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Recently I had the pleasure of representing the HR industry at a careers expo for secondary students. The students selected who they wanted to talk to, unless they were one of the one’s who had no idea and sat at every table (that’s a conversation for another day!). At first I marvelled at how many sat at the ‘Actuaries’ table compared to mine – at the start of the night I didn’t even know what an actuary did. Then as students started to approach me, one of my first questions was ‘why are you considering a career in HR?’ Except for one student who said he plans to be a company CEO in 5-10 years and is trying to work out the fastest business stream to get him there, everyone else’s answer was of a similar vein. ‘I like people’, ‘I want to help people’, ‘I’m friendly and get along well with everyone’, etc. I didn’t choose a career in HR, it chose me, but I probably would have said the same things before I knew what was really involved.
My concern is this kind of misunderstanding about who and what is HR, is attracting the wrong kind of people into our field. Wanting to help people is not enough. I’ve seen too many colleagues burn out or have their careers stagnate because they couldn’t move past ‘being helpful and nice’.
I love working in HR, but it isn’t easy. There’s been times when I could have easily walked away, but I didn’t. Before you consider embarking on this career path, check your suitability against my list of the warts and all challenges of being a HR professional:
- You Have to Show Up
No-one loves conflict or having the hard conversations (and those that do usually aren’t the right ones to be managing the issue). As the HR person, you are expected to show up, often when everyone else has walked away. You will be managing the difficult discussions, diffusing the tension and telling people the things they don’t want to hear. These conversations are not ‘nice’, but are necessary.
- You Serve Two Masters
As an internal HR professional, you have a responsibility to uphold the needs of the business, whilst also looking after the staff. Often those needs align, sometimes they do not. You cannot be an advocate for one staff member, when their behaviour or performance is having a detrimental effect on the business or the rest of the team. However, that staff member deserves your understanding and fair treatment. There will be times when the business needs to make decisions that have a significant impact on staff (eg redundancies) and you will be expected to support the decision and often manage that process.
- Build Trust Quickly
Most business that are big enough to justify a dedicated HR resource are likely to have upwards of 100 staff. In this day and age, it is quite possible that the staff will be spread over multiple locations. How can you possibly get to know every one of those staff on a personal level? In larger organisations, often the first time you are meeting this person is when you are resolving a conflict or a performance management issue. You have to be able to build trust and respect in that first conversation to get the best outcome for that person and the business.
- You Can’t be Naïve
You cannot take what people say at face value. There are two sides to every story and if you always believe the first person that sits in front of you, you are not being fair. People’s perceptions and biases lead to misunderstandings every day. Sometimes people will embellish, withhold information and even lie to protect themselves. Though it is not in my nature, I have learnt to listen with a level of scepticism and not judge a situation or a person until I’ve investigated further.
- Restricting your Work Friendships
To be credible in the workplace, you need to be seen to be unbiased in your decision making. Having strong friendships at work presents a conflict of interest. Will you be able to conduct a fair investigation into a complaint that ‘your friend’ is bullying someone? Even if you don’t conduct the investigation, could you be seen to be unfairly advising your friend behind the scenes. What if you know your friend’s job is on a list of potential redundancies, will you keep that from them? Can you be trusted to fairly assess which jobs stay/go? How do you feel about telling them they’ve lost their job, knowing they’ve just bought a new house?
- Protect your Boundaries
As a trusted confidant, staff will seek you out for support on a range of issues. There was a time when I managed a suicidal staff member, counselled a colleague going through divorce and assisted a staff member to find temporary housing to escape her violent partner, all in one day! If you are not vigilant with your own self-care, your mental health will be impacted. Protecting yourself from others’ emotions, setting limits on what you will and won’t listen to, and knowing when to bring in a professional, are all critical skills.
- 51 Shades of Grey
I’ve said it before, people are mercurial, unpredictable, challenging, and unique. Every person and every situation is different and often complex. You will frequently face times when there is no obvious right or wrong, there’s no black or white. You need to learn to trust your judgement, often making decisions without the complete picture. I have had to learn to accept that sometimes my decisions will be wrong. I now satisfy myself with the knowledge that as long as my intentions were good and I was fair, I made the right decision on the day.
- Fair, Not Nice
Most people don’t even want ‘nice’, they want fairness and understanding. If I’m telling you that your behaviour yesterday caused someone to be injured, do you want me to give you a hug and say ‘there, there’? Or do you want me to be fair in my assessment of what happened and to have taken into consideration how this news might affect you in determining how I tell you and what happens next?
If you like ‘helping people’, AND you want a career that requires you to have good judgement, have difficult conversations and make hard decisions, then maybe HR is for you. If you want a career that is more focussed on caring for people, you might want to look at other career options, because in HR just being ‘nice’ isn’t going to cut it.
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Claire Huntington has over 15 years’ experience in senior and executive level human resource management and strategic leadership positions. Claire learnt HR under the wings of great mentors and through trial and error. She has a very practical hands-on approach to HR and management, and isn’t afraid to look outside the box. Claire is also mum to three primary-school aged firecrackers and is an avid photographer in her spare time.
Disclaimer: The material contained in this publication is of a general nature only. It is not, nor is intended to be, legal advice. If you wish to act based on the content of this publication, we recommend that you seek professional advice.