HR people should not waste our talents, energy and passion  on the wrong cause
published by , on 21/12/2016

By Yumi NG (interim HR manager & author) *

I’ ve  been an HR professional for nearly 20 years and just like all of you,  I am very passionate about our function.  So it goes without saying I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to address this  HR audience today. So thank you Marc for having me today.
Prior to  engaging in a freelance career , I have worked in several large companies and I have  ended my corporate career as an executive at GE.

I guess hence my dislike for  powerpoint presentations. You have no idea how  powerpoint  matttered in that company.  There were so many ambitious people spending hours, day and night -no joke-   preparing  the most fancy  powerpoint   presentation (some were almost animated films)  in order to impress senior staff  members. I’ve always thought  how even greater  the company would be if  if all these people would put the same amount of effort and time in  simply doing their jobs! Powerpoint is not a job !

I will never forget how a  Belgian plant manager once   welcomed  an ‘expert’  who was sent to us by global headquarters.. During our weekly monday morning staff meeting, he introduced this  guest and asked him  in front of the whole management team : ‘ So. Are you really gonna DO something or are you just another powerpoint manager ? ‘

But I admit,  not doing powerpoint is an attempt to catch your attention  in a friendly way. I do have these cheat notes. I like cheat notes in word. I am a writer after all.

I am not here to deliver a presentation with fact and figures. I am here to share a few personal  thoughts on the HR function in the hope some of them may appeal to you  or maybe even  capture your minds and hearts . And if don’t manage to do that , I  do apologize upfront . The good news is that I will only speak 14 minutes altough I was granted 20. But as far as I can remember, I’ve never  heard someone complaining a presentation was too short!

So, about us, HR people. We all have the privilege to manage the greatests assests of any company. We hold an unique function in the company.  We deal with people , with human beings. How big a responsibility is that? So  yes, our ethical standards  and level of integrity should be the highest of all .

When I look around, I often have the feeling the HR community struggles. There’s a part where we are not taken seriously by the senior staff, where finance and sales leaders seem to have more impact than we do.  There are even companies where HR reports to finance   but that is another story.  Also I’ve met many leaders saying HR people are annoying, unrealistic, unflexibile process nerds. I’ve spoken with employees who say HR people are dishonest, pretending they care about the people but in fact   are only truly concerned with the management’s interest. And I have met even more HR professionals gently complaining about their weak position in the company. And so on.

Throughout the years, I  have taken the time to observe  HR professionals  and to reflect on what I’ve seen. My belief is that we too often forget to assess ourselves and candidly evaluate what we do, how we contribute to the company’s successes and more importantly, HOW we do it.

I mean, let’s be honest.  We are constantly , in  a  position of assessing everything and everyone but ourselves. It’s our job. We assess candidates, suppliers, employees. We make judgement  calls on people and their track record, their readiness to take on bigger roles, we analyse organisation charts and we are very used to and comfortable doing so. Obviously, it is always  easier to look at all the others in the company than to look at ourselves.
Now you may argue  sales people aren’t  any better at assessing themselves because they always seem to  find amazingly inventive  reasons to explain why they did not hit their numbers. But , to me, that’s no argument. We, HR people always go on and go on  talking about the importance of performance management  so please,  let’s start with ourselves.

Following on this observation, I have  tried  to get a grip  on the  unique value  we claim to have as a function  by simply  trying to find the one reason not to be  outsourced.

I don’t  want to minimize our skills and expertise  but I believe any company can find externally most if not all the things we do. Whether it ‘s   recruitment, comp & ben, training, union relations et cetara. There are great experts on the market companies can hire . And I am not saying this to promote my own company.

But as I said earlier,  our  job is so different from any other function. We drive values , we grow people , we ensure fairness in  the workplace.   We are the moral conscience of the company and we should be damn proud about it. But to do this well, we need one quality in massive quantity.  That is COURAGE. and this  can’t be outsourced nor is it   easy to bring on board.

This is where I wanted to take you today: talk about courage .  I know the title of my presentation mentioned ambition but in fact, it’s  all about courage. Or the ambition to be more  courageous. We need more courage in our function. In all aspects and in all we do.  Let me list you  a few examples:

Gender pay gap. How many times do we talk  and complain about women’s salaries lagging  behind.? They do lag behind.

When, let me tell you. We are part of the problem! WE extend the offers to candidates, don’t we . WE manage the  annual salary reviews. We have all the data . Why do we  fail to correct the gaps? Are we afraid to engage in a fight with finance??

Same with diversity or the famous glass ceiling. We are HR. We  own recruitment, development and promotion processes!  Why can’t we promote or  bring in more women  ??
Oh ‘because it is  the hiring manager who  eventually decides’ some will argue. Well, we should have the courage to be foreceful and push back when we see our managers tend to hire more of the same or when we intuitively feel they prefer the white guy. And yes, that takes courage,  lots of courage.

Another  item are company values. We need to live them, breathe them and exude them in such a strong way we gain respect and trust at all levels.

Integrity,  risk taking ,  respect and many more of these  values nobody can be be opposed to  are part of the culture most  companies wish to convey. How can a HR Manager be credible or respected if he or she does not take risks?  Oh yes, openly disagreeing with a CEO, a CFO  or with HQ is riskful and potentially dangerous  for our own careers. But if WE don’t do it , who will?

At some point in my career   I was asked to fire 5 heads within 2 weeks.

It basically meant these people would  get laid off  just a few  days before X mas. The company wanted these people out before year end to get full savings from january onwards.  ‘Yumi , I need you to do this for the company , said the EMEA CFO when he called me . He hardly ever called me so I knew it was important.

It felt very wrong to do what I was aked to do . I did not want to do it but knew I needed to find a way to work around it. So I told  the CFO the unions would not forgive us, that the press would give us a hard time etc.  It was only half a lie I guess. It worked out  and the layoffs were postponed.  Now this sounds dead easy but trust me, it was not. I was very nervous refusing to do what I was asked to do  in a company where execution and speed of execution were highly regarded.  It was most uncomfortable saying NO to this important CFO  knowing he could hold this against me at some point, knowing he might complain to  my boss, the HR director and knowing he might damage my reputation by   spreading the rumour Belgium had a unreliable HRM who was not able to deliver.

We , HR people should  dare to push back  when our leaders want to take an action that is questionable.

If we don’t have the courage to stand up against them, we should not be in this function.

If we don’t have the courage to take a risk, to act  according  the values of the company, we should not be in this function.

We should never accept when we see a senior leader bullying or showing disrespect to employees. How can we ever be credible when we deliver another  training  and talk about respect when the whole company knows  there is a manager out there not respecting his employees and HR does not seem to address the issue?

When we  see the top failing,  acting or behaving in a unacceptable way  we should take a stand , act upon it with courage and not close our eyes. Even if we put our own careers on the line.  What’s the worse than can happen to us? Get fired? Never forget, it is just a job.

We need the courage to confront these leaders, make them aware, challenge them and  yes,  put moral pressure  on them .   Again, if we are not willing to do that, we should not be in this function.

In all fairness. I will tell you one more /last thing.

Sometimes there is simply no cure nor hope for the leadership team. And when the rot is set in at the top, no HR leader, no matter how skillful, courageous or influential can get any traction .  We  can only spend so long bashing our heads against a brick wall before we realise that , in such case, the only viable course of action is to  be even more courageous , call it a day and jump ship.
Yes, it takes courage to leave, to turn our back against an admired company, a top job, a big salary check, a cool company car . I’ve done it and I can tell you it is scary .

But we, HR people should not waste our talents, energy and passion  on the wrong cause.  We have a built in detector, a natural moral compass and we KNOW when things are wrong. We are HR people , we are role models. We should never compromise on our integrity or pretend we don’t know what’s happening. We have a moral responsiblity  and we have to practice what we preach.  We owe it to the employees, we owe it to the HR function and  more importantly, to ourselves.


* This is the text of the presentation Yumi NG gave at the HRM Inspiration Day 2016 (Brussels, 22/11)

Yumi NG is a 46 old  Belgian citizen from Chinese descent. She is a freelance HR consultant and a published author. She published, so far, two books (in Dutch): Brutazur and Brutazur breekt.

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