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On Being Human in HR: When Things Fall Apart

Posted By Megan Leatherman, Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How would you handle getting the news that your organization was no longer financially solvent and would be handed over to a third party in two weeks?

This third party, a “receiver,” won’t allow you to communicate directly with your customers, it isn’t clear whether or not your employees would get paid on time, and overnight your company culture would go from a friendly, team-oriented atmosphere to a bureaucratic hierarchy.

This is what Cheryl Wunder had to manage as the Director of People & Culture at Oregon’s Health CO-OP.

Cheryl is now the Employee Engagement Manager at Ecova, but I wanted to learn more about her previous experience leading people through a dissolution, because it’s a unique and often treacherous place to be in, especially for folks in Human Resources.

Oregon’s Health CO-OP (OHC) was a new member and mission-driven health plan that endeavored to reshape how people interacted with their health insurance. Unfortunately, with its razor-thin margins and high costs, the healthcare industry was unfriendly to co-ops like OHC, and in July 2016, the leadership team abruptly found out that it couldn’t stay liquid and would immediately be taken over by the State of Oregon.

“There were tears...we all cried,” Cheryl said, and while it wasn’t a huge shock to their employees, the finality of it was still hard to swallow.

Before OHC went into voluntary receivership, it was a nimble, flat organization of about 50 employees. “We were basically like a startup,” Cheryl says. Once they went into receivership, however, the State’s contractor in charge of the receivership took control of the website, the books, social media accounts, and every other critical piece of the organization. Almost overnight, “the executive team no longer had any power, and we had to be incredibly careful with any communications externally or internally.”

When I asked Cheryl why she decided to stay on, she said that her primary focus was “on getting the employees through it. I wanted to make sure that during the layoffs, [employees] had a good, positive exit...I wanted them to feel my presence.”

To help support employees through this challenging time, Cheryl and the team focused on things like potlucks, brown bag lunches where everyone could sit and talk, and going on walks. Being able to focus on supporting the employees “actually helped get me through,” she says, but she acknowledges that it still took a toll on her physically and emotionally.

What struck me most about listening to Cheryl talk about the heaviness associated with OHC’s abrupt end was how many resources she drew upon personally and professionally in the midst of it.

By the end of our conversation, the message became clear: it’s imperative that we all prioritize and shore up the things that support us in our daily lives, because we’ll need them when we inevitably encounter major change and loss.

Cheryl is very clear about what got her through this experience, and they aren’t things we can just go get off the shelf. They’re things like: a job that was in alignment with her values, an organization with a mission she believed in, a functional leadership team, a robust network, regular self-care practices, and a firm grasp on who she is.

Without investing in these things ahead of time, her response to the receivership would probably have been a lot different. Connecting deeply to her values and to her team “helped me know that I would do it over again and like it wasn’t a mistake.”

If you found out that your organization would almost immediately dissolve, would you have the practices in place and the support you needed to lean on? Many of us take things like meaningful professional relationships and regular self-care for granted until we realize we don’t have them.

This doesn’t mean we can’t respond to crisis effectively, but when other members of the organization are looking to us for help navigating a scary and unpredictable time, it’s extra important for us to be well-equipped.

When I asked Cheryl what she’d recommend to someone facing the end of an organization, there were a few clear themes:

  1. “Reach out to your network quickly. Find others who’ve been through this.” Get their checklists, make your own, and wrap your head around all of the functional to-dos ahead of you.

  2. “Show yourself grace.” There will be grief, confusion, and many other emotions that come up for you too, so give yourself lots of room to process. “You’re gonna pick up the heaviness,” she says. So get out of the office, cut back your hours, take walks, and just breathe. Also: “it’s okay to make mistakes.”

  3. It’s also okay to jump ship! According to Cheryl, it’s “okay not to stay the distance and leave right away.” If you don’t feel like you can stay and be a positive presence, give yourself permission to move on.

  4. Recognize that people are going to react “in weird ways,” but continue to show understanding. Cheryl advocated hard for the continuance of the organization’s EAP services, which she and many others tapped into during the transition.

Finally and most importantly, Cheryl recommends that all of us, even if we don’t foresee facing something like this in the future, “know what you want out of this whole thing called ‘career.’” Cheryl knew upfront that she values things like the ability to take risks, create meaning, and have an impact on the people she works with, so staying on during OHC’s receivership was aligned for her. For someone else with different values, it may not make sense.The more self-awareness we can cultivate ahead of time, the better off we’ll be when crisis inevitably comes, whether it’s in our personal lives or in the organizations we serve.

Tags:  acquisitions  advice  leadership  mergers 

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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, 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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Introducing "On Being Human in HR"

Posted By Megan Leatherman, Thursday, August 3, 2017
Updated: Thursday, August 3, 2017

When I think back to my stint as an internal HR professional, one of the first words I’d use to describe the experience is lonely.


I was new to the city, new to the company, and new to HR. One of the first unspoken rules that I picked up on from others in the department was: “make sure it looks like you know what you’re doing.”


Except that I didn’t know what I was doing. My boss gave me instructions, and she was very kind and supportive, but I put a lot of pressure on myself to give off an air of total competence and expertise - especially in front of our employees.


It’s exhausting and isolating to maintain a facade like this, and it becomes even more so when you can’t talk to anyone about it.


I work with a lot of HR professionals in my coaching practice, and I hear things from them that many of us aren’t comfortable sharing with our peers. Things like:

  • “I don’t believe in what my company does, but I feel like I have to put on my “rah rah” face so people stay motivated.”
  • “I’m the only one in my department who knows our doors won’t be open in six months and the weight of it is killing me.”
  • “My CEO is verbally abusive, but there’s no one I can talk to about it.”
  • “I’m crumbling under the volume of work in front of me. I don’t think I can do this anymore.”


Those are heavy burdens to carry on our own, and they get extra heavy when we have to lug them around to networking events or workshops and pretend like they don’t exist. We smoothly pull out our business cards while wincing under the weight of the overstuffed pack on our backs.


I’ve witnessed how incredibly moving it can be to have someone in a professional setting tell us, “I get it,” or “Me too.” Suddenly those heavy packs full of imposter syndrome, pretending, or fear become a little lighter and we can move forward in the way that we always intended: as helpful, competent, and empowered human beings.


This monthly column, On Being Human in HR, aims to address the loneliness that can become rampant in a field like ours where we’re expected to maintain a high level of confidentiality and professionalism.


Each month, I’ll focus on how each of us can dig deeper into our own humanity and connectedness in order to do work that’s even better and more impactful to our organizations.


I’ll leave the technical topics to the experts in the PHRMA community and interview brave HR professionals who are willing to talk to me about what it’s really like to be a whole, complex person in this evolving field.


My hope is that in their stories, you’ll hear a “me too” and start to feel less isolated in your own experience. It will take a group effort to dismantle the walls of pretending and loneliness that can creep up in our profession. If you or someone you know might be willing to have coffee with me and share your story for this column, please email me at megan(at) I’d love to meet you.


Coming up in September: I’ll be sharing insights from myself and another HR professional about how awkward it can be to show up authentically with employees and discuss some ways they’ve pushed through the “HR Lady” stereotype to create an atmosphere of trust and connection.

Tags:  burnout  HR  imposter syndrome  isolation 

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