How to Practice HR on Purpose

Reflections on how to practice the profession with intention and inspiration.

By Steve Browne May 24, 2017
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Steve Browne is geeked. Those who follow the HR leader and blogger on Twitter will know exactly what that means. Even if you don’t, these three excerpts from Browne’s new book, HR on Purpose!! (Society for Human Resource Management, 2017), will make it pretty clear: He’s excited—about people, human resources and the future of business and the HR profession. 

This year, Browne has a lot to be geeked about. In addition to releasing his first book, which will be available in June through Amazon and the SHRMStore, he will speak at the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition in New Orleans on June 20 about how to cultivate “brand-name” HR. 

Whether you check out what he has to say in person, on Twitter (@sbrownehr) or in writing, you’ll find his enthusiasm is contagious. In fact, one exclamation point may no longer seem sufficient for expressing your excitement. —The Editors  

Be Strategic Daily

Most of my extended family came from a farming background where hard work is a fact of life. I remember staying with my grandparents, aunts and uncles as a child. We woke before dawn and worked through nightfall. There were no “days off” because we were always paying attention to animals, crops and equipment. 

I’m thankful for my experiences on the farm. I learned how to work diligently and do what I was told. But I didn’t learn much about planning, forecasting or brainstorming. So when I started in HR as an internal recruiter, I took an approach similar to how I worked on the farm: Take open requisitions, source candidates, interview them, extend a job offer—repeat. Even though my focus was narrow, I enjoyed the consistency of my role ... for a while.

But I had an inkling that HR could offer more, so I made the jump from specialist to generalist. 

I had no idea how unprepared I was. Being a generalist requires you to wear somewhere between 10 to 1,000 hats at once. Every. Single. Day. Variety is the norm, and it isn’t always your friend. It’s very easy for the pace of a “regular” day to come crashing down on you in ways you never anticipated.

When I’ve asked other HR professionals what they do, the standard answer is, “I put out fires.” Think about that statement.

If that’s the only thing you do, you’re being reactionary. Granted, unanticipated issues will come up, but if everything is in flames, there are too many fire hazards in your “house.” Also, if your company hired you only to fight fires, you need to question how it views the HR function in the first place. Your job shouldn’t be to sit by a large, red phone anticipating the next emergency.

For the past 15 years, HR has yearned for the mythical “seat at the table.” Countless books, magazine articles, blogs and conference presentations are devoted to this idea. We look at this seat as some crowning achievement that will finally validate who we are and what we do. The problem is that our seat will remain empty as long as we continue to practice transactionally versus strategically.

In other words, if we’re always fighting fires, we can never get ahead of our circumstances. The unfortunate reality is that most HR practitioners don’t function in a strategic manner. We tend to have people come to us—but the reason is rarely for our input, business insight or brainstorming about solutions to issues facing the organization. 

When you’re in a position in which people view you as someone to engage only when needed, you’ll never be seen from a strategic vantage point. To be honest, this realization is disheartening, and I think it’s become an almost insurmountable barrier for many HR professionals. It’s understandable that many throw in the towel.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, we need to stand up and push back. Quit yearning to be seen as strategic and be intentionally strategic in all you do!! 

You can start through one simple practice—be a connector. Instead of jumping from person to person and opinion to opinion, step back and see the different components and people who are interacting. Evaluate where connections can occur. Doing this will give you a broad perspective, and you won’t get buried in minutia. Bringing various people together can do so many positive things. It encourages work across departments and teams. It shows workers how they are all interconnected and interdependent. It facilitates different perspectives that lead to more holistic business solutions.

So put the axe, coat and fire helmet away, and pick up the clipboard or tablet. Decide today to spend time with people in their environment so you’re no longer seen only as the principal’s office where people come when they’re troubled.

Get Real on Culture: Lava Lamps, Music and Toys

Several years ago, an HR friend invited me to visit him at work. He was the head of recruiting for a national company that makes uniforms. I was geeked to get a look behind the scenes of this well-respected employer. 

I knew I had crossed into another organizational dimension when I pulled my car into the company’s “campus.” Its footprint was enormous, and I felt out of place even before walking into the ornate building.

The minute I entered the lobby, an identically dressed duo of receptionists gazed straight through me. They wore matching red blazers over perfectly pressed white blouses, and each had a blue scarf around her neck. The men milling about the massive edifice wore crisp white shirts with striped ties or business suits. Looking down at my bright yellow golf shirt with khakis, I began to feel out of place.

The receptionist “twins” were welcoming … to a point. I had to sign in and note my reason for visiting and whom I was scheduled to see. They then pulled out the visitor name badge and asked me to wait until my friend came out of some unseen catacomb to take me into the inner workings of this behemoth. In his office, I told him how uncomfortable I felt because I didn’t look like the people around me. He reminded me that I was at a uniform company!! The employees were wearing the products the company sold. It all made sense after that.

I had walked into their culture. It was obvious they owned this look and approach, and if you were an employee, you had better buy in as well. It was required.

The concept of “culture” is nothing earth-shattering or new other than the reality of companies now understanding the power of what a culture is and the pressure to conform to its norms. HR has been named stewards of culture forever, but usually it acts as an outsider that facilitates contrived social events. It’s time to peel back the layers of culture to understand HR’s opportunity within this vast facet of organizational life.

So, just what is culture? A formal definition is:

“The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.”—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

An alternative definition is:

“Culture is the number one reason employees stay with or leave your company.”—Steve Browne, HR savant.

You may be asking, “How is that a definition of culture?” It’s based on having more than three decades of HR experience. If employees leave because they have a terrible boss, it’s because your company’s culture allows that person to be awful. If they stay for the pay, their decision is reflective of your organization’s compensation structure. Every aspect of how your company works can be tied to culture. Here are a few elements that HR needs to understand when it comes to culture.

1. Culture Is Not the Same for All

Too often company leaders, and especially HR, try to mash culture into a one-size-fits-all model. We create programs, slogans, posters and kitschy T-shirts to communicate these efforts and ensure we get buy-in from staff. It never works. 

Why? Because people are not the same. Every individual brings his or her own mix of skills, strengths and attributes to the job and the company. So, if everyone is unique, why do we continue to force conformity on our workforces?  

2. There Are Many Cultures in Your Company

We have taken the term “culture” to describe all attributes of our companies. That’s not realistic. You have an overall organizational culture as well as microcultures within departments, locations, geographies, etc. The more you try to force people into small boxes, the more likely it is that someone will jump out and do something different. The reason is not that the person is being rebellious; it’s simply human nature to explore new boundaries.

3. Senior Management Doesn’t Own Culture; HR Does

This is an area of debate in the business world. It is true that your company’s senior managers strongly influence decision-making and the environment in the organization. Traditionally, the executive team has owned culture by default. The only reason for this is that no one ever pays attention to culture until economic challenges or other problems arise—and then the response is to convene a “culture committee” or a strategic culture initiative, which usually doesn’t turn out so well. That’s why HR should step up and take the reins of culture from the get-go. Consider the following formula:

Culture = people

People = HR

Therefore, culture = HR!!

We are in the best position to make culture come to life because we are in charge of the people practices of the organization.

Remember the uniform company? Let me share a different environment, and then you can compare the two.

My office is a menagerie. When you enter, you encounter myriad colors, sounds and toys. Yes, toys. I have three lava lamps sitting on a small wooden file cabinet, including an “original” from the ’70s with purple globs floating up and down; one that my kids gave me that constantly changes color; and the newest addition, a gift from a friend that looks like a Jedi light saber!!

In front of the lava lamps are a traditional Magic 8 Ball and an Affirmation Ball, which has a smiley face and gives only positive answers. And above one of my two chairs hangs a sword (in a sheath). It’s fabulous because I require all team members who visit me to sit below it. On my desk you’ll find a jelly bean dispenser, various tchotchkes and a mix of books you can borrow and read. My walls are filled with mismatched art, including a framed sofa-size print of the legends of rock ‘n’ roll. (I quiz people on how many artists they know.) Finally, you will always hear music. I never turn it off regardless of who comes to visit.

Recently, the founder of our company popped in to say hi. He’s an incredible person and a true icon in our community. After looking around my office, he stood there for a few minutes without saying anything. I started to get nervous.

He took a deep breath and said, “Brownie, I love your office.”

I relaxed. He continued, “Do you know why I love it?”

“No sir, I don’t.”

“I love it because it describes what you do for us. Don’t change that.”

Did you catch that? The company’s founder feels that my office reflects who I am and what I bring to the company and its culture. Is there any bigger endorsement you can get?

Culture starts with you. If you approach HR from the perspective of rules and compliance, take a look at the culture that creates and see how people respond to it. Try instead building a culture that is intentional, inviting, inquisitive and intriguing. Notice any difference in what people reflect back to you?

Also remember that there is no “right” or “wrong” culture. HR wastes too much time and effort mimicking other companies known for their culture. Come to grips with the fact that your company won’t be Google, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks or Zappos, unless you happen to work at one of those places. But it will be your culture. That’s a great thing!! The idiosyncrasies and nuances of your company make it what it is. Own it. Build it. Love it.

Dealing with the Dark Side

If you broke down an HR person into components, you might find a mix of 60 percent psychologist, 20 percent paralegal and 20 percent administrator/compliance officer. Yet some people spend more than 40 percent of their time and effort on the legal and compliance items. This isn’t right or wrong, but my contention is that HR people gravitate toward legal matters because they are more black and white than the messy human element. 

We avoid the so-called “soft side” of HR because we mistakenly believe that absolutes will work with people. They don’t and never have. We need to come to terms with the fact that we swim in an ocean of gray. 

We all know that people are tough. But we often lose sight of a key fact: We’re people too!!

When we deal with people all the time, we never put ourselves in the mix. This is a mistake. As soon as you take yourself out of the equation, you’ll become calloused and bitter. You will see the dark side of others, and that will become your focus and approach to HR.

The reality of our role is that we hear others’ complaints and concerns on a daily basis. That isn’t easy but we need to learn how to be sounding boards without wading through the dark side of people’s behaviors.

I’ve found four ways that have helped me address the dark side of HR over my career.

1. Remember That Everyone Has Value

When we focus only on “high potentials,” we ignore the vast majority of our workforce. I like the idea that all employees are talented because it’s a fact. If you make your first thought that people have innate talent, you’ll soon see the value they truly possess.

Address people as people first, not the subjects of policies or procedures. If their behavior falls into an area that deserves discipline, be consistent with it. But realize we all have “stuff” going on in our lives. Strive for understanding before acting.

2. Surround Yourself with Positive People

If you only hang around with people who talk about others negatively, you have no hope of being positive yourself. You see, being positive is not how most people naturally approach life; in fact, it takes incredible effort.

Challenge those who are always skeptical of others or who accuse you of putting on a show by embracing positivity. That saddens me but doesn’t sway me. I have been fiercely positive my entire life. 

That said, whenever the darkness comes, and it does, I have a stronger base to work from because I have chosen to build my core group of friends with positive folks. 

3. Have an Accountability Partner

You will slip and get dark, so it helps to have an anchor or two who will be there for you no matter what. These people are your “confessors” who will listen to whatever you need to share while also calling you out on your blind spots or behavior that starts to get cloudy. Make sure that your accountability relationship is one that allows for give and take, grace, and honest, direct feedback. 

4. Be the Light in the Dark

I know this sounds like a catch phrase, but hear me out. You choose how you approach people every single day. If you think poorly of others, it will show. 

I get geeked when I see other people. It doesn’t matter if they’re employees or strangers I pass on the street. Something as simple as saying “hello” or smiling may be just what someone needs to shatter the darkness he or she is dealing with. No great efforts and initiatives are needed. You have the ability to be the light. The decision is yours.   

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, is the executive director of human resources for LaRosa’s Inc., a restaurant chain in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, area, and a member of SHRM’s board of directors. His new book, HR on Purpose!!, is available for purchase at the SHRMStore in June 2017.  

Photography by Annette Navarro for HR Magazine.

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