I got a call recently from Claudia, an HR director friend of mine. She said “I just left a tense meeting, and my heart is racing.”
“Why?” I asked her.
“I had to stand up to our CFO, a very tough fellow,” she said. “If past experience is any guide, about 12 hours from now he’ll realize that his idea is atrocious. But 10 minutes ago, he was red-faced and swearing.”
My imagination came up with a dozen horrendous and borderline-illegal ideas that the CFO had had in mind. “You helped him,”
I said. “You helped the whole company.”
“Keep saying that,” said Claudia.
“Let me guess,” I said. “Somewhere in the conversation were the words ‘You’re not thinking like a businessperson, Claudia.’ “
“But of course!” she said, laughing. Whenever executives want to put an HR person on the defensive, they pull out the same tired old fighting words: You’re getting all gooey again; you’re not thinking like a serious businessperson. Those words can still strike fear into the hearts of HR people (the few who haven’t heard it a million times already).
It’s hard to stand your ground and argue for the ethical course of action, or the people-centered one. It can feel very exposed and very un-business-y to do that.
Then again, if we don’t do it, and take a chance at losing status (or even our jobs), what good are we?
“I didn’t know when I went into HR,” said another young friend, “that I’d be forced to take tough stands against the most senior people in our company, so often. Sometimes when they ask me, ‘Where’s your data?’ I have to say, ‘I don’t have any data, but I can tell you that my gut knows that plan is all wrong.’ ”
What can be harder than fighting down data with a gut feel? What could be more important?
One of the big lies making its way around the business arena over the past 10 years is “Numbers are the language of business.” Oh, please! Language is the language of business, whether that language is English, Chinese or Tagalog. Those numbers don’t move into those spreadsheets unassisted.
Only people can move the numbers. HR people start the conversations, build the trust, generate the enthusiasm and support the collaboration that makes those numbers move. Sometimes we have to stand up for the people and let the numbers shift for themselves. That’s when we may think, “I knew HR was a calling, but I didn’t know it was a perilous mission—until now!”
Great HR people stand between the employees whose energy and talent drives their companies and the fear-based decision-making that seeks to paint every move as a choice between business and its opposite—call it lack of rigor, wimpiness or sob-sister do-goodism. Great HR people know better. They’re willing to be called non-businesspeople, if that’s what it takes, to get to the right (ethical, smart, forward-looking, non-fear-based) answer. What could be more serious than that?
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