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It's OK To Focus on Heart and Soul

January 1, 1997
Related Topics: The HR Profession, Featured Article
Need an HR blueprint? Look no further. Some visionary human resources professionals are beginning to incorporate the best of past and present HR strategies to formulate a hearty new vision for HR. The idea: HR as the heart and soul of the organization.

Lest you think that's too much on the soft side of visionary directions, consider the following sentiments from one working professional which illustrates what happens when HR isn't at the heart of a company advocating people issues. It becomes a very bottom-line problem.

A marketing vice president (who wishes not to be identified) describes the low morale and productivity decline at her company: I've been with a large international company in Canada for 16 years. When I started, it was with great pride, a sense of tradition and a real family feeling that people worked here. The principals of the organization felt people were the company's greatest assets and that translated directly into increased productivity. How the company values people has shifted quite significantly. Now, because we've had difficulty in getting business-performance results, senior managers feel they have to get those results first and that employee pride will follow. Over the last few years, the pride in the organization has significantly waned. Looking back, I can't believe how much we've regressed. There has been such an effort to ensure that the business results are positive, that senior managers have instituted numerous controls onto employees and it started to question people's integrity and their ability to do things. Employees began to feel almost like children. There's no positive-reward reinforcement anymore. There's no modeling 'the way' or engaging the heart. Although people are still working extremely hard, they're not doing it with as much heart, and I think that ultimately adversely affects productivity. Many people have left because they feel it hasn't been as good a place to work and they wanted to find a supportive work environment. Many of us in high-level management, including HR, have tried to persuade the top three senior managers that this is an important issue. They do recognize that something's wrong, but they're not sure what to do about it, even though we've suggested the solution: The company needs to engage people's hearts, not just their minds. Unfortunately, HR doesn't have much credibility here anymore, which bothers me, because I think it should be the center of the organization.

HR needs a new vision. As the preceding comments remind us, many HR departments haven't yet achieved that business-partner status HR professionals have been struggling so hard for lately. It's a difficult role to achieve, especially when senior management (which HR is supposed to be part of) is resistant to the value of employees and employee-management issues.

But as much as HR would like to blame CEOs, presidents and the rest of the senior management team for the lack of direction and insight about employees and employee issues, HR must first examine its own role to make sure it's headed in the right direction -- and leading the vision from there.

The truth is, many HR professionals have been so focused recently on the harder side of HR -- understanding business issues, quantifying the impact of the HR function and becoming business partners-that they may have neglected their understanding of the importance of the HR's softer side (that employees need to be treated as people, not just as assets or as resources). And they may have forgotten that this half of HR's responsibility needs to be communicated throughout the organization, especially to senior management.

In fact, as the preceding story so aptly points out, it's the lack of attention to those softer issues that are making workers want to jump ship and are contributing to sagging profits. When we forget the basics of human kindness, recognition and human value, we start seeing more unrest, less loyalty and lower morale, not to mention more lawsuits.

"We have become so regulated and scared of legalisms, lawsuits and charges that we've been somewhat forced by both circumstances and our employers to be watchdogs," says Bruce Feldman, senior HR manager for BREED Technologies Inc. in Lakeland, Florida. "We're starting to get back to being what I think we really are, which is a three-legged stool: watchdog, administrator and em-ployee advocate."

It's this third area -- being an employee advocate and connecting with employees in a human way -- that a lot of companies have backed off from recently. And it's not just because of the increase in employee lawsuits, it's also because of the new employment contract -- day-to-day employment, rather than guaranteed, long-term jobs. Business thinking has evolved into: Why connect deeply with a workforce that's here one day and gone the next?

Because if companies say people are their greatest asset, length of employment no longer matters. What matters is what employees can do while they're with us -- regardless of how long that is.

Despite the fact that there's much HR can do to influence employee tenure, there's a change in mindset that needs to take place. As one HR manager at Schaumberg, Illinois-based Motorola Inc. says, "We've maxed out in quality; we're neck and neck in technology with our competition and everyone's making big research-and-development investments. But we're not all moving in the same direction in HR. It can be a huge competitive advantage; it's a critical differentiator in our industry."

Says Martin Rutte, president of Livelihood Inc. in Santa Fe, New Mexico and co-author of "Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work": "We have anorectic, dispirited workforces left in place after all the downsizings and layoffs. Workers are generally disloyal and not committed, so we need to reinspirit them -- because the next wave of profit-making has got to come from innovation and creativity." He adds: "There's this desire in the workplace for more heart, soul and spirit. Companies need to see to it that their workplaces have their spirits touched and their souls nurtured so they can flourish." And that won't happen spontaneously without help: HR's help.

Clearly, HR knows employees make the difference in how successful a company is-but it's the other managers who sometimes forget. It's crucial that HR professionals make the difference in how people are valued at work-regardless of how long employees are on the job.

Employees (people) are the lifeblood. HR is the organ that pumps that lifeblood through an organization. In fact, a recent Personnel Journal survey asked readers: Do you consider HR the soul of your organization? Fifty-seven percent said yes. Although it may be controversial, there's good reason to believe HR-as-heart-and-soul can be an effective direction. For now, think of yourself as more than a human resources professional. Think of yourself as an architect. And in your hands, you hold the blueprint to be the heart of your organization.

Think of yourself as an architect. And in your hands, you hold the blueprint to be the heart of the organization

HR's unrecognized role as the company's heart. "Human resources people are the heart of every organization. The HR function, however, almost never is described as the heart or even at the heart," says H. Brock Vodden, senior management consultant and educator for The Q-Inter Group in Markham, Ontario. "The reason for this contradiction is the process of managing HR is fragmented to the point at which there's no strategic direction to the function."

Vodden explains that HR departments have narrowly defined themselves by breaking down their function by specializations: compensation, benefits, recruitment, selection support and so on. "There's often no unifying principle or HR vision. HR professionals contribute to their own exclusion from a strategic role by focusing only on micro issues and by ignoring the relationship between people and the enterprise. Any organization with a heart such as I have described should be a candidate for major heart surgery," says Vodden. He adds: "Whether the HR department leads that approach or contributes to it in a significant way depends on the vision and credibility of its people."

And that vision is something you must live, not just talk about. That's exactly what the HR leader at Northwestern Publishing House, a liturgical publisher with 126 employees in Milwaukee tries to do. At Northwestern, HR is definitely at the heart of his organization, says Todd Rebillot, director of HR. And that role is by design, not by chance. Rebillot says he tries to lead the HR department from the ideal of HR as heart, without trying to communicate that vision to the organization formally. "It's kind of a behind-the-scenes thing," says Rebillot. "HR, probably more than any other area within our organization, is a center point because this is probably the one department that deals with every other department in one way or another." Rebillot looks at HR as more than just a service organization. It's a people leader, a needs-analysis and needs-assistance organization.

BREED Technologies' Feldman says he looks at HR in much the same way at his company, which develops, manufactures and sells passenger-safety systems. "But whether, in fact, we in HR have the authority and ability to truly be what we would like to be, I'd doubt," says Feldman, whose company employs 9,000 people worldwide, with 2,000 in the United States. "That doesn't discourage me, by the way. It just makes me continue to pursue more optimistic goals."

It's also a role that suits Judy Lyles, HR manager for DET Distributing Co. in Nashville, Tennessee, a beverage distributing company which delivers for Adolph Coors Co. and Miller Brewing Co. When Lyles first took the job, her boss told her: "'Any good manager will tell you that a company's greatest asset is its employees, but employees show up as a liability on a profit-and-loss statement. Yet our trucks are an asset. So, we've got all these mechanics to work on the fleet, but we don't have anyone working on our greatest asset, which is our employees.' So that's what I am," says Lyles, who provides HR services for a workforce of 200 employees in two locations. "I'm the human mechanic. HR is the center of the company because we're the keeper of the policies and rules."

But that's the hard side. Lyles says she's also known as the head cheerleader. She adds: "You have to be the keeper of the rules, but you also have to be the keeper of workers' hearts -- the keeper of why they want to come to work every day."

When people don't feel important, they become insecure and can behave in a defensive, angry or detached way.

Being the heart means adding heart, in big and little ways. Alex Miller, president and CEO of Edison Source, a one-year-old affiliate of Edison International based in the City of Industry, California, says he doesn't think HR is necessarily at the heart of his company, but certainly thinks HR can -- and should -- add "heart" to organizational culture. In fact, in the recent survey conducted by Personnel Journal, 64 percent of respondents thought HR is the "keeper of culture" and therefore a powerful force in guiding their organizations toward their goals.

"Although HR has its own targets and goals, HR has a responsibility to make sure that the organization has heart -- in the sense that it needs to make sure employees are getting what they need out of work, instead of only the company getting from them what it needs," says Miller. "Companies ask people to do a lot but don't necessarily give back what employees need to be fulfilled or help them be better people, better employees or more employable," says Miller. "So HR can help a company reflect heart -- not just in its policies and procedures, but in everyday action and culture."

According to Catherine Crow, Edison Source's director of HR, the HR department shouldn't exist solely to provide the basics like compensation, benefits or training. "There's also something magical that can take place in HR," says Crow. That "magical" something is helping provide a sense of team spirit. And for this small, but growing company, that team cohesion was even more important to create from the beginning. The reason? This was a brand-new team that derived approximately half of its 48 workers from Edison International who left to take a chance on a new start-up with great potential. "This was a rare venture and [our company] was created without any clear idea of what it would really do," explains Crow. In a short time, the firm has developed a clearer sense of direction. "But you can imagine that for the workforce, there was a lot of insecurity. We ended up having what we call silo syndrome-everybody was so focused on their own jobs, they didn't know how to work together," she explains.

In the ensuing months while the firm figured out its direction, employees experienced some anger, disappointment, disillusionment and communication breakdowns. This isn't surprising, since every one of the firm's employees were hand-picked, smart people who came to the company and hit the ground running. Yet, even for such a young company, there were morale problems, productivity problems and an overall "out of whack" feeling. It was time to rescue people. It was time for a company pow-wow at which feelings, values and direction could be discussed in an open environment. "The reason we took this approach was that we had all of the harder skills identified and present here, but we didn't have a way to make people feel good about themselves and about their working relationships.

"What we discovered was that everybody took such a risk to help start a new company, that they just really wanted to feel like they were valued," says Crow. "What happens when people don't feel important is they become insecure and can behave in a defensive, angry or detached way."

You can explain these problems away as simply growing pains that might have worked themselves out over time, but if an intervention wasn't initiated by HR, this firm with great potential might have been dead in the water before it had ever finished its first lap. It needed someone with a pulse on the organization. And that candidate was HR.

Even 36-year-old companies think it's crucial to keep a pulse on workers' changing motivations. BREED Technologies' Feldman says one program he has focused on in the past few months is a revised service-award program, which he thinks is now more responsive to the type of recognition employees want. Whereas workers used to get service awards every five years, they now get a 90-day certificate, then an award after one year, three years, five years and so on. And the company has increased the value of the awards.

"We've also increased the personal nature of the awards," says Feldman. By that he means they've changed the way the awards are presented. It's a much more local, departmental activity -- meaning it's communicated primarily among managers and team members, although awards are also communicated companywide. It's more of a personal thank you and a celebration rather than just throwing a 10-year pin on workers' desks with a form letter from the president. "We're much closer to the level of the employee with a level of spirit and loyalty that rarely exists anymore -- on both sides," explains Feldman.

It's that personal touch that employees feel is lacking in today's organizations. "One thing we've encouraged lately is what I refer to as awards of immediacy, says Feldman. If a team has worked a lot to complete a special project, its team leader will organize an impromptu event, such as a pizza party. His motto: Smaller, closer, more often.

Sure, the big things motivate people, like pay and benefits. But it's the big things combined with the little things that make a workforce really soar.

The companies that succeed will be the ones that learn how to stop competing within the company and with each other.

Part of being the heart is being the conscience. Interestingly, the recent Personnel Journal survey gauged whether readers think HR is a moral compass -- because HR's generally the keeper of the ethics policies and the balance between what's good for employees and what's good for the company. An overwhelming 86 percent answered yes. And when asked if HR managers often feel they're the one voice of reason in their firms: seventy-five percent said yes. That's a pretty strong HR statement. And a very large challenge.

The problem is that ethics, values and voices of reason are lacking in many of today's organizations. According to the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Rey, California, one employee poll showed that as many as 30 percent of employees said they've lied to or have deceived a supervisor within the last year to meet a production goal, to make a supervisor look good or simply because lying was easier than telling the truth.

"How can you make intelligent business decisions when you don't know what the information is?" asks Jim Lichtman, an ethics specialist based in Palm Desert, California and author of "The Lone Ranger's Code of the West," an adventure story about the ethical values embodied by the Lone Ranger. "It all comes back to the bottom line in one way or another." He says there have been more ethics scandals in the last five years than in the previous five decades combined. But we're collectively beginning to understand we can't sacrifice long-term values for short-term goals.

He adds: "Managers and the owners of companies are looking at HR people as more or less the moral compass as to which way the company is headed and how it can stay on track."

Coleen Bentley, director of HR for Dade International's Paramax Chemistry products line based in Irvine, California, agrees: "HR has moved from being the police into being what I call the conscience of the organization," she says. She says it's HR's job to do the right thing for the company, the shareholders, the investors, the supervisors and the employees. For example, the company's value statement says: "Our company will be characterized by cooperation, clear communication, accountability and responsiveness from all employees as they work steadily to build value for investors, customers and themselves." It's not about just doing what's legally right. It's about doing what's also conscionable. In fact, one of the company's core competencies is how well employees measure up against a yardstick of integrity, trust and other company values.

And Bentley says her organization has been able to keep up its end of the ethics bargain, even though the company is shutting down the facility at which she and 280 other employees work. Employees knew early last February that the company was shutting down the facility, and has faithfully communicated the process to them, in addition to providing attractive severance packages and retention plans.

But primary to HR's concern was treating people with dignity and respect. Since the announcement, only 10 people (0.3 percent of the workforce) have left. "People knew what was expected of them, but they also knew that the company had treated them well and cared about them, so almost everybody has stayed," says Bentley. Little things like popcorn parties have helped to relieve the tension. "But popcorn doesn't keep people at a company through times like this. It's how they're treated that does."

Greg Chartier, director of HR for the Family Service Society of Yonkers, in Yonkers, New York, agrees that it's very definitely HR's role to help suggest and promote the values in an organization, and to point out to senior management areas in which the organization is falling short.

Although he thinks it's a role that first falls to the top senior manager, Chartier thinks HR should ensure the company stays consistent with its own values. That's hard, because HR still has that dual role as both enforcer and developer.

But future business success depends on HR leading in this dual role as a role model for both sides-even when it hurts and even when it isn't the most popular direction.

HR is the center because it's the one department that deals with every other department.

Throw your company a hearty lifeline. "I think HR professionals have the opportunity to be the heart of an organization, but I don't believe they'll always use it," says Ann Bass Perle, director of human resources for Leica Inc.'s navigation and positioning division in Torrance, California. In Perle's view, business is in the position to be the overseer of the culture in the way that the church was in Western Europe more than 1,000 years ago. It was the mainstay of existence. It set up all the rules, regulations and basically, all social life revolved around the church. But it also was the moral and ethical center.

"Business has that opportunity today because everybody's life is affected by business as never before," she adds. "I mean, so many people in the workplace are working more and are more burned out. So much of our collective stress is around business stuff. So I think business has this incredible opportunity to be the mainstay of the culture, and HR has that same opportunity in a company."

But she thinks it will take a big change in mindset for most organizations to see this as their role. "The thing that hurts the business world today more than anything is competitiveness," says Perle. "We have a very deep belief that competition is good and it serves us to a point." While she isn't advocating we get rid of competition, she says we must add cooperation and collaboration to our repertoire.

Why? "Because the companies that are going to succeed will be the ones that learn how to stop competing within the company," Perle says. "If HR professionals can be role models for that behavior, then they'll definitely carry the flag. But if they fall into the trap of needing to be seen and heard, and compete with other managers for market share, then they lose their opportunity to be role models. They're just forcing themselves onto other people in a power play. That's just not what's going to make business [in the future] move."

Perle suggests that organizations need to engage in "ego reduction," starting with the HR department. "We must reduce our egos to the point at which we can be cooperative and share the power base. That's hard to do because we've been trained not to do that. So if HR can model some of those behaviors [we'll be way ahead of the game]-such as looking at how teams work," she says.

For example, if an organization adopts a team-based structure, rather than an old hierarchy-based structure, individuals work together in more of a cooperative relationship and help move the organization forward. And in a more cooperative environment, business can move forward faster because individuals and departments no longer are engaging in me-first, I-need-to-be-right-all-the-time behavior. Organizations'-not individuals'-goals become primary.

"You can put people in teams all you want to, but first you've got to change the core behavior of people wanting to be in charge, to be seen and to be right," she says. "If we can let some of that go, then our energy's freed up to design a new widget or to put a whole new creative spin on a service rather than always having to be concerned if [senior management] sees you, if you're important enough or if you have enough credibility in the company. That kind of thinking is what's sucking the life out of business."

Perle says HR is the natural place to initiate the idea of cooperation and collaboration in the workplace. "But I think the difficulty will be that HR has felt on the outside for so long, it has finally come into its own and can finally stand up and say, 'I'm a business partner.'" Will HR professionals be ready to give that up so soon? Are they ready to model a new behavior of being cooperative?

The truth is, HR professionals don't have to give up anything. They still can -- and must be -- business partners. They just have to have the courage not to rest on their laurels. The work of HR truly isn't done yet.

HR needs to come full circle. Although HR began a course of understanding and working through the softer side of HR 75 years ago, it has more recently focused on the harder side -- in order to quantify HR's importance and impact. But for the good of our organizational health, it's time to return to our understanding of the huge effect that employees have on organizations.

"The reason we stay stuck in talking about our technical problems, and not talking about the softer nontechnical side or the soft-skills side is because we feel safe talking about technical things, and we don't feel particularly safe talking about behaviors. It takes a lot of courage for HR to be willing to say, 'We're going to start talking about behaviors, and to talk to people directly,'" says Perle.

Sharon Amalfitano, director of HR for Dover, Delaware-based Sunroc Corp., a manufacturer of water coolers, isn't afraid of approaching her role with employees in the type of open, honest way that Perle suggests. It may be a cliché, but Amalfitano thinks it's important not to forget to engage in a little bit of "management by walking around." That's how you understand what the company's issues are. "We have an open, honest dialogue with employees and they know they can come to personnel," says Amalfitano. It minimizes problems with employees and with other managers. And it also gives both sides a role model.

Since her arrival at the company, she says she has tried to change the work personality of the organization, by helping supervisors see his or her role in the organization: "I don't want someone coming in and wanting to be a hero or wanting to be god to their employees. I want him or her to be a support for employees, to mentor them, to make sure employees are successful. I want supervisors to show compassion, help career-path employees and meet every work need they can," says Amalfitano. "Years ago, supervisors had to be tough, they had to be [hard-nosed]." Whether there's a discipline problem or a union problem, she wants to be available to guide managers. "We're behind them. We're silent. We're the invisible hand," she says.

"We're going toward being a support and a coach.We're at the forefront of educating ourselves and motivating employees, especially management. Some supervisors are afraid of HR. They think we're the police and we're judging them. That's not good. We need to be a resource, an adviser," she says.

While it's important to educate managers on employee issues and regulations, it's important to communicate and promote employee understanding. "I feel strongly that we in HR have changed the work personality [at this company]." Evidence of that is the fact that turnover is now only 5 percent. In recent years, it was up to 40 percent. This is how she did it: by helping supervisors who are managing mostly unskilled laborers in a manufacturing environment understand how to treat people like human beings. She shows managers it's important to let employees know that everyone makes mistakes and how to punish fairly.

This vision translates directly into improved operations. Take, for instance, the firm's safety record. "Six years ago, our lost-time ratio was 89 percent," says Almalfitano. "Now it's 11 percent. We took management out of the safety committee and infused it with employees who care. They changed the culture, but it was under the guidance of HR."

And employee discharges are down. There used to be 60 discharges a year. Now there are fewer than 20. How did the company achieve that? A progressive-discipline system. "It's a softer approach in that there's no yelling, but we're even and consistent. It's working. People [who need to leave], leave before they're discharged," she says. It's a matter of keeping beat with the workforce.

In the end, what goes in, usually comes out. As the life of the organization flows in through HR, something better must flow out, or you haven't done your job. If HR is judged by the quality of the product-employees-then the quality of those employees (and their products) needs to improve over time, by your design.You are the architect of heart. What kind of organization are you helping to build?

Workforce, January 1997, Vol. 76, No. 1, pp.60-69

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