No HR (background) For You! Next!

Yesterday I felt the need to respond to a post on LinkedIn (lord knows why) that led off with the statement “You don’t need to have a background in HR to lead HR” and then linked to this article. Loads of happy-clappy folks chimed in about how the best skill set for HR is to “care for people” and similar thoughts that practically brimmed with smile emojis. Lots and lots and LOTS of self-love and group affirmations. #HighFive

So I felt the need to respond. After doing so I realized I had, for the most part, written a blog post. So you’re welcome.

(my response)

Let me stir the pot because I strongly disagree with your assertion that “you don’t need to have a background in HR to lead HR.” (with a few limited caveats as listed below).

The HR field already suffers from an abysmally low barrier to entry; I see this day-in-and-day-out when “someone” is hired or promoted to be the Head of HR (often SMBs or Depts of One) who does not even possess the most fundamental and basic foundational knowledge about employment law, recruiting/staffing/hiring, comp and benefits, etc.  Far too many companies (again, primarily SMBs with <200 EEs) have their HR function being “led” by people who, by their lack of knowledge, are putting both their organizations and their employees at risk. 

They can be a change-agent/people-centric “leader” all they want (and hallelujah if they are) but that does not mean they can or should lead HR.  One should not be “in charge” of HR and simultaneously not understand the most elemental aspects of the function. Hard stop.

Yet this happens due to the widespread belief amongst owners/biz leaders that “anyone can do HR” or “we can move Susie into HR since she’s so nice/good with people/rocks the sales dept/wants to do it.”  And thus we continue to water down the entirety of the profession.

Would we ever (ever?) say “you don’t need a background in Accounting to head up the Accounting Department?” or “you don’t need a background in Marketing to head up the Marketing Dept?” Nope; we wouldn’t.

So why do we think it’s “ok” for HR? 

Here’s my caveat…………..moving into HR from another discipline can be a good thing – when it’s purposeful and also requires sufficient business acumen or industry/organizational experience where it’s part of, as an example, a rotational program.  The linked article speaks to those types of situations: LEGO, Unilever, Flipkart.  That is a whole lot different than what someone reading “you don’t need a background in HR” needs to hear when they want to be hired as the HRD at Acme Insurance with 100 employees.

Because that person is a danger and quite often a poor representation for ALL of us who work in HR.


The Importance of Using the “Write” Language


“I’m going to issue a write-up.”

“He should be written up.”

“Her manager is going to give her a write up.”

“HR must be present when a manager gives an employee a write-up.”

“Should I write-up this employee?”

“The employee refused to sign the write-up.” 

“Write-ups don’t work; our employees are still doing the same thing.” 


I can barely begin to tell you how I abhor this list. These articulations, as captured above, have recently appeared in various and assorted Facebook groups where HR practitioners gather. And while HR folks are accused (and sometimes guilty) of any number of bone-headed maneuvers, the language used by many around employee performance is one move that’s in serious need of adjustment. 

“Write up” (used as both a verb and a noun) is up there in my top 5 most-hated-phrases-uttered-by-HR-people. 

It’s lazy. It’s infantilizing. And it reduces the manager/employee relationship to one of parent & child. Or school principal and pupil. Or lord-of-the-manor and servant. The use of this phrase communicates everything wrong with an organization’s culture, its views on performance management and the employee experience.

It has to go.

I implore you HR – stop being the master of the one-note samba (“write up!”) and sing a different tune. 


When Those Pesky Women Want a Job

Wendy_Welder_Richmond_Shipyards (1)Last week a friend sent me the link to an article entitled “How to Interview a Female Applicant.”

Had it not been on wikihow (founded in 2005) and had the site not contained pictures showing people in fairly-modern dress, I would swear to you this content was deemed to be necessary and pertinent somewhere around 1972.

Here, for your reading pleasure, are a few of the tips:

  • Create a list of unisex questions (maybe this means NOT asking the men to “tell me about a time when you completed a time-sensitive project on deadline” when you ask the wimmen-folk to “tell me about a time when you baked a cake from scratch”)
  • Evaluate a female applicant based on her overall level of professional appearance (you know, unlike the dudes who you can pick apart on a checklist: shoes…pants…belt…facial hair…) 
  • Avoid asking questions about future plans or career goals when interviewing a female applicant. This could be seen as an attempt to discern whether the applicant has plans pertaining to marriage or children that could impede her future work performance (damn women always wanting to get married and have babies!)
  • Keep introductory questions related to business and the industry when interviewing a female job applicant. Questions about family or weekend plans are inappropriate and could set an informal tone that will prevent you from accurately evaluating the applicant (of course…with the MEN feel free to chat about football, beer drinking and how they keep the Mrs. in line). 

Do we still treat female applicants differently? I’m not talking females for tech roles (which may give us one answer) or females for executive leadership roles (which may give us another answer).

What about general-basic-entry-normal jobs? Do the kid gloves get put on? Do interviewers (male or female) get more anxious or nervous with female applicants? Afraid they will cross some invisible line because the person sitting across from them has ovaries?

I found an April 2015 article from Glamour Magazine (which, as a side note, made me think of George Costanza…am I right?) on the subject of “Are Male Interviewers Secretly Biased Against Women?”; wikihow or not we do continue to talk about this stuff.

Maybe we just sound smarter (or less guilty?) when we call it unconscious bias.


image: US Library of Congress Prints and Photography Division


HR Service Delivery: Signed and Sealed

signed-11_8Looking for a hot conversational topic when you’re stuck chatting with a bunch of HR professionals? Whether you’re sitting with two of them at the train station or stuck in some in-house training session with your company’s entire HR team here’s a surefire discussion starter: ask them who they serve in their organization. In other words whose needs are they there to meet and/or satisfy? The business? Leaders and managers? Employees?

I guarantee this exchange will be both captivating and heated. I’ve participated in informal roundtables with this as the topic du jour and enjoyed cocktail parties (whilst sipping a lovely Kir Royale) where the discussion on this subject was so tempestuous we managed to barely escape just short of actual fisticuffs.

The answer, proffered by your average HR practitioner, to this seemingly basic question will vary based on any number of factors; the type and size of organization she has worked in as well as the sort of organization in which she was trained in the ways of HR. The answer will be formulated depending upon the HR pro’s previous mentors or bosses, and also the type of specific roles he has held in the human resources field. What was measured? What mattered? (note: contrary to popular opinion what matters does not get measured nor does what gets measured….matter.)


The answer, as far as I’m concerned, is “HR serves everyone.”

We serve the needs of the business. In accordance with laws, regulations, policies and the dictates and desires of our CEO or business owner, we serve, protect and defend.

We serve the needs of managers and leaders. We don’t cover up their shenanigans of course, but neither do we bring them down and lay blame. Rather, we assist them in everything related to the management of their people/human capital/resources. We coach, guide and support them so they can focus on running the business.

We serve the needs of employees. We hold their hands, we answer their questions, and we help them solve problems. We may, depending upon the need, talk to their mothers, spouses, priests or parole officers.

And when we do all of these things right we are also serving the needs of those who are external to our organization – our candidates, our communities, and our customers.

Here’s the deal…so often in human resources we’ve tended to think of these things as mutually exclusive. “I can’t be an advocate for employees if my role is to protect the needs of the company” is something I’ve heard more than one HR practitioner say. Or “I need to maintain impartiality so I can’t be too friendly with employees.”

Both of which, of course, are utter crap.

You can work in HR and be a competent and caring business professional without being a solemn and dour robot intent on spreading doom and gloom with every policy update. You can serve others without being servile or subservient. It’s not the role of the HR lady to keep a candy dish on her desk, bake muffins for birthdays and holidays, and take minutes at the weekly leadership meeting but you can still be pleasant and kind.

The strategies and goals of the business inform what HR does…but the how is what each of us as HR professionals determine once we realize who we serve.

The how is the magic sauce.

This question – “who does HR serve?” – is perhaps the most elemental aspect of human resources and goes well beyond a practitioner grasping the bodies of knowledge or being fully capable in the HR competencies. The answer to this question lays the foundation for one’s entire career in and around HR.

So I wonder…how many HR professionals are truly delivering … to all?


Hammer Time: The HR Dress Code Game

hammer timeJeans. Jeans with holes or frayed edges. Dark denim. Light denim. Skirts that are too short. Cleavage that is too prominent.

Underwear. No underwear. Dreadlocks. Hair that’s not a “color found in nature.” Facial hair. Hair on men that extends below the collar. Earrings that are too big. Earrings on men. Piercings in places other than ears. Piercings in places other than ears that shouldn’t be visible through one’s clothing…but are.

Tattoos. Visible tattoos. Excessive tattoos. Tattoos of questionable subject matter.

Flips Flops. Open toed shoes. Athletic shoes. Pants that are too tight. Pants that are not held up with a belt. Shirts tucked in. Shirts not tucked in.

A dress. A skirt. A pant suit (a la Hilary Clinton). A skirt suit (a la Carly Fiorina). Cardigans with pockets. Cardigans without pockets. Pantyhose. Bare legs. Flats. 3” Heels. Boots. Boots with zippers. Ankle boots. Rain boots.

Muted colors. Ties with tasteful designs. Shirts with a collar. Khakis. No more than 4 pockets. Cargo pants. Parachute pants.

Hammer time.


In the late 1980’s, in my first in-house corporate HR gig at a bank, I was asked to review and rewrite the HR Dress Code Policy. The existing policy was 7 pages long.

After I drafted the revisions and we held numerous meetings with The-Powers-That-Be, the policy was successfully streamlined. To 5 pages. Yay HR!

I fondly recall my greatest victory of this months-long skirmish.

The SVP of retail banking (he was over the entirety of the branch network) was adamant – ADAMANT – that tellers in the drive-thru windows wore either blazers or cardigan sweaters that had no pockets (note: we did not supply uniforms; employees were expected to dress in business attire).

This issue of pockets on sweaters drove this man absolutely crazy; he was fixated. He also wanted to ensure that women did not have pockets on the back (buttocks) of their pants or skirts. Why he was looking – I don’t know. That was another matter all together.

Now mind you. This was in Wisconsin; cold, frigid Wisconsin. Wind chills below zero numerous mornings and evenings during the winter. And these tellers, working in the drive thru, were getting hit full blast by frigid air with each and every transaction. Since they couldn’t wear gloves (hard to count the money…ya know?) a nice sweater with pockets was often a necessity. Unless they wanted to look like Bob Cratchit in every single production of “A Christmas Carol” wearing those gloves with the cut out fingers. (Note; I love those gloves).

Yet here’s why I think I remember this hard-fought battle of something that, in the scheme of things, really amounted to nothing: common sense ultimately prevailed.

Eventually all The-Powers-That-Be realized that they countless hours they were spending arguing the minutia of the dress code (arguments over inches of hemlines… I’m not kidding) were so inconsequential and, at the end of the day, way below their pay grades.

They agreed – finally – to let managers manage.



But this ancient game of the battle-of-the-dress-code has not gone away. Somewhere, right this moment, I guarantee you some HR professional is fretting over a “Dress Code Policy” issue. He’s diving deep down into the most mundane and useless details that, let’s face it, have nothing to do with how someone is performing their job.

A few weeks ago my friend ‘Amy’ (we’ll call her Amy) shared a recent experience she had interviewing for the Executive Director position with a local non-profit agency. She was one of two finalists brought in to interview with the agency’s Board of Directors; a board that, since it’s here in my town, is undoubtedly filled with boring corporate executives from the same 20 companies that dominate every board and numerous ladies-who-lunch and fill their busy days with tennis lessons at the Country Club and Junior League activities.

Amy, an extraordinarily accomplished and experience Executive Director/Non-Profit leader, dressed conservatively; dark pant suit with blouse, tasteful jewelry, and sensible pumps. She had a great interview; confidently discussing her experience and bona fides. Alas, the other candidate got the job offer.

During a follow-up call with the recruiter who ran the search Amy probed for feedback. “The Board truly had a difficult decision to make,” he told her. “Both of your backgrounds were very well suited.”

“Did you get any specific feedback?” she asked. “Any things I could adjust in future interviews?”

“Well there was one piece of feedback” said the recruiter. “One of the female board members noted that you wore a pants suit instead of a skirt or a dress with a jacket. She didn’t think that was appropriate.”

The game continues.


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