This HR Life: Reflections on 30 Years in Human Resources

By Janet Garber Feb 29, 2016
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I finally did it. I retired. My new life involves long hours of sitting at my computer and twisting words so that they spell out a story or a poem or an essay. My time is my own. My long career in HR across five different industries is starting to feel like a dream—a good dream that started in the days before “human resources” entered the lexicon, the days when the only business major was accounting.

However in the world did I get into HR? Back in the ’60s, a liberal arts major by default—I just took what I liked: English and French literature courses—career choices were limited. “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. All I knew was that I wanted to be in the real world. The business world. Publishing. My fantasy was that I’d be given the opportunity to write, shove my manuscript under the eyes of my supervisor and from there I’d become an author. In the second of the two publishing jobs I held that first summer, my boss told me if I put in five years of proofreading punctuation, I’d have a shot at writing a paragraph of copy—probably.

Each night I came home to my parents’ house with a colossal headache; I was drinking too much coffee at work and visiting the ladies room much too often (these being the only two excuses to get up from the long desk we proofreaders shared). My boss teasingly called me “telephone lady” because I liked to interact with my colleagues. Talking was discouraged.

Readers, I quit both publishing jobs. Total time invested: the summer of 1968. I signed on as a Department of Social Services caseworker. The job was highly paid (compared to publishing), enabling me to move out on my own to an apartment shared with a friend. After a couple of years working with families on welfare and opening a city-run day care center, I left New York to attend graduate school, took detours to Mexico and France where I taught English as a second language and did translations, and …  never mind. Better wait for my memoirs!

Back in the U.S. I interviewed for “personnel” positions here and there, hoping to put my penchant for interacting with people to good use. Evidently, I did not have “the look”—whatever that was. I finally got the message when one recruiter pointedly stared at my red-and-black plaid dress during the entire interview. Was “the look” based on being a graduate of an Ivy League school, or having better, more expensive taste in clothes, or being the “right” religion or from the “right” 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 my experience into a job as HR director at a family-run manufacturing company. With no real knowledge of HR and little experience, my first moves were to join the Society for Human Resource Management, sign up with the local chapter and attend their lunchtime meetings, and take classes at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The more I learned, the more panicked I became. I realized 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. Getting the company compliant became my first order of business (later came the newsletters, the barbecues and the sales dinners).

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, counselling. I could be as creative as my bosses permitted and be rewarded for enriching the daily lives of employees. Occasionally I thought, “What? They pay me for this?”

Whether working as a generalist or a specialist, I sought to establish my reputation within the company as a person of integrity, one who dealt fairly and equitably with all staff members. 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.” 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, document, document any performance issues and to make sure that employees who were having serious performance problems knew that things were just 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 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 in my experience. It wasn’t my last hug.

One aspect of HR that I particularly enjoyed was enriching the daily work lives of everyone in the company. I firmly believe having fun at work actually increases productivity and aids in retention. We had employee art fairs, lunch ’n learns, summer country club 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 and credo of the company, the happier the atmosphere is in the workplace and the fewer issues that crop up. If we as HR professionals 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 HR is always meaningful, responsible and praiseworthy work. A sense of humor is essential, as well as a sense of perspective. Common sense doesn’t hurt either, but we all know common sense is not all that common. HR may not be rocket science but finding a solution to every problem can be wearing.

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.”
  • “A few times a week my boss comes behind me and chokes me.”
  • “You’re HR. You deal with it!” (an employee said, dumping a suspicious, rattling package on my desk). I did. I called the bomb squad.

Who can deny that HR is a stressful profession, particularly when staffing is not adequate, or when personalities and visions clash? For me, it was a wonderful career that gave me material to write innumerable career 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 (2016), displays the behind-the-scenes mayhem simmering beneath the surface of the workplace and threatening to erupt.  (Who says HR people are humorless?)

We often act as the police in our companies, setting down policies and procedures and making sure wrong-doers get appropriate sanctions. But that’s not the fun part. The fun part is belonging to an entity devoted to accomplishing some good in the world and being in a position to help our staff members achieve their goals. Yes, I often fantasized about working behind a computer, generating reports and never actually having to solve anyone’s problems ever again. Hey—that’s what I’m doing now!

How I miss the people … .

Janet Garber, until recently chief HR officer at Practising Law Institute in New York City, dreams of becoming the Grandma Moses of the literary set. Her debut comic HR novel, Dream Job, will be released this spring, and Janet will be autographing copies at the SHRM 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition in Washington, D.C.

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