One of the dirty little secrets of HR – Human Resources as a professional practice – is that it’s not always about the people and humanizing brands. Not really, anyway. Some HR professionals have more in common with the Governance, Risk and Control department of the enterprise. HR sometimes gets a bad rap for being more concerned with limiting risk to the corporation than it is with making sure the employees – people, everyone – are working well and that the company’s culture can sustain its people in a fast-paced business. As a talent management practitioner and speaker, I spend a lot of time living HR topics. I’m one too: a flavor of HR professional. Let it be known I’m in love with HR Technology. We still need to find ways to measure data and stay human as leaders.
Getting from A to B is still a challenge for many leaders as we look for ways to innovate and stay human.
I learned this lesson years ago, at the start of my career, working closely as a Recruiter with a client in a HR department of a technology firm (and many of these kinds of relationships later btw). This company had a mix of union employees, engineers, field service folks, marketers and executives. At the time, it was a huge part of the business of a corporation which still exists, albeit in different businesses. This was at a time when HR and Recruiting weren’t yet strategically partnering in the awesome ways we are now.
The HR people in this company certainly seemed nice enough, warm and reasonably friendly, mostly effective. But up close it was different. One time, HR directed the company to put speed bumps in the parking lot, for safety of course. This, in reaction to an employee who had, in his small car, gone over a speed bump too fast, hitting his head on the roof and taking out his muffler. However, the discussion that day was not about whether or not the employee was OK after the accident. It was purely concerned with if he would sue after the company refused to help defray the cost of the new muffler. Plans were laid to terminate the employee for a different reason.
Those HR friends of mine were limiting risk, in a very short-sighted way. Guess what happens to company, team creativity now? They looked for a solution to a problem but it had nothing to do with helping the employee, helping the employee’s work group, or thinking innovatively about how to adapt the corporation’s environment (It turned out the speed bump was too tall and didn’t meet code). They missed an opportunity to make the company a better place to work. They failed some major tests: leadership, innovativeness, and putting people first. They sacrificed a person for an HR mistake, which was not the best idea.
Of course, although we’d like to believe differently, this happens all the time. HR limits damage and lowers risk, and in doing so, slows and sometimes dumbs, everything down. How can HR keep up with the pace of business, if all systems and policies are geared to slowing processes down, to pushing all decisions to the lowest common denominator?
We tell ourselves HR technology speeds things up, that resume-sorting software, and phone screens followed by more phone screens, followed by group interviews, limit the risk of hiring the wrong person. We believe putting a lot of process in place around time tracking and attendance helps. We think old school vacation calculation and benefit formulas help. We think these systems free us to act quickly, to interact with people, to develop innovative solutions to HR problems.
What if this is exactly wrong? Is the reason why HR is seen by some as less innovative?
Don’t be the person who chooses to be short-sighted. Use these five inter-related ideas to bring innovation and speed back to HR:
1) Stop counting things – hours, days, degrees, recommendations – just start talking to people. Find out what really matters to employees, what managers really need in terms of skilled employees. Ask questions!
2) Listen. Active listening gets a lot of airtime but it’s a woefully underutilized skill. If you don’t know how to do it take a class, practice on family and friends, and begin by listening to your inner dialogue. Everyone has a conversation running 24/7 with themselves. It’s not the Voice in Your Head, it’s the pearl at the center of your soul. Pay attention.
3) Be silent. This is really part B of active listening. Listen to what people say. Listen to how often they repeat what others say, what verbs they use (active or passive), how many first-person pronouns they use. Listen to see who mimics the cadence of another’s speech patterns. You’ll spot the leaders in a group quickly and be able to determine the tenor of their contributions to the health of the organization.
4) Observe non-verbal signs. Many people speak more clearly with gestures, expressions and how closely or far apart they sit or stand from others. You can spot a poor-performance group by how they move around each other, how much interaction there is, who speaks first and who rolls eyes or grimaces.
5) Don’t be a friend. Be a leader. Too many HR people think they can be a friend to all and be in a leadership role. This is not always true. Pick one at a time.
These suggestions may seem to be less about innovation and more about common sense, which is exactly my point. Common sense is the innovation. Being human, acting like a normal person and being social, is the innovation. Sure, HR technology can be useful, it can speed up discrete, proscribed, limited activities. But it won’t help HR professionals and leaders to think like innovators, solve complex problems, and deal with other people.
Only by living fully in yourself will you be free you to think, and act, as an innovator.
A version of this post was first published on Forbes.com on 10/7/12.