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Your Wonderful, Terrible HR Life

June 10, 2001
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A s a human resource professional, youare cast in a leading role in the workplace drama. Yet people still have misconceptionsabout the character you play and the performers you support. Some perceive youas a people person and office social worker, others as a paper pusher and partyplanner.

Actually, yousay you are all of those things -- and a lot more: strategic business partner,financial counselor, employee advocate, management envoy, legal authority, eventplanner, morale booster, shrink, bureaucrat, bookkeeper, budget analyst, benefitscounselor, talent scout, keeper of records, and dispenser of job offers, payraises, pink slips -- and hankies.

Every June, inWorkforce magazine and at Workforce online, you share your stories,tales that speak poignantly and honestly about the range and nature of yourwork, your challenges and joys, your bad days and your good.

This year youcame through in greater numbers and with more candor than ever before. You toldus heart-wrenching stories about having to lay off people who had terminal diseases,conducting exit interviews with sobbing workers, dealing with sensitive transgenderissues, and coping with family tragedies.

"I was drivingback to work from a lunch break and saw a former employee who had been let godue to an extended leave that surpassed boundaries, begging on the side of theroad. I knew he had two young girls at home that he and his wife had adoptedseveral years before. It broke my heart."

And you candidlyshared your own human frailties and personal mistakes:

"I messedup on payroll for about 300 employees," one person volunteered. "Icut the checks on the wrong date. I had to come in at 4 a.m. to correct theproblem. As I thought I was finishing up, I noticed a computer problem. Whenvoiding the first checks, none of the deductions credited back. Everything wasoff. It was the longest and worst day of my life."

You also expressedthe pride and joy you feel when people around you pull together to get a bigjob done, and when people express appreciation for your work.

"My bestday in HR came after a long, exhaustive struggle with an insurance company onbehalf of an employee who was trying to get approval for an oxygen-measuringmachine ... to keep her asthmatic daughter from ending up in the emergency room.When I informed the employee that a machine was approved, she cried, and I cried,and it was wonderful."

And from a managerwho recalled facilitating a company retreat: "People worked on a (mission)statement for the company that reflected the true heart of our employees. Whenyou tap into an employee's soul, you receive an incredible amount of loyaltyand buy-in to your organization. It's something that can't be bought or taught.It (can be) ... an almost sacred experience."

This year, thevast majority of survey respondents were women -- 85 percent. About half --49 percent -- were under the age of 40. Most of the more than 200 survey participants-- 70.8 percent -- have worked in HR for more than 5 years, 21.5 percent for10 to 15 years, and 20.1 percent for more than 15 years.

When asked howHR affects key management decisions, 42.2 percent said they were full-fledgedparticipants, 43 percent that they were consulted on important issues but weren'tregulars at the executive management table, and 14.8 percent said they weretypically left in the dark.

On questionsabout on-the-job violence and media reports on related trouble in the workplace,36.1 percent said they haven't been affected at all. But most said they've madesome changes: 26.5 percent have more security; 23.1 percent do more pre-employmentscreening; and half -- 49 percent -- said they pay more attention than theyonce did to workers who seem unhappy or angry. Thirteen percent have actuallyexperienced violence at their companies.

Not surprisingly,the recent economic slowdown has had a palpable impact on many in HR: 23 percenthave had to lay people off in recent months; 37.8 percent have slowed hiring;34.5 percent said they have fewer resources for projects such as HRMS upgradesand critical software training. Despite a cooling economy, however, 34.5 percentsaid their company hasn't been affected by changes in the economy at all.

This year'sparticipants came from a wide range of industries, from the military to mentalhealth. Many (24.4 percent) came from manufacturing/software/systems, the government/military/nonprofit(14.1 percent), and the services sector such as health (12.8 percent). Otherindustries included travel, entertainment, hotels and restaurants, commercialfood processing, the Internet marketplace, logistics, social service agencies,and education.

In this year'ssurvey, participants were asked for personal comments about HR, and they wroteup a storm.

Hereare snapshots of their responses:

 

  1. What is the biggestmisconception about a career in HR?

  2. What's the smartestthing you ever did in the course of your HR career?

  3. Tell us aboutyour worst day in HR.

  4. Tell us aboutyour best day in HR.

  5. What's the bestthing you ever learned about HR from an employee?

  6. Have you evercreatively broken your company's rules to accomplish something youthought was important?

  7. What one long-term money-saving idea won you kudos from top management?

  8. What one cost-cuttingidea that's worked for you could other HR professionals implementimmediately?

  9. If you had yourHR career to do over again, what one thing would you do differently?

  10. What one pieceof advice did you receive that made a difference in your career?

  11. What one book,fiction or non-fiction, most influenced your professional development,and why?

What is the biggest misconceptionabout a career in HR?
Given an anonymous opportunity to grumble and complain,many of you did. "The biggest misconception is that HR is fun and you getto work with people," one person groused. When people think HR, they "don'tthink about layoffs, demotions, people being passed over for promotion, harassmentcomplaints, personality conflicts, and all of the other things that show upat the door of an HR practitioner."

Of all the peoplewho responded, no one said HR is easy. Nor was there any agreement on HR's rolein the workplace. "One misconception is that you will have a seat at thetable," some said. Others had quite a different view: "The misconceptionis that HR is administrative rather than strategic."

Other responses:

  • "That HR can function as a separateentity from the rest of the company."

  • "That HR has no intrinsic valueand eats budget money."

  • "That it is all warm and fuzzycommunications with the workers. Or that it is creative and involved inmaking a more congenial atmosphere for people at work. Actually it is bothof those some of the time, but most of the time it is a big mountain ofpaperwork which calls on a myriad of skills besides the 'people' type. Itis law, accounting, economics, philosophy, and logic as well as psychology,spirituality, tolerance, and humility."

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What's the smartest thingyou ever did in the course of your HR career?
Of all the questions you answered, none prompted amore unanimous response. Over and over again, you said that the smartest thingyou did was to continue learning by going to school, earning degrees, upgradingskills. Many mentioned receiving SPHR certification. Several stressed the importanceof changing jobs, and of knowing every facet of an organization.

"Findingout firsthand what line people think," one person said. "I made pizzas.I made tacos. I sold merchandise. I counted trees. I negotiated land deals.I learned the business of my (internal) clients and I learned to talk theirlanguage."

Other commentsincluded:

  • "Embedded my ethics into mywork and allowed the feminine aspect of me to shine in my work instead ofhiding it behind a corporate 'suit.'"

  • "Learned to be generalist, allaspects of HR...Moved to a company where HR was active in management."

  • "Started employee-recognitionprograms. The simple act of recognizing an employee's performance in frontof their peers can make all the difference when it comes to productivityand retention."

Tell us about your worstday in HR
Survey respondents particularly liked this invitation.And it is understandable. Many have experienced dreadful and dangerous daysthat only their HR colleagues can truly comprehend.

"On thefirst day of my new job, I had to fire an employee whom I'd fired in my previousjob," one recalled. Another said simply, "Having to conduct six exitinterviews in one day and then having my boss conduct mine!"

A person in thefood industry remembered the day she had to terminate a butcher with a drugproblem. "He was very moody and aggressive. When he entered my office hehad on his knife belt..."

Many mentionedterminations and union problems, losing court cases, and receiving officialcharges in the mail from the EEOC. Some talked about handling sexually sensitiveissues. "My worst day was when a male employee came into my office andannounced that he was beginning a 'transgender' process, which included comingto work dressed as a woman." And, "Counseling two transvestites aboutappropriate behavior and appearance at work."

But it was thestories of violence and illness that often were the most compelling. One respondenttalked about the day her HR administrator's "estranged 6-foot-4-inch, 250-poundhusband came to work, drunk, high on steroids, and wielding a knife."

Other memorablestories:

  • "My worst day was with an employeewith emotional problems. She was picking fights with people because shethought she was being possessed by evil spirits dwelling within others.While we were talking, she slithered to the floor and began writhing andflicking her tongue out, as if she were a snake."

  • "When I worked in a departmentstore and had personnel and store operations reporting to me. One of mysecurity staff was stabbed by a shoplifter. She survived, but all of mysecurity people handed in their resignations."

  • "Letting go someone who'd justreceived a cancer diagnosis."

  • "Having to terminate a largegroup of tenured employees for e-mail abuse, specifically pornography. Theinvestigation was massive and the content pretty horrific."

Tell us about your bestday in HR
Everyone needs a pat on the back. HR people often aremore likely to give the pats than to receive them. So it isn't surprising thatmany respondents said that their best day was when they received a thank-youcard or flowers, or some other form of appreciation or acknowledgment for ajob well done.

Many expressedthoughts like this: "Every day I'm able to help an employee make his orher workplace a better place is the best day in HR."

Respondents tookpride and satisfaction in helping to recruit good people, seeing them promoted,designing higher pay scales, saving companies from expensive lawsuits. But thebest days were more personal.

"The nightArthur got off his night shift in shipping and came up to my office for a cupof coffee. 'You know I own a house? Twenty years ago when I was running in thestreets, it wasn't even a dream of mine. I would never have thought I'd owna house of my own. This job's made it possible.' "

And from others:

  • "I was given a large and unexpectedpay raise."

  • "Strangely enough, the day aftera major layoff. I'd been given two weeks to reduce head count 30 percent.A large number of employees and members of the leadership team complimentedour group on our thoroughness, organization, and compassion. Dealing withaffected employees and survivors, it was probably the toughest thing I'vehad to do in my career, but it was really gratifying to know that we hadpreserved the dignity of everyone involved."

  • "The day I passed out $100 billsto employees who'd completed a training program. At first they thought theywere pink slips."

What's the best thingyou ever learned about HR from an employee?
"Tell the truth 100 percent of the time. Whateveryou do, DO NOT LIE!"

Answers to thisquestion tended to be short and direct. "Don't offer advice unless asked.""Every day I have the opportunity to change someone's life." "Alwaysmaintain a sense of humor." "When you treat employees with respect,no matter what their position is in the organization, they will come throughfor you."

"That Ican make a difference in someone's life just by listening and offering honestfeedback." "Never make assumptions about anyone." "Listen,listen, listen." "Don't gossip; be patient." "Don't sugarcoatbad news." "Don't assume anything."

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Have you ever creativelybroken your company's rules to accomplish something you thought was important?
Although more people said they operated under the assumptionthat it's easier to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission, severaldid say they wouldn't under any circumstance break rules. Dozens more, however,shared experiences in which the voice within won out.

"An applicantwho came to us from a homeless organization confessed during the interview thathe had a criminal record," one respondent related. "Normally, I wouldhave declined to hire him, but I could tell that he had come clean, was sincere,and really needed an opportunity. After a lot of consideration, I recommendedhim for hire.

"He workedin a position in the warehouse where he stocked shelves with equipment and sweptthe floor. His love for his work was apparent to everyone. Within three monthshe received the Employee of the Month award and became a company spokesman tothe community. He worked hard, was honest, and was a truly good person. AlthoughI can say that I wouldn't do it for everyone, sometimes you have to trust yourgut and take a risk."

Others offeredthese comments:

  • "No. To break the rules hereusually costs you your job."

  • "Sure. The most creative wayto get around some policies is to formulate a work group or task force tobrainstorm ways of achieving an outcome."

  • "Comp time. I have often allowedmy HR employees to flex their schedules to accommodate things that theyhave going on."

What one cost-cuttingidea that's worked for you could other HR professionals implement immediately?
Though respondents came up with many creative ideas,a general theme emerged: the Internet is a good and affordable recruiting tool.

Other ideas included:

  •  "High-attendance incentiveprogram where employees earn 'banked' hours with 100 percent attendancethat can be used for emergencies, and hours not used are paid out at theend of the year. Our absenteeism rate dropped from 3.56 percent to 2 percentin less than a year."

  • "Training in-house is much cheaperthan sending everyone out to seminars."

  • "Use a digital camera insteadof requesting new hires to submit a printed photo. No development costsor waiting time."

  • "Use self-funded insurance."

  • "An employee-referral program."

  • "Hand-written notes and computer-madecertificates have an impact on morale way beyond their cost."

  • "Recruit on the Internet!"

  • "Instead of providing full relocationto college students, give them cash. They will move themselves, have cashin pocket, and think more positively about the company. In my workplacewe saved about $5,000 per student, $100,000 annually."

What one long-term money-savingidea won you kudos from top management?
It was a question that one incredulous HR professionalsimply couldn't relate to. "Kudos from management?"

Many others sharedconcrete ideas:

  • "Researching and applying forstate training grants."

  • "Billboard advertising at theintersection of two major highways."

  • "Web recruitment. Costs havedropped and applicant pool has grown."

  • "Really shopped around for insurancecompanies even though it's the most boring job on the planet. Some companiesare a little better, a little more flexible, and a lot cheaper."

  • "Welcome alternative work schedulesand grant more flextime."

If you had your HR careerto do over again, what one thing would you do differently?
Surprisingly, several people responded, "I wouldnot change a thing." But there were a few who grumbled, "Not go intoHR."

Other popularresponses included: Gotten my degree sooner. Started my career earlier. Stayedout of management -- too much stress from execs. Gotten an education in HR.Learned to listen better. Not argued with senior management about issues thatreally weren't important. Changed jobs more often.

What one piece of advicedid you receive that made a difference in your career?
Once again, themes emerged, particularly thoughts aboutgetting an education, finishing a degree, listening more. "Paper wins"and "Document everything" also were frequent responses. Several answeredwith brief comments, often with an exclamation mark: Innovate! Network! Care!Never settle!

Other advice:

  • "Know your employees, and letthem know you care about them."

  • "Fire someone in the first 30days of your employment. It establishes your presence in the company."

  • "Don't burn any bridges."

  • "Take responsibility for youractions."

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What one book, fictionor non-fiction, most influenced your professional development and why?
HR professionals would make up one weird book group.Their tastes range from self-help business books such as Don'tSweat the Small Stuff, First,Break All the Rules, and Escapefrom Cluelessness to OfMice and Men, ToKill a Mockingbird, and the Bible.

And, in keepingwith their rich range of responses to the survey, they admire writers as differentas AynRand, with her devotion to capitalism, and the Dalai Lama, with his dedicationto compassion.

Thanks to surveyrespondents, we at Workforce -- and our readers throughout the world-- have learned a great deal about today's HR professionals: what you care about,what you're up against, and the nature of your role as a leading player in theworkplace drama. Your comments help move the profession forward, and assistus all in our understanding of work that is -- whether confounding or rewarding-- of vital significance in the workplace today.

We'd love tohear more from you. Please drop us a line.

Workforce, June 2001, pp. 32-38-- Subscribe Now!

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