What Do HR People Need To Know?

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I am speaking at the CAI 2011 Human Resources Conference. I am talking about the future of HR, which is pretty optimistic of me because I spend a lot of time dealing with unmotivated and cynical HR professionals. But isn’t everyone unmotivated and cynical these days? There are economic pressures. Cranky employees. The ongoing recession. Just like every other job, the future looks pretty bleak for most HR specialists and generalists.

Most HR people try to see a light at the tunnel by clamoring to fill strategic roles within an organization. Strategy seems sexy. Strategy seems important. Strategy seems awesome. Dealing with an employee who cuts his fingernails at his desk? Working with a manager who screams at his subordinates? Coordinating a team-building activity? It feels so exhausting and demeaning.

And I get that. I really do.

But Human Resources is a people function, and most people aren’t strategic. They are reactionary, confused, and hate change. And since we don’t employ monkey-robots just yet, HR will always need to get the ‘people basics’ right before they are allowed to do more strategic work.

So what can you do in your current job to make it feel more strategic — even when it isn’t?

  • Set better boundaries. When we let CFOs and CEOs define HR, which they do in so many HR functions, we abdicate responsibility for our profession and our careers. We take responsibility for wellness fairs, dress code enforcement, and employee relations problems because we think that is a pathway to the more strategic discussions. It’s not.
  • Learn math and critical thinking skills. Take a “finance for non-financial professionals” short course. Learn math because it informs the language of business. And critical thinking skills are just as important as math because they balance out the intense pressure to rely upon data. Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean that it’s valuable—and just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean that it is meaningless.
  • Stop talking about compliance and focus on business results. Compliance is important, but challenging the status quo is equally as important. If something doesn’t make sense legislatively, work to fix it. If compliance costs money, make sure you operate ethically and safely but look for cost-saving solutions. And don’t assume that your background in Human Resources gives you some insight into the law. When in doubt, call on real experts.

The future of HR is like every other job: it’s work, which means that it’s messy. Very few people will become strategic thinkers and leaders. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be strategic in the way you approach your operational job duties. Learn to say no when appropriate, speak the language of business, and don’t try to pick a side between people and money. Both are important.

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