Your Career Q&A: Take Charge of Your Career

By Martin Yate Dec 1, 2015
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This week’s Your Career Q&A column addresses how to take control of your skills development and career management. Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.

I’m the only HR person at a 60-person company, and every time I seek personal or professional development, my boss (the chief operating officer) pushes back or finds a reason for me to stay in the office. She is OK if I attend workshops or seminars with my colleagues within our industry, but she says HR-specific events must be directly related to issues at the office.

I’ve tried to explain the value of attending conferences and local meetings, but I don’t think she wants to understand. I think she’s afraid I’ll use them to job hunt, since I’ve said in the past that I enjoyed my previous job where I had others in HR with me to help balance the load. But I like my job and don’t want to leave. Any ideas?

Cathy, San Diego

Being the HR department of one in a small company can be one of the toughest and sometimes most thankless jobs in the entire profession.

You may report to vice presidents or C-level executives who have little respect for your work because they see HR mostly as a cash drain and have no understanding of how your work benefits the company. So while you are striving to make order out of chaos by changing the way managers hire, train, develop, motivate, discipline and terminate staff—while simultaneously handling payroll, benefits, Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements, and an endless stream of employee issues—you have to fight to get more than lip service from management ranks.

Why? Because department heads, the very people you need to educate and help implement such complex initiatives, feel no compunction to take anything you do seriously because the COO doesn’t take your work seriously. Your challenge isn’t getting the OK to attend a conference. It’s in getting recognition of your intrinsic value.

This is a complex issue that plays into our own perception of the value an HR function delivers. It’s critical for everyone in HR to manage upwards more effectively by communicating the real worth of the function to the company’s bottom line, which translates into the true value you’ll gain by attending the workshops and seminars you’ve identified.

Why Jobs Exist

Remember, at their core, most jobs exist to help a company make money. Your COO seems focused solely on your ability to identify, anticipate, prevent and ultimately solve the problems that get in the way of profitability. Of course, in your situation as a department of one, that means HR’s wide-ranging areas of responsibility cover almost everything that happens every day in every department.

Rethinking Your value

The vast majority of HR professionals care about and want to help others. While we may do this unstintingly, we all too frequently fail at establishing and promoting HR’s real value. In short, we do a consistently bad job of identifying how we help the company make money, save money, avoid litigation and increase productivity.

So here’s my suggestion: When asking to attend a workshop or seminar, leave out any commentary about what other companies do because all too often it will be taken as criticism. Focus instead on how this particular offsite meeting connects specifically to helping your company’s bottom line and benefiting employees. You might have to spread it on a bit thick, but I’m sure you can find practical ways to justify your attendance.

If you work to identify all of the quantifiable ways you support your company’s profitability, you’ll also have a greater chance to earn a seat at the leadership table, which will motivate the COO to allow you to attend whatever professional development you think you’ll need moving forward.

I specialize in compensation and benefits at a large company, and my job has gotten pretty crazy as the need for my expertise keeps rising. I’m working 70-hour weeks including weekend time, and even though I’m having a lot of success, the workload just keeps getting worse. A consulting firm I’ve worked with has called me about a full-time position they have open, and while the pay would be about the same, they promise 50-hour weeks. I’m very tempted to make a change, but I’ve never job-hopped in my life and I feel loyal to my company. Should I be honest and tell my boss that I have an offer and ask if he can lighten my workload? Or is that the kiss of death?

Sienna, San Francisco

Making a strategic career move is not job-hopping—it is doing what is best for you and your life. The harsh reality is that all too often, our job is completely secure for just as long as it takes the company to find ways to automate it out of existence or otherwise outsource it.

The Kiss of Death

We know this is true, yet we have been bred for generations to be loyal to employers, even when it has become self-evident that our loyalty will not be returned. A company must do all in its power to maximize profitability, and in HR, as you know only too well, that means terminations are part of the workday.

Every manager has to lose employees on his or her own timetable; when employees move on to new jobs and the manager doesn’t want them to leave, questions are raised about that manager’s competence. So telling an employer that you are looking for a new job (and that is what you are doing, no matter how you pitch it) is indeed the kiss of death.

While you may give today’s job your all, you must be willing to replace blind loyalty with a conscious shift that focuses on your own stability, ongoing success and fulfillment. Don’t think of yourself as being disloyal to an employer. Instead, become loyal to Me Inc., a small corporation that must survive and prosper over the long haul. Once you make this mental shift, you’ll make fewer emotional decisions moving forward and you’ll lean toward pragmatic actions that benefit your own future well-being.

The result will be a business-like approach to your career management. And at the end of the day, you’ll have a more successful and fulfilling career.

Martin Yate is a New York Times best-selling author and has worked as a Silicon Valley headhunter, director of HR at a publicly traded technology company, and director of training and development at a multinational employment services franchisor. His company, Knock ’em Dead, delivers professional resume and coaching services.

Have a question for Martin? E-mail your queries to YourCareerQA@shrm.org. We’ll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know. We look forward to hearing from you!

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