Tales from the Trenches: Reflections on 30 Years in HR

After 30 years of hiring, firing and policing squabbles, Janet Garber reflects on her rich career in human resources.

By Janet Garber May 1, 2016
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5Viewpoint.jpg0516cover.jpgI finally did it. I retired. My long career is starting to feel like a dream—one that started in the days before “human resources” entered the lexicon, when the only business major was accounting.

How in the world did I get into HR? Back in the 1960s, as a liberal arts major by default, I just took the courses I liked: English and French literature. Career choices for women were limited. While I dreamed of being a writer, I knew I needed a job in the “real world” first. “Be a teacher,” said Mom. “Get a job as a secretary,” said Dad. Many of my peers went to graduate school, traveled, sat for government tests. They mostly became teachers or social workers. I decided to focus on the business world.

Getting ‘Personnel’

I interviewed for “personnel” positions, hoping to put my penchant for interacting with people to good use. Evidently, I did not have “the look”—whatever that was. Was it based on being a graduate of an Ivy League school or having better, more expensive taste in clothes, or did it have to do with belonging to the “right” religion or socioeconomic class? Whatever it was, I could not crack the code.

I found work instead as a French-English bilingual secretary for a wine and spirits importer—a position which, after a few years, morphed into a quasi-HR role. I parlayed that experience into a job as HR director at a family-run manufacturing company. With little real knowledge of HR and not much background in it, I decided that my first move would be to join the Society for Human Resource Management, sign up with the local chapter and attend its lunchtime meetings. I also decided to take classes at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Learning the Ropes

The more I learned about HR, the more panicked I became. I realized that the manufacturing company had no I-9 forms on file, no job descriptions, no salary structure and so on. It didn’t even have a certificate of occupancy for the building we were in! Bringing the company into compliance became my first order of business.

I found that HR suited me to a T. In my various roles, culminating as chief HR officer, I combined everything that mattered to me in this one career: writing, teaching, counseling. I could be as creative as my bosses permitted, and I could be rewarded for enriching the daily lives of employees. Occasionally I thought, “What? They pay me for this?”

I wanted to be known as a straight shooter. I’d lay all the facts out for an employee who was struggling to meet expectations and say, “I’m afraid if you fail to correct these problems, in a few weeks you’ll be sitting where you’re sitting now for your exit interview. Do you want to see that happen? I don’t.”

War Stories

I never wanted a termination to come as a surprise to anyone—the individual needed to earn it. So I helped supervisors and managers to document any performance issues and to make sure that employees who were having serious performance problems knew that things were not working out.

One time I had to fire my own receptionist. I had tried everything, even rotating her through other jobs. Nothing worked. I told her she was fired. To my surprise, she hugged me and agreed that she deserved to be terminated. She needed a push to go out and find something she really wanted to do. This scenario played itself out several times over the years. It wasn’t my last hug.

I enjoyed enriching the daily work lives of everyone in the company. I firmly believe that having fun at work increases productivity and aids retention. We had employee art fairs, lunch-and-learns, summer outings and special interest clubs of every stripe: writing, reading, cooking, yoga, knitting, music and so on. I found that the more responsive HR is to the needs of the employees, while upholding the mission of the company, the happier the atmosphere is and the fewer issues that crop up. If we create an environment that honors communication and respect, we’re on easy street.

HR is a worthy, high-minded profession. We’re not the ones making widgets, but we’re protecting and nurturing those who do. Sometimes it’s a tightrope act, balancing the needs of the individual against those of the company, but the work is always meaningful. A sense of humor is essential, as well as a sense of perspective. Common sense doesn’t hurt either.

Of course, employees drove me crazy at times: Two grown women fighting over air conditioning. A young program assistant who required a dishwasher for her coffee cup. The manager who stole $20,000 in coins from the copier machines.

Some funny—and not-so-funny—things I’ve heard in my offices over the last 30 years:

  • “You mean to say if I don’t do my job, I could get fired?”
  • “I am not leaving. I like it here.”
  • “Yes, I came into HR crying with my boss’s handprint on my face, but you’re the ones who made a big deal of it.”
  • “You’re HR. You deal with it!” (This from an employee who dumped a suspicious, rattling package on my desk. I did deal with it: I called the bomb squad.)

What I Learned

Who can deny that HR is stressful, particularly when staffing is not adequate or when personalities and visions clash? For me, though, it was a wonderful career that gave me material to write innumerable articles and two books. The first, I Need a Job, Now What? (Silver Lining, 2001), contains all the accumulated wisdom I’ve been itching to impart to job seekers I interviewed over the years. The second, my comic debut novel, Dream Job (Lulu, 2016), reveals the mayhem lying beneath the surface of the workplace just looking for an excuse to erupt.

We often act as the police in our companies, setting policies and procedures and making sure wrongdoers get appropriate sanctions. But the rewarding part is helping our staff achieve their goals.

I often fantasized about working full time as a writer and never having to solve anyone’s problems again. Hey—that’s what I’m doing now! So I guess you could say I am finally living my dream, although the journey was circuitous. One thing this writer never expected: how much I miss the people.

Janet Garber was, until recently, chief HR officer at Practising Law Institute in New York City. She will autograph copies of Dream Job at the SHRM 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition in Washington, D.C.

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