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iOn the Contrary-i Nothing's 'Trivial' About People Issues

January 1, 1999
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, Your HR Career, Featured Article
Remember Trivial Pursuit™, the game in which players get the opportunity to show off their knowledge about obscure bits of history, art and other subjects?

Well, I love this game, and it’s not because I know a lot. I confess: the only "sports-and-leisure" question I’ve ever gotten right is, "What color is Chablis?"

I love Trivial Pursuit™ because I know enough about some subjects and I play to my strengths. Given a choice, I always choose the geography question. Do you know what country Walloons call home?

Although I think Trivial Pursuit™ is a gas, I know people who are fiercely reluctant to play because they’re afraid of what they don’t know. I’ve had nervous guests request three helpings of tiramisu and ask for another tour of the house all in a thinly disguised effort to avoid playing. (It never works.) And these are some very smart people! But although they’re smart, they’re focused on the wrong things. They worry about what they don’t have—which is all the answers to Trivial Pursuit™—instead of focusing on what they do have, which is knowledge and enthusiasm about certain subject matters.

Many of the human resources professionals I talk to have the same misguided focus. Instead of proudly sharing the knowledge and expertise they do have, they worry about what they don’t have, which is a seat at the executive table. Looking to boost the reputation of HR, they covet more power, a better title and the ear of the CEO. They yearn for the shiny brass door plaque that reads, "Executive Vice President." To put it bluntly, they’re worrying about the wrong things.

HR’s broad knowledge is the key to higher power.
In today’s corporations, big titles and the power that comes with them are going the way of Stingray bicycles. In the information age, it’s not your title but what you know that gives you power.

Fortunately, HR people collectively possess more brainpower and expertise than anyone in a corporation. According to the Best Practices Benchmark Study of HR, conducted in the summer of 1998 by the Hackett Group in Cleveland, Ohio, more HR professionals have advanced degrees than professionals in any other staff function. Furthermore, the average work experience of an HR professional is 22 years, making HR the most tenured of any management or staff group.

But HR people don’t just have the most experience and education, they also have a much broader base of knowledge. To effectively recruit, train and compensate employees throughout the company, HR professionals must know something about every single department of the organization. Because of this, their wisdom extends well beyond HR, and includes an understanding of marketing, engineering, research and development, operations, finance and many other corporate activities. Simply put, if corporations were a Trivial Pursuit™ game, HR people would specialize in every subject category.

With all this know-how, education and experience going for them, why do HR professionals have such a hard time gaining credibility and power? Why aren’t they further ahead in the corporate board game?

It’s because they’re not enthusiastically promoting the power resource they do have, which is in-depth knowledge about how to effectively manage people. Jim Kouzes, co-author of Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It, (Jossey-Bass Inc., 1995), says that to gain credibility, HR staffers must play from their strengths. "They must work to become the most knowledgeable people in their organizations about such things as change, knowledge management and critical HR functions such as comp. and benefits, recruitment, development and retention," he says.

People will only recognize your knowledge if you flaunt it.
Once the HRstaff becomes knowledgable about their organization, they must do everything they can to broadcast their expertise. You see, to gain credibility you’ve got to make your knowledge visible. Speak about HR issues in employee meetings. Publish in the employee magazine. Stand on your ergonomic chair and shout about the strategic importance of people issues! Once people know what you know, they will come to respect your authority and grant you the power you so desperately seek.

But—and this is a big but—you’ve got to share your knowledge enthusiastically. As Kouzes says, "The booster rocket of credibility is enthusiasm and energy." I know several well-meaning HR people who are hesitant to show how much they care for people because they’ve bought into all that junk about "soft issues" being less important than "hard issues." What is that about? If HR people don’t show that they passionately care about people and the impact those people have on the bottom line, who will? Just because you’re in a staff function and may not have the authority you want doesn’t mean you shouldn’t display pride in your work and your knowledge. Proclaim what you know with passion and others will come to respect you. I promise.

Unlike me, my Trivial Pursuit™ partner knows the answer to every sports-and-leisure question ever written, including stupefying facts about such things as the 1958 World Series. Every time she gets a question correct, she leaps from her chair and high-fives anyone within reach. She’s like a 3-year-old discovering Barney for the first time. Although the rest of us roll our eyes in an exaggerated who-could-care-less manner, we have come to respect the fact that she knows all this sports stuff—and we admire her for it.

Now if someone can gain respect from others for knowing that the New York Yankees beat the Milwaukee Braves 4 to 3 in 1958, imagine what HR people can do with knowledge that really counts. What you know about people issues is anything but trivial. You’ve just got to believe it yourself and proudly shout it from the rooftops.

Workforce, January 1999, Vol. 78, No. 1, pp. 23-25.

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