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To Know the Business, Start in the Trenches

To be a better HR leader, rack up some miles in employees' shoes.

April CoverI'll never forget an exchange I had with an HR manager while conducting a harassment/retaliation investigation at a facility where she'd worked for more than a decade.

I asked her, "Can you describe the plant's production process? It would be helpful for me to know during my interviews."

She gave me a puzzled look. "I have no idea," she said. After a pause, she added, "I'm in HR."

When I share that story with seasoned HR professionals, they groan. They realize that her lack of interest undermines two important principles: Intimate knowledge of an employer's business operations helps HR professionals craft effective solutions and provide valuable advice, and such knowledge promotes trust and collaboration between HR and employees.

Fortunately, positive examples abound of HR professionals who have rolled up their sleeves and dived in to better understand their organizations.

Ask Questions

Louis Franzese, vice president of labor relations and HR practices at The Hertz Corp. in Park Ridge, N.J., tells his staff to "Wash cars. Spend time behind the counter. Get a real sense of what work life for employees truly is."

To connect with employees, each member of Franzese's 100-person staff interviews 10 employees per month. They start with two basic questions—"What works?" and "What doesn't work?" Within a week, employees receive written confirmation of the issues they raised; within a month, they receive written notification of what was done with that information.

Franzese explains that in addition to enhancing HR's relationship with employees and managers, this practice allows his staff to acquire "important insights that range from how effectively our managers lead to how we can be more competitive in such ways as shift scheduling and tire rotation."

Immerse Yourself

Before becoming director of affirmative action development at Ogletree Deakins in Morristown, N.J., Claudia Copus spent more than 30 years in HR. She urges HR professionals at all levels to immerse themselves in their employer's business.

As an HR manager early in her career, Copus shadowed individuals in her company's sales and marketing group. She learned how they made appointments, how they handled paperwork, and how they interacted with customers, prospects and referral sources.

The experience paid off in multiple ways. "First, it made me a much better recruiter," she says. "Not only could I sell the job more effectively to attractive candidates, I could make a much better assessment of the likelihood that a candidate would be successful in the actual job.

"Second, it made me much better equipped to help our managers with performance management, so they could provide coaching and feedback to improve performance and accountability.

"Third, because I had the trust of our managers, I could troubleshoot personnel problems more quickly and with more credibility. Salvageable employees could be salvaged, and nonsalvageable employees could be exited without exposing the company to liability."

Later, as vice president of HR for a manufacturing company, Copus immersed herself in production processes and in engineering, sales, customer service and accounting functions. The knowledge she gained enabled her to lead a re-engineering project that helped resolve a separate silo problem in two divisions. She was also able to negotiate favorable terms in a labor contract and decrease cost per labor unit.

"Without making the investment of time and effort in truly understanding how our business operated, none of this would have been possible," Copus concludes.

Be Curious

"One of the most useful traits an HR professional can possess is a curious, inquisitive nature," says Ava Doman, system director for talent stewardship for Providence Health & Services in Renton, Wash.

Doman's curiosity was piqued in a former position as HR director for a wireless telecommunications provider. All senior executives were required to spend one week per year as retail sales representatives. "By walking in their shoes, we could totally relate to the business," she says. "We had a far better sense of what life was like for our sales reps, their challenges and frustrations, as well as customer challenges and frustrations, and could use this information when we crafted HR policies and procedures."

At Providence, Doman's team members get out in the field at least once per quarter and share their observations.

Doman describes as "life changing" her experiences of shadowing an ER nurse and an oncology nurse. "They gave me an unforgettable sense of what work life was like for our nurses, whether in dealing with life and death in the ER, or with cancer patients and their family members."

Doman's advice to HR professionals: "Find a mentor. It might be somebody in operations, engineering or accounting, or it might be somebody in HR who shares the desire to understand what people actually do."

"People will be flattered if you say you want to spend time with them to understand more about what they do and more about what the company does from their perspective," Doman adds.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

"Not learning your employer's business can be hazardous for your career," warns one senior HR executive who requested anonymity. He recalls having to fire the HR manager at one of his company's facilities "primarily because he never left his office. Turnover ran at 150 percent. Recruiters had no idea what actually happened on the production floor. Operations managers were totally alienated. HR policies were formulated in a vacuum." And the HR information system was ineffective for the large number of employees with poor English and computer skills.

The senior HR executive says the solution would have been simple: "Get out of the office! Find out who your employees are, what their names are, what they actually do. Run your HR policies by long-term, respected employees before implementing them. Find out what matters to them, not what matters to HR. Learn the shop talk. Ask lots of questions."

Get in the Trenches

Rod Lacey, director of human resources at 1-800 CONTACTS in Draper, Utah, describes working at a prior employer where, for eight years, he worked one or two days per month in a call center or on a product-shipping line. "This was an incredible way to gain firsthand knowledge about our customers, their needs and desires, plus a great way to learn and test our company's systems," he recalls. "I never had trouble relating to line-level performance metrics, concerns or problems because I had current knowledge of the work they performed and the environment in which they worked."

The rotational assignments provided a laugh now and then. Once, Lacey worked in a cubicle next to a senior vice president on his first tour of duty. "After a rather challenging call that tested his call-center agent abilities, the customer wished him 'the best of luck in his new job,' " Lacey says. "After he hung up, we both laughed."

Walk the Floor

Renee Differding, HR vice president at Sulzer Pumps (USA) Inc. in Brookshire, Texas, attributes much of her effectiveness in HR to her previous experience as general manager of a restaurant. "It helped me understand that operations managers have different priorities than we do," she says. "Their problems, goals and issues are different. We may be focused on personnel policies, procedures and processes, while their biggest concern may be on-time delivery or production cost."

Even if you haven't worked in operations, you can still gain knowledge by walking the floor, Differding says. "Go sit in an operations manager's office," she advises. "Ask questions about job descriptions for people in his or her department and how the language in the description applies to business objectives. People love to share their knowledge. Give them that opportunity."

If you do, Differding predicts that you will:

  • Be able to empathize with the operations manager.
  • Gain trust and respect.
  • Be inspired to take a fresh look at HR policies. Are they simple, workable and useful? Or do they constitute busywork?
  • Avoid any tendency to see situations as only black and white instead of gray.

Joseph Wahl, employment and development manager for the City of Portland, Ore., agrees with the traditional exhortation to HR to "learn the financials." However, he says, "Learning your employer's business is even more valuable."

When Wahl was a McDonald's regional HR manager, and later as the company's Western Division labor and employee relations manager, all HR employees had the opportunity to attend Hamburger University in Oak Brook, Ill. "We were taught soup-to-nuts operations—crew training, labor and employment philosophy, processing, compensation, marketing, you name it," he explains.

Then, everyone from the HR assistant to the senior vice president of HR performed hands-on work at the company's restaurants.

Even if your organization doesn't have an internal university, Wahl encourages HR professionals to go directly to managers and find out what's important to them. Questions to ask include:

  • What information are you looking at?
  • What key metrics do you track?
  • How are they measured?
  • What are your biggest challenges?

"By asking these questions, HR can impact the business in a meaningful way," he says.

One CEO's View of HR's value

Sue Johnson, president and CEO of Futura Industries Co. in Clearfield, Utah, wanted an HR leader who would get immersed in what the company does in order to increase the return on human capital investment. HR professionals should view themselves "like I see myself as CEO—responsible for increasing shareholder value," she says.

But Johnson isn't a cold-hearted executive who sees only numbers and not human beings. In fact, under her helm, Futura Industries is the only company to have received the Utah Governor's "Top Ten Companies To Work For Award" for 12 consecutive years.

Johnson explains how to reconcile the seeming contradiction between profit-driven and family-friendly: "What drives value is culture. If you create an environment where the best available people get hired and come to work every day thinking about how they can do their jobs more effectively, that value will be created."

An engineer by trade, Johnson uses electrical circuits to explain how HR can add value. "Whenever you don't have total contact, you lose power," she says. "It's the same way with people. Every employee needs to be engaged.

"HR can play an essential role as both an architect and a protector of an engaged culture. Don't create a 'handbook culture,' which is essentially transactional—'I come to work in exchange for you agreeing to give me X.' Instead, create a culture where every employee says, 'This is my company.' "

In addition to getting out and learning the business and the employees, Johnson says HR can promote such a culture by asking questions. Examples include:

Are our current norms, behaviors and experiences on target and aligned with our culture?

Do we need to make any course corrections? If so, where and how?

Focus on Listening

Andrew Suchoff has held HR positions ranging from specialist and generalist to executive vice president and global head of HR for Stream Global Services, an international company with more than 30,000 employees. He maintains that being a strategic partnerdoes not come from your title; instead, it comes from being able to understand and speak the language of your peers.

He recommends that HR professionals in a new position spend the first two to three months focusing "just on listening. Acquire as thorough an understanding as you can of the company."

When Suchoff traveled to countries where his company did business, he held roundtable discussions with all levels of employees. He would ask: "What keeps you here? What do I need to know in my role? What do my peers in the C-suite need to know? What one thing would you want us to change?" Employees' answers provided him with valuable information in aligning HR objectives to business growth and profitability as well as giving perspective regarding viewing the function througha global lens and leading with cultural sensitivity.

Suchoff emphasizes that understanding the business is not a competency limited to people in senior positions. He recalls riding around with account managers of a pharmaceutical company to observe how they interacted with prospects and customers, how long it took to close a deal and how it was closed, and how approaches to business development varied for different product units. This knowledge helped him tailor incentive plans for different groups according to what behaviors most needed to be incented. The discipline of HR became more nuanced and flexible as a result.

So Get Out There!

The lesson from these accomplished HR professionals is simple and straightforward. Whether by washing cars, shadowing nurses or flipping burgers, if you want to be "value added" HR, get inside your employer's operation and find out what really makes it tick.

The author is a shareholder with Ogletree Deakins in Portland, Ore., and author of The Star Profile: A Management Tool to Unleash Employee Potential (Davies-Black Publishing, 2008). He can be reached at

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