Thursday, June 5, 2008

Let Us Now Praise HR Generalists

Dan McCarthy’s post last week, on the things he learned while working in HR, was a breath of fresh air. Most articles on the HR profession focus on weaknesses. They start from a position that HR is not useful, or not strategic. While that may be true for individuals, it is not true for the profession as a whole. In my opinion, HR is one of the least understood or appreciated roles in the modern organization. It is a role that emerged with very few codified responsibilities or practices and over the years has evolved from a back office function focused on legs and regs to a collaborative advisory role with substantive impact on the organization.

It’s been 15 years since I started my career in HR (thank you, Hugo!) and was fortunate enough to participate in the redesign of Human Resources as one of my first assignments (thank you Eric and Dave!) One of the key parts of that process was a social analysis of the role of HR – trying to see what made our team tick. Dan defines many of the concepts that came up in the analysis – being “always on”, throwing away your schedule every morning as you reacted to the crisis du jour, crunching a lot of information, and wondering if anyone really understood what you do. There are 3 key skills though, that I would add as critical for a successful generalist: compartmentalization, helicopter thinking and judgment.

Compartmentalization: I can’t think of many roles where you have as many different topics to cover in a short period of time. A generalist might have to go from a team planning meeting to an employee grievance procedure, to a 1:1 with a manager, to a termination meeting – all before lunch. The best generalists can flow from one meeting to the next without giving any indication of the topics they just covered or the emotional impact of the session. One of my mentors referred to this as “the code”. After each meeting, you take what you just covered, put it in a mental box, close the lid and put it away until you are focused on that topic again. You might vent to someone else in HR if you are having a bad day, but what you cover in an HR meeting stays between the people in the room at that time and does not impact any other meetings. This is not easy to do, but this separation is crucial to being effective (and to being sane at the end of a busy day!).

Helicopter thinking is about being able to zoom from the abstract into the specific, or vice versa. For example, a discussion about challenges in a product line might trigger a thought about career opportunity for the employee you counseled earlier in the day. Similarly, thinking about a series of events (meetings, 1:1s, etc) might lead to an idea for a new management strategy – solving a larger problem instead of the individual symptoms. Knowing when to pull up to look at a broader situation, or when to drill in from a high level idea to a specific example is important in a role like this where your role is to influence decisions both for individuals and for the organization.

Finally, there’s the question of judgment. As a generalist, you are exposed to a lot of information, with varying degrees of confidentiality. How do you manage that knowledge, and when do you share what you know? Do you lean toward sharing with management, or do you keep employee information locked up? For example, your marketing manager is looking for someone to head up a new project, and you know that someone in another team is looking for a new challenge. Do you as the HR generalist make the connection for them, or do you strongly hint to one or both that they should have a conversation? Is this decision situational, or do you have a communicated practice for these sorts of situations?

I left the generalist world about 8 years ago. I wanted to explore other areas of business, and try some new challenges. But I have very high regard for people who choose this profession. Those who have made their career in this field are often battle scarred, but they are also the first people I would look to in a tough situation. Their combination of empathy and strength can help you realize a good solution. The HR profession may not get a lot of respect, but HR Generalists deserve a round of applause for their commitment to employees, managers and their organization’s success.

[photo credit: voxphoto]


Anonymous said...

I agree that the range of the HR generalist job is amazing and should be recognized. I do think that "the code" can lead to a downside. When people who interact with HR can feel there is a lack of authenticity as every comment and reply is measured. I think HR Speak and Fed Chairman speak share a lot in common, anything you say can have a serious impact so some are inclined to not really say anything as a result.

I don't know this answer but I do recommend that HR generalists keep an eye on this tendency as it does impact perceived credibility.

GretchenA said...

Agreed on the HR Speak. Think of "the code" more as a commitment to your clients that what they say will stay with you - more like a confidentiality pledge.