Author Keri Ohlrich asks whether you’re an HR warrior or HR weenie in her new book, “The Way of the HR Warrior.” Workforce Editorial Director Rick Bell caught up with Ohlrich via email.
Workforce: Are HR practitioners viewed as second-class citizens in the corporate world?
Keri Ohlrich: Short answer: Yes. If we’re being cheeky here, we might wish to be second-class citizens, but we’re more like third or fourth class.
Long answer: It depends. There are wonderful leaders and cultures who adore HR, understand the value and expect high performance from the HR department. Unfortunately, the majority of businesses and employees do view HR as second-class citizens and a department that does not contribute to the bottom line.
Why second-class citizens? Let’s look at leadership, HR, and society. Leadership sometimes only wants tactical and administrative HR support. Why wouldn’t they want a strategic HR professional? A strategic HR person questions and discusses how to help their organization reach higher levels. There are leaders who don’t want dissent or to be challenged. They simply want HR to do compliance work and payroll. You can spot companies who view HR as second class when they have HR reporting to Finance or Legal. Or even worse, when they give HR responsibilities to anyone in legal or finance because let’s face it, they would rarely, if ever, ask HR to handle finance or legal matters.
There are some HR talent who are only at the level of tactical and want to stay that way. They crave checking off tasks on the to-do list and completing what is easy. They get a charge from accomplishing tasks. Creating strategy and pushing the organization takes courage and long-term thinking. There are some in HR who resist that level of responsibility and are comfortable being second-class citizens—it’s a safer position.
Lastly, let’s look at society in general. Professions that are human focused are often not given the respect and/or paid like technology-focused professions (think teachers, nurses, social workers versus engineers). Human resources already starts in a one-down position as the “touchy-feely job” and “you just listen to people all day.” Then, let’s consider that the majority of HR professionals are females. Do I need to discuss how females are often viewed as second-class citizens? Cue mic drop.
WF: Since the beginnings of the #MeToo movement there were a lot of questions surrounding, ‘Where was HR’? So, where was HR?
Ohlrich: Great question. First, let’s address a couple types of HR professionals. Yes, there are definitely the HR professionals that we can all point at and call low-performing. And yes, there are HR professionals who knew about harassment and did nothing. They likely did nothing because they were afraid for their job, afraid to speak out, or even worse, just didn’t care that much. That’s the typical story we hear about, but let’s talk about another type of HR professional.
There were amazing HR professionals who were horrified by the behaviors of their leaders. They brought issues to the attention of those leaders and—wait for it—nothing happened. This occurred for a number of reasons: “he brings in so much revenue,” “he has great customer contacts,” or one of my favorites, “we cannot do anything about it because the CEO does the same thing.” There are many HR professionals who had the courage to address hostile work environments, discrimination, and harassment, and if leaders or the board of directors don’t care about it, HR becomes stuck. I know many HR rock stars who have left, had their departments reduced in size, or been fired for their courage and commitment to integrity. It is much easier to fire the trouble maker than to address the issue.
So, here’s my question: where were the leaders?
WF: Your book in part is titled HR Warrior. But you also cite the HR weenie. How can it be both ways in one profession?
Ohlrich: Ah, just like in every profession there are low- and high-performers. There are great CEOs and weenie CEOs, wonderful IT professionals and weenie IT, you get my drift.
But I think there are two main reasons why there is a question of why HR weenies and why that low expectation persists. One, HR is very visible in companies and, two, they are involved in emotional events (hiring, performance issues, layoffs). Therefore, when they’re HR weenies, that behavior is magnified.
Employees and hiring candidates will tell stories to family and friends about what horrible thing HR did (“they didn’t call me back,” “my resume went nowhere,” “they gave me zero severance”). Almost everyone has looked for jobs, received merits, or left jobs. All these situations involve HR and if there is a bad experience during these emotional times, well, then the stories about HR weenies grow exponentially!
But just as there are HR weenies, there are HR warriors who can change the perception. HR warriors can counteract the negative image of the HR weenie one employee at a time. And the same HR warrior might have been an HR weenie in the past. Heck, we all develop and grow—it’s possible for each of us to start off as an HR weenie and grow into an HR warrior. However, a true HR weenie wants to stay in a static position — they refuse to do the hard work to become a resilient and exemplary member of their organization. There were times in my career when I was sure I was more on the weenie side than the warrior side!
WF: Does HR exist to represent the best interests of the organization or the employee?
Ohlrich: It is not a zero-sum game. HR needs to represent both but it is difficult to strike this balance. Oftentimes the best interest of the company and the employee are opposing sides (should we talk about employee health benefits?). This is what makes HR work a wonderful challenge and not for the faint of heart. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many HR Weenies only side with either the employee or the organization and stick to that side no matter what!
Additionally, I think employees want to feel we are there for them, but don’t truly believe that. There are managers who won’t coach or have difficult conversations with employees. Instead, they have HR do “the dirty work.” As an aside, oh how I wish HR would get out of the business of doing managers’ jobs of talent management! Consequently, the employees see HR as the police, because poor managers say, “let me tell HR.” Frequently, employees only see HR when something bad is happening (layoffs, terminations, performance issues). We have an exposure issue. For example, when you only take your dog for a car ride when it’s time to visit the vet, what does the dog think? Car = bad. If HR is only there for bad times, employees think HR = bad. At the same time, organizations tend to believe that HR is there to support only the business.
HR needs courage to balance that tension and understand that the job is a lonely one. Sometimes an HR professional works behind the scenes to get laid-off employees an extra month of insurance, but employees will never know that. Sometimes HR works with legal to figure out the quickest, most efficient way to terminate an underperforming employee and help the organization save on a potential lawsuit, but it isn’t fast enough for the organization.
An HR warrior maintains this tension, and they’re courageous for both employees and the business. An HR professional who only uses one lens (the business or the employee) just might be an HR weenie!
WF: Are HR practitioners afraid to speak up when they see inappropriate conduct by their superiors?
Ohlrich: Well, yes and no. If the inappropriate conduct is their direct supervisor that is a sticky wicket. HR at this point is just like any other employee who has an inappropriate manager. The questions are: What if I say something? Will I get fired? Will my job get worse? Will I need to quit? To make things a bit more complicated, employees have the option of talking to HR, but HR might not have that option for themselves.
It takes the utmost courage to speak out directly against your manager, especially if s/he is the CEO. Where do you go with the complaint: the board, your peers, the public? And as we’ve seen in the past, when victims speak out, it often does not end well for them. The stakes are often higher for HR to speak out because they know the impact that leader has on the entire organization.
If the inappropriate behavior is not caused by the direct manager, but others on the leadership team, then this falls into typical HR duties. Meaning, HR needs to call out these behaviors and try to change them. Again, like the direct manager, the politics of the situation get more complex as the leaders are usually in alliance with one another and will, therefore, protect each other. It can be very difficult for HR to break through the leadership clique when bad behavior is occurring.
WF: What’s an example of “HR speak” that HR professionals should try to avoid? How should they rephrase it?
Ohlrich: So much business and HR speak! I think the most cringe-worthy one that sticks out is “the policy says” or “according to the policy.” It’s better to say, “Well, we can do that, and let’s understand the consequences first.” Of course, if harassment is involved, it’s best to stop that behavior in the first place!
But I have heard HR professionals use “policy speak” on issues that are not as black and white as sexual harassment. Some HR professionals, when asked a question, have sent an email with a cut-and-paste description of the policy to managers. If we just make binary decisions, then we could be replaced by robots. We need to understand the goals and motivations of the audience. We need to tailor our message to them and avoid HR speak.
We bring so much more than just “the policy says.” We understand the business, the culture, and the people, and we can help leaders think through complex issues. It requires more than “policy,” it requires understanding the business and the people. Dare I say it? It requires an HR Warrior!
WF: HR practitioners will go to conferences like SHRM and WorldatWork and get all pumped up then go back and face the realities of their job. How do they carry forth and utilize that positive vibe?
Ohlrich: It’s exciting to hear great ideas and best practices at conferences! And it’s definitely tough to go back to the “real world.” In fact, it can be extra frustrating because an HR professional can visualize what a great organization can look like and realize, “Crud, we aren’t that — not even close!”
To avoid the “post-conference blues,” set realistic goals. First, focus on the big picture. What is a talent goal for the organization? Maybe the business needs to overhaul the way they approach performance. Then ask, where is the organization on its journey to this goal? The HR professional needs to meet the organization where it is and then push! Of course, we have to get leadership buy-in first and explain how we are pushing for good business reasons, and not just to push.
Now, the HR professional knows the overall goal and the maturity level of their organization. From there, create three mini goals to help move toward the overall goal. Consider three that can be achieved in the next six to 12 months. By creating mini-goals, the HR professional can channel the energy of the conference and accomplish great things.
WF: The 2005 Fast Company article ‘Why I Hate HR’ argued that HR is lazy, unhelpful, etc. Why do these arguments still seem to linger?
Ohlrich: Triple sigh. I could blame the media coverage, Dilbert comics, The Office TV show, and I could name more shows that depict HR as lazy losers and freaks (yeah, looking at some of my favorite shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and A Series of Unfortunate Events). It reminds me of the statistics on plane crashes: because they’re covered in the media more often than car crashes, people tend to believe air travel is less safe than cars, when the exact opposite is true. We need a great PR firm to help overhaul the image of HR!
Now, I can’t just blame the media for HR’s poor image. We absolutely have poor talent in HR—the HR Weenies. As I mentioned earlier, HR interacts with every employee at some point in their lifecycle at work (hiring, performance, termination) therefore, one bad HR Weenie experience is told to an exponential number of people. The HR Warrior stories aren’t shared as widely.
We can do more with our profession. Leaders can demand more from HR (as well as themselves). HR can demand more from our profession. HR is indispensable for organizations and employees, and we HR professionals need to tell stories that showcase us in a different light. We have HR Warriors in companies and their voices need to be heard and their stories told. When we accomplish that, our perception of HR changes.