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On Being Human in HR: Putting on a Face

Posted By Megan Leatherman, Tuesday, September 5, 2017

When I was an HR Generalist at a residential energy efficiency company in Boston, I was asked at the last minute to talk to our cadre of new hires about the various things their friendly HR department could do for them.


I was asked to talk about basic things like how they could access information about their benefits, where to park, when to come to us with concerns, etc.


I remember being in a particularly frazzled and testy mood that day, but I agreed, because the other woman who was supposed to do it called  sick. I quickly reviewed the Powerpoint slides, willed myself to get up from my desk, and walked in front of that group of fresh new employees.


I did the presentation, didn’t think much of it, and was just grateful that it was over so I could get back to the huge stack of work on my desk.


Later that afternoon, my boss came by and said that he’d been in the presentation and wanted to give me some feedback. He went on to tell me how the next time I present to a group, I should go into the bathroom stall and do some Amy Cuddy-style power poses and really AMP MYSELF UP. Apparently I hadn’t come across as AMPED as I should have when talking to these people about where to park their cars.


Now, I’ll admit that I lean more toward the grumpy end of the attitudinal scale, but I think I’m perfectly friendly in my mild grumpiness, and one of the most annoying things someone can say to people like me is “perk up!”


Maybe that’s why I didn’t last in internal HR for very long. My friend Claire Malmstrom, on the other hand, has found a way to more elegantly be herself in the workplace. She’s the Director of People Operations at Cafe Yumm!, and she is my guest for this month’s column.


I wanted to talk to Claire about how HR professionals can be genuinely authentic with their employees, especially when they don’t always feel excited about the subject matter of their job, because she’s one of the most authentic people I know.


When I asked her how she would describe the typical HR-employee relationship today, she said “it’s changing from one that’s predominantly policy and procedure focused to one that’s more about a strong sense of partnership and visibility across the organization.”


Creating partnerships and visibility requires that you connect with real, in-the-flesh people, and it’s hard to do that when you feel pressured to put on a face or be more excited about parking spaces than you really are. Claire summarized what I think many HR professionals feel when she said, “Sometimes I feel like I can’t have a bad day.”


Isn’t that the truth?!


“You want to be the positive energy force of the organization,” she says, but not many people feel completely positive and motivated all day, every day - especially when they’re carrying the weight of the organization on their shoulders.


Claire’s finding more and better ways to be her authentic self in her role, but in the past, she’s felt as though she’s had to constantly “follow the rules, follow the dress code, always say nondescript, bland things that would never offend anyone, and...be positive all the time.”


So what do you do when you feel pressured to put on a happy face all the time but you know this is getting in the way of connecting with your employees in a meaningful way?


Neither of us could really figure it out.


“To be honest, I still haven’t reconciled this,” said Claire.


And maybe the fact that we don’t have the answers for you is a good place to start, because the authenticity issue gets even murkier when we feel pressured to demonstrate our value by having answers for everyone.


But we won’t leave you hanging here, I promise.


There are four things we discussed that have helped Claire foster more meaningful and authentic relationships with the employees that she supports:


Be helpful in the way that they need.


We all know the stereotype of HR as a barrier, and Claire is circumventing this in her organization in two ways. First, she’s focused on connecting in a real way with her Restaurant Operations leader, most recently through in-the-trenches collaboration during two new store openings. She’s also symbolically made the operations and HR partnership more concrete by changing her department from “Human Resources” to “People Operations.”


Secondly, she has been intentional about offering short and informal trainings to her managers when they need them. Creating synergy with her operations team and offering real-time support make her an obvious source of accessible and relevant help.


Aspire to be the beacon of light. If you can’t, leave.


Claire and other heart-centered HR professionals really want to be, in her words, “the positive energy force of an organization.” Anytime we get into roles that conflict with our values, we can’t actually be that, and employees sense it.


It can also be easy to lose the sense of empathy we once felt for employees. In a former life, Claire processed nonjudicial foreclosure paperwork, and she found herself starting to believe that “all these people were deadbeats.” It wasn’t until she started looking more closely and seeing that many of the applicants had experienced issues like medical bankruptcy that she felt that sense of compassion again.


If we’re not able to celebrate what our organization is doing or we find our hearts hardened toward employees, it may be time to either reconnect with what inspired us about the work originally or take our gifts elsewhere.


It’s important to be fair. That might not mean treating everyone equally.


Claire comes from the legal field, and she’s developed the ability to apply the law with flexibility so that it supports people in the way that it’s designed to without being applied impersonally, which can end up harming employees and the business. How does she know what “fair” looks like to each employee? “By getting to know them as people and resisting the one-size-fits-all approach.”


Connect how you want to.


“I’ve met a lot of HR people who are introverts,” says Claire. “There’s this stereotypical image that they’re the party planner, the extrovert always out and about, but that’s like the worst part of my job.” Claire hit on the importance of connecting with people in whatever way works for us - whether it’s at the holiday party, one on one over lunch, or even over the phone.


Feeling like we have to put on a face or “perform” at work is exhausting, and it limits how effectively we can connect with others at work.


In talking about this issue with Claire, I was able to see how the spoken and unspoken rules of conduct for HR professionals can muddy the waters so much that we end up floating lost in a sea of isolation and pressure to be something that we’re not. When we let go of that pressure and focus more on building connections that feel authentic to us, we can create the partnerships and visibility that are so pivotal to the HR role.

Tags:  authenticity  friendship  professional development 

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