Tuesday, May 27, 2008

10 Things I Learned From Working in HR

An earlier post from 2008:

Are you thinking about a career in HR? Are you a line manager considering giving HR a try? Or, how about a training or OD specialist, considering a cross-functional developmental assignment as an HR generalist?

A while back, when I was a training director at a large multinational, that’s exactly what I did. I was advised that if I wanted to be considered for a VP position, I’d have a better chance if I ventured outside the corporate ivory tower and took a development assignment as an HR generalist out on the front lines. After all, there was only one training and development VP job, but over a dozen HR VP jobs. The same seemed to be true on the Monster, Yahoo and job boards – about a 5 to 1 ratio.

The thinking was that even if I came back to OD/training & development, I’d be a stronger specialist, having gained valuable cross-functional experience.

At first I was skeptical. For one thing, although I never worked in a pure HR role, I had a good amount of exposure, and didn’t like what I saw. It just didn’t seem like a good fit for me. And what about my lack of HR experience? “Don’t worry about that”, I was told by my advisers. “You’ve got all of the important, transferable competencies; you can learn the technical parts” (that bit of advice from a VP that had a staff of minions to do the technical parts for her).

So I said “what the hell”, and gave it a shot. For eighteen very long, painful months. I survived – barely. It turned out to be one of the most developmental experiences of my career. Here are the lessons I learned:

1. The importance of Excel - and Access, and pivot tables. For my entire career, I had somehow managed to achieve success without having to learn Excel. Most of my work could be achieved with dazzling PowerPoint models and Word documents. I quickly learned that HR generalists need to crunch a LOT of numbers. Performance appraisal correlations, adverse impact analysis, restructuring costs, incentive plan payouts, and a staggering amount of other calculations. And – the numbers actually had to be correct.

2. HR clients expect the right answers – and quickly. There’s little tolerance for “maybe”, “it depends”, or “I’ll get back to you on that”, responses that served me so well in previous roles.

3. Work shifts from a few big projects to one never-ending series of tasks. In most of my roles, I always had 6-12 big projects that I was juggling. Every day you might push 1-2 boulders a few more feet. As an HR generalist, tasks get added to a running to-do list faster than you can cross them off. There’s no such thing as “done” at the end of a day. Some days it felt like the classic “I Love Lucy” chocolate assembly line episode.

4. HR is a 24/7 job. Hiring and firing doesn’t take time off or a vacation. You can’t leave an “OOO” (out of office) email and shut off your cell phone for a few days.

HR Generalists have to know a lot about everything. Duh. And no, the technical part of the job can’t be learned in a few months or through a SRHM self-study certification program (hey, it was better than nothing!). I gained a whole new appreciation for the HR vet that maybe wasn’t deep in succession planning or team development, but knew enough to get by, along with thirty other things I knew absolutely zip about.

6. The value of a strong HR admin, HR VP, and a supportive team. An HR admin knows about and takes care of all the little technical details involved with on-boarding a new employee, ADA, FMLA, and the EEOC. A strong VP knows how to go head-to-head with tough executives, strategically position the function, coach and inspire. Unfortunately for me, I had neither. But I was blessed with a supportive and patient team that helped keep me from drowning.

7. An effective HR pro really needs to understand the business strategy and every function of the business. For me, that was the most developmental part of the experience. It wasn’t learning how to design compensation plans or write a legally defensible restructuring plan. I had the opportunity to learn all about marketing, engineering, research, product development, manufacturing, sales, acquisitions, and strategic planning. I’ve been fortunate to work in companies where HR has a “seat at the table”, and I learned a lot of business acumen from sitting at that damn table.

8. HR can be a lonely, isolated role. It’s kind of like police work – it makes for difficult family or neighborhood barbecue chit-chat. It’s important to network, internally and externally, in order to share best practices and hang onto a thread of sanity. Or have a good shrink.

9. What it’s like to struggle in a job. This was a personal character lesson learned for me. I had always had stellar performance appraisals, promotions, and the prestige of “high potential” status. For the first time in my career I was “average”, or even below average in many aspects. It felt like my golf game. I’ll always have an appreciation for what it feels like to be in over your head.

10. Finally, I learned the value of HR and a competent HR pro. Even though I personally hated the experience, I’ll always appreciate how demanding the role is, and how critical the role can be to the success of any business.

So those are my top 10 learnings. What other “lessons from experience” would you share with someone considering a move to HR?


Anonymous said...

I loved this post! I laughed, I cried, I wet my pants.

Good job!

Andres said...

Two lessons, that may seem mutually exclusive but ironically are not:
1) the ability to stay neutral and detached when waves of emotion are crashing all around you is crucial.
2) Empathy and the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes cannot be overrated.

Dan McCarthy said...

Wench -
Thanks - now that's an accomplishment I'm proud of.

Anonymous said...

One more lesson. Try to talk to the employees in your organization to get an unvarnished opinion of how they feel about things. Many times, management gets it wrong about how they feel, and the conventional wisdom about the employees is wrong, with bad results for HR professionals who act on it.

Michael D. Haberman, SPHR said...

This is a great summary of experience in HR, very well done. I am passing this on to many folks. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.


Wally Bock

Anonymous said...

Solid post. However, one personal exception with item #4.

I do take vacations and go out of e-contact. The unintentional nature of the weekly sojourn into the mountains, beyond the reach of connectivity.

My email and voice mail mantra remains, "in case of emergency, please hang up and dial 911". In five years, my boss has only tracked me down once. And that was a sh*tstorm courtesy call.

Dan McCarthy said...

TC - thanks for the 2 adds. You remind me of a sharp HR guy named Andres.

Dan McCarthy said...

anon -
Wise advice. You can't be a business partner without knowing what's on the minds of employees.

Michael - thanks!

Wally - wow, thanks. First I make HR Wench wet her pants, then I make your BBB of the week list. It's been a good week.

rmsjr -
good for you! I'm doing the same thing now (I'm lucky to have a very capable staff)

Anonymous said...

good post and nice blog. i'd have to add as lessons:

- HR is not for those who love people, and want to be a people cheerleader. you see too much of people's ugly sides to have "loving people" be the reason you're in the game. you'll be broken, and hate humanity if this is your motivating factor.

- HR has got to be about being fair and consistent. playing favorites won't get you anywhere.

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks, Jessica. I agree, knowing you’re responsible for employees being treated fairly and consistently is a great source of motivation and pride.

Anonymous said...

Great blog - reminded me of my first HRG role.

No need for the nightmare of Excel these days when there are good talent measurement tools out there. Excel breeds unreliable information (even HR generalists are human) and focused your energy on data integration and manual construction rather than on analysis and problem solving - or better problem avoidance. Do your generalist a huge favor - move on up to workforce analytics technology and lose the spreadsheets.

Dan McCarthy said...

Joanne -
Thanks. Former company has since implemented HR-SAP. Wonder if they were able to lose those spreadsheets?