left behind her social work perspective — carrying it (too far) into her HR role.  She couldn’t seem to hire anyone who wasn’t struggling with drug addiction or some other social problem — to the point of driving them to AA and other counseling appointments.  Again, all wonderful things — but allowing no professional separation, especially when difficult decisions needed to be made).

Ability to influence without authority

Another idea that is sometimes difficult for new HR professionals to grapple with is the fact that,  in most organizations, HR has very little “authority” in the organization with regard to “enforcing” rules and regulations (i.e., we are, in fact, a support function, not a profit center — no matter how much we talk about ROI and the like). This is where influence with management comes into play.  If when proposing policies and procedures, HR doesn’t gain the “buy-in” from management, then the policies and procedures remain simply “HR’s policies and procedures” — which is very different from being “the company’s rules and regulations.”  If this is communicated — usually tacitly, but sometimes openly, in the most contentious environments — HR’s influence is severely limited.

To influence without authority, then, HR needs to explain persuasively why the “rule” is necessary in the first place — i.e., how it supports the organization’s culture and values, and how it will result in a more productive operation, or, why it is necessary to comply with the law and/or support much more positive employee morale, leading to increased satisfaction and productivity.  (If it does none of these things, of course, it should be scrapped before being implemented, for it is a rule without a purpose).  If management is behind the policy, that will be communicated (again, tacitly or verbally), and employees will get on-board (or, at the least, know that the organization cares about the policy for valid and important reasons).

(Sidenote: I have a difference of opinion on one point with one of the very finest HR professionals that I’ve ever worked with.  In his organization, in the past he (in his role as VP-HR) has issued written warnings to managers/employees who were chronically late in completing required paperwork.  It would be my strong opinion that HR may never properly issue a written warning (except with regard to HR employees who they manage).  I believe it is most proper — and most effective — for any warnings to be issued by management (i.e., the direct manager).  HR issuing warnings places them in the wrong role, and subverts the authority of the manager).

One other critical way of “influencing without authority” has nothing to do with policies or procedures.  It is the ability to gain the trust of managers, to help guide them “behind the scenes” in the quiet moments — i.e., quiet, confidential (and usually impromptu) conversations that help managers gain new perspectives in dealing with employees, organizing their departments, de-escalating situations that need to be de-escalated, standing firm on issues that need to be addressed firmly, etc.  It is the HR person remembering that they don’t manage employees, but their job is to help the managers who manage the employees (and operations).

I would love to hear your thoughts on

One response to “Difficult Qualities for New HR Professionals To Grasp

  1. I think you make some valid points for new HR folks.I think that the new people in our profession expect to have more influence when they enter the workforce. In the past, companies would make new employees “earn their way”, but the newest generation won’t wait. They will change jobs because they can. I hope that we have HR past the support stage only. That is very limiting whether your are new or seasoned in the field. Thanks for putting this out here for people to think.

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