What sets a workplace apart as a great place to work? What traits, surroundings, management style, benefits or perks make employees stick around for the long haul? Or entice employees to jump ship to join your organization? What is it that makes people do the right thing, even when it’s hard? Or work late to make sure that the customer is really satisfied, even though it is a beautiful Colorado autumn day that is just crying out for a quick hike, or happy hour on a deck somewhere??
Is it money? Hip RiNo offices? Free bagels on Friday? Promotion opportunities? Doing work we enjoy?
Well none of those things hurt! But when we have surveyed employees for our clients, and when we read the studies our fellow HR geeks are doing – it’s one primary factor that explains all of this phenomenon: Culture. That’s right, it isn’t your policies, or your training. It isn’t your onboarding or even the compensation package. The most important factor people cite in job satisfaction and happiness is culture.
What exactly is culture, especially when it comes to work? Seems like it could be a hard question to answer, but actually it’s very simple. Culture is the way things happen when the boss isn’t in the room (which is most of the time). It’s “the way things are really done around here.” Whatever the policies say, whatever the word from on high might be – culture is how business gets done in any workplace.
How does an organization, for-profit, non-profit, government entity, create a great culture for its employees? We have a lot of ideas on this, but for today’s article we wanted to focus on one of the primary steps that has to happen: the organization has to have the right HR person for the job. HR really owns the culture of an organization (or it should). There is no other position in any organization that is closer to the employees, who understands the interplay of policy and practice on morale and employee satisfaction, or who sees more directly the impacts of a toxic work culture. And there is no other position better suited to taking the bull by the horns and turning the culture around.
Not every HR professional has the toolbox to own, create and maintain good culture. In our experience – we have found that there are three critical qualities that the best HR professionals all share: they are competent, they are curious, and they are compassionate.
Competence: A competent HR professional can be the foundation that the rest of an organization’s culture is built upon. Competence does not have to come in the form of a four-year college degree in human resources or in business, although it can. It does not mean that the person has to have ten years of experience (but that helps). Competence is truly a holistic assessment of whether or not this HR person has the skills, training, experience and aptitude to handle the challenges of HR in 2019. HR is sometimes an inertia position – meaning someone has stuck it out long enough in administration, and the HR Manager job opens up, and in they slide. This probably worked well enough, years ago. But times have changed. The HR Professional in 2019 has to understand legal compliance, workplace investigations, complex benefits and retirement programs, employee engagement, talent acquisition in the tightest job market in at least 50 years (and maybe ever) and – yes – how to build and sustain positive culture. This person has to stay up to date with legal changes and best practices. It is not a placeholder job for someone who wants to coast for a while.
There are ways to get – and remain – competent in HR that don’t cost an organization an arm and a leg. Memberships in professional organizations like SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, or AWI, the Association of Workplace Investigators, can provide HR professionals with great resources for a very low investment. Mentoring relationships with HR professionals at comparable organizations can be invaluable. Subscriptions to trade periodicals, and even a morning set aside for reading professional development books or articles, can all be powerful tools to increase competence.
Legal risk has done nothing but increase when it comes to the workplace – and HR is (like it or not) a focal point of a lot of the increased focus.
Curiosity: This is not a quality that is often mentioned when you read about what makes an HR professional a star. But we have seen so many cases this year where we found ourselves asking “Why didn’t HR ask for his side of the story?” or “If only the HR person had asked this one question …” or “Why didn’t the HR business partner wonder why the employee suddenly stopped coming to the project meetings …” In just about every case we investigate, there were at least a handful of red flags that – if anyone had been curious enough to ask – could have been addressed in a way that might have turned the situation around before it got to the point of a complaint. An HR person who takes the time to wonder about a situation, and to ask clarifying questions – rather than jumping to conclusions, can be the key to creating a culture that truly shows it cares about getting to the truth.
How do you get a curious HR person? Hire for curiosity! Give your HR team the time to flex their creative and curious muscles. Encourage a culture where questioners are rewarded for their ideas. If this doesn’t already exist, empower HR to solve problems in an out-of-the box way and lead the organization with curiosity. There are a lot of great articles written about the Curiosity Quotient (as important in today’s workplace as IQ and EQ). Curious people are more likely to keep learning, try new things, challenge the status quo, and be on the leading edge of today’s business trends. Sounds like a good skill set in HR!
Compassion: Finally, and certainly not lastly, your HR person has to really care about people. It is kind of amazing how frequently we hear about judgmental close-minded people in the HR role in an organization. Part of this can come from combat fatigue – of sorts. HR folks see all kinds of problems, every day. But this is not a position that a person can hold (successfully) without a good dose of compassion and heart as part of the regular approach to problem solving. It’s important for HR professionals to bear in mind that a person’s employment is oftentimes one of the most important relationships in the person’s life. People derive meaning from their work, a sense of identity, friends, and a sense of accomplishment – and of course a way to support themselves and their families. When they have a problem or conflict at work, it can feel like the end of the world. Those of us who work in this field know that people in conflict at work don’t sleep well, their health can suffer – and sometimes it is the last thing they are thinking about as they toss and turn and try to sleep – and the first thing they think about when they open their eyes in the morning. This stuff is huge for people, and it is highly emotional.
This is another trait that it is important to hire, manage and evaluate around when it comes to your organization’s HR staff. Even during the most difficult employee relations occur, such as termination, showing the individual compassion and empathy can turn a difficult encounter into a human encounter which not only protects the company but bolsters a culture where people want to do their best work every day.
As the old saying goes, “Culture eats strategy for lunch”, having the right HR team in place with competency, curiosity and compassion, makes a world of difference.