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What I Wish I Knew Then…

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I spend a great deal of time thinking, talking and writing about how HR could and should be different and better, and there is no shortage of others who do the same. Which is why I think it’s really important to make something perfectly clear- I am not a member of the HR Sucks Brigade. I love HR. And each year that passes I love it more. I love that it naively and enthusiastically sets out to bring some kind of order to the chaotic, dysfunctional and unavoidably imperfect collection of humans that is the modern organization.

I even love that we’re not so sure exactly what HR is anymore. Its borders grow ever blurrier – creating contested spaces between HR and OD, learning, change management, project management. It’s in these spaces that I can envision my future with HR, and if I’m honest…it makes my heart flutter a bit. Now, I can’t say that it was love at first sight; like any profession, the on-ramp was paved with bumpy cobbles, and I had to pay my fair share of dues.

But now that HR and I are in a long-term relationship, it’s all too easy to reflect back on our early years and think: “If I only knew then what I know now”. Hindsight being 20/20, I’d like to share some of those musings, if only in hopes that they might save the newly enamored from a little bit of heartache.

[Full disclosure – this post was gratefully inspired by the excellent @HRManNZ post ‘How to make a grown man cry and other HR lessons’]

  1. Work really hard (okay, a little obvious), but don’t just be a ‘doer’; strive to be a thinker. Look for the need behind the question, seek ways to do things better, be an information conduit to connect dots for others, think about how your tasks relate to each other and to the bigger picture. Have ideas. This applies even if at first you mostly do filing, or data entry, or photocopying.
  2. Learn everything you possibly can about your organization’s business and industry. Read voraciously. Listen closely in meetings and ask questions, even if you fear they are ‘dumb’. The challenges and opportunities that managers, teams and employees struggle with are, by extension, your challenges and opportunities also.
  3. Know that you can’t be everyone’s friend and don’t even try. Know that you will at some point have to draft a termination letter for a colleague, or help to investigate a complaint against them, and the distance between you and your non-HR co-workers will suddenly become all too visible.
  4. Consciously work on growing a thicker skin and a more resilient sense of humour. Both will keep you sane(r). Some employees and managers will distrust or dismiss you because of their own perspective on, or past experience with, HR. This is not about you personally. If you are female, at some point an older man will call you ‘princess’, wish you ‘Happy Secretary’s Day’, or ask you to make coffee. Laugh it off, unless it’s accompanied by a butt pinch. These men represent the last members of a dying breed, and mostly deserve a mild form of pity…
  5. At some point, you are going to have a bad boss. Depending on how bad, this might be really difficult, but you can make it easier by treating it as the incredible learning experience that it is. Take notes – literally. Write down all the things your manager does that you will not do when you are a manager some day, and the behaviours that you’ll try to discourage in the managers that you’ll support and advise in future.
  6. Don’t pretend, or even imply, that you can fix an employee’s complaint if you can’t. Someone tells you that their boss sucks, or they don’t like their co-worker/job/desk? Don’t tell them you’ll fix it – because in most cases you can’t, at least not the way they want you to.  Most often, you’ll be in a position where your options are to coach or advise, so don’t feed the misguided employee belief that you can have their boss fired, or get them transferred to their job of choice.
  7. You will be asked, at some point, to do something that is illegal or unethical. I can’t say that the line will always be clear, or that you won’t be tempted to take the more expedient, less ethical, route. Only you can decide where you will draw that line, and you will always have a choice, even if it’s to find another job.
  8. Be generous with what you do know. You might work in an environment where people are territorial or hoard information- don’t follow their lead. Share knowledge, give time, help others succeed. Don’t ever buy the idea that ‘success’ is a limited resource- others’ gains do not limit the possibility of gains of your own

“Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.

James A. Baldwin

Image credit: fdecomite via Flickr Creative Commons

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. hrmannz #

    This is great stuff Jane and thanks for the mention (although I see I’m not on your blogroll – hint, hint). I found myself agreeing with all of it. I think this is stuff everyone has to learn for themselves. I know I did and I’m much better for it. Wisdom only really comes with experience and working things out for yourself. That’s the “growing up” part for me.

    February 8, 2013
    • Hmmm…you’re not on my blogroll. A clear oversight on my part, which I have now corrected :) You’re right of course- we could each write about every hard-won lesson, but in the end they’re only words, and wisdom can’t be gained from words. Of course that won’t stop me from trying to sidestep painful learning experiences of my own by reading about others’ trials and successes :)

      February 10, 2013
  2. It is interesting that you were contemplating the fact that so much negative has been written about HR, but yet, that what you love about it is the opportunity (at least that’s what I read in your post). I agree with you, and have been contemplating the fact that most of my posts have been bashing HR, but yet I do it in the same spirit a parent would reprimand a child – because you care so much and want them to be the best that they can be….

    February 9, 2013
    • We criticize because we care! Personally I think ‘bashing’ is far too strong a word- your posts make it clear that you have an investment in HR and people practices being done well, which is a great vantage point to assess its current state and call out its flaws. What I get impatient with are the folks that dismiss HR as unsalvageable, or pointless to begin with. On the other hand, I also can’t connect with writing that talks about HR as a kind of higher calling, disconnected from the struggles most HR folks experience day-to-day – the lack of the necessary competencies to break out of the ‘admin box’, and the perceptions in their orgs that they shouldn’t bother trying to do that…

      February 10, 2013
      • Interesting. I picked up an article recently by Jac Fitz-Ens about “disassembling HR”. In it, he suggests that HR is too broad, requiring disparate sets of skills and focus, therefore it should be broken into manageable pieces. I’m so not there….I continue to see HR as “everything people” – and with that comes learning to staff, develop and focus on everything related to people.

        When I shifted my career from HRM to HRD, some of my team members suggested that OD/HRD should belong to Operations, not HR. I really don’t agree with that, as I think OD/HRD provides that strategic focus that HR needs in order to make a true impact on the organization.

        By the way, I added your blog to my blogroll – hope you don’t mind. We seem to be kindred HR spirits….

        February 11, 2013
      • Thank you Carol, I appreciate that :)

        February 14, 2013
  3. ChristopherinHR #

    Should be required reading for anyone considering the HR career tract… Thank you for this meaningful post Jane!

    February 28, 2013

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