Published by Guests, on 21/12/2016
By Yumi NG (interim HR manager & author) *
I’ ve been an HR professional for nearly 20 years and just like all of you, I am very passionate about our function. So it goes without saying I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to address this HR audience today. So thank you Marc for having me today.
Prior to engaging in a freelance career , I have worked in several large companies and I have ended my corporate career as an executive at GE.
I guess hence my dislike for powerpoint presentations. You have no idea how powerpoint matttered in that company. There were so many ambitious people spending hours, day and night -no joke- preparing the most fancy powerpoint presentation (some were almost animated films) in order to impress senior staff members. I’ve always thought how even greater the company would be if if all these people would put the same amount of effort and time in simply doing their jobs! Powerpoint is not a job !
I will never forget how a Belgian plant manager once welcomed an ‘expert’ who was sent to us by global headquarters.. During our weekly monday morning staff meeting, he introduced this guest and asked him in front of the whole management team : ‘ So. Are you really gonna DO something or are you just another powerpoint manager ? ‘
But I admit, not doing powerpoint is an attempt to catch your attention in a friendly way. I do have these cheat notes. I like cheat notes in word. I am a writer after all.
I am not here to deliver a presentation with fact and figures. I am here to share a few personal thoughts on the HR function in the hope some of them may appeal to you or maybe even capture your minds and hearts . And if don’t manage to do that , I do apologize upfront . The good news is that I will only speak 14 minutes altough I was granted 20. But as far as I can remember, I’ve never heard someone complaining a presentation was too short!
So, about us, HR people. We all have the privilege to manage the greatests assests of any company. We hold an unique function in the company. We deal with people , with human beings. How big a responsibility is that? So yes, our ethical standards and level of integrity should be the highest of all .
When I look around, I often have the feeling the HR community struggles. There’s a part where we are not taken seriously by the senior staff, where finance and sales leaders seem to have more impact than we do. There are even companies where HR reports to finance but that is another story. Also I’ve met many leaders saying HR people are annoying, unrealistic, unflexibile process nerds. I’ve spoken with employees who say HR people are dishonest, pretending they care about the people but in fact are only truly concerned with the management’s interest. And I have met even more HR professionals gently complaining about their weak position in the company. And so on.
Throughout the years, I have taken the time to observe HR professionals and to reflect on what I’ve seen. My belief is that we too often forget to assess ourselves and candidly evaluate what we do, how we contribute to the company’s successes and more importantly, HOW we do it.
I mean, let’s be honest. We are constantly , in a position of assessing everything and everyone but ourselves. It’s our job. We assess candidates, suppliers, employees. We make judgement calls on people and their track record, their readiness to take on bigger roles, we analyse organisation charts and we are very used to and comfortable doing so. Obviously, it is always easier to look at all the others in the company than to look at ourselves.
Now you may argue sales people aren’t any better at assessing themselves because they always seem to find amazingly inventive reasons to explain why they did not hit their numbers. But , to me, that’s no argument. We, HR people always go on and go on talking about the importance of performance management so please, let’s start with ourselves.
Following on this observation, I have tried to get a grip on the unique value we claim to have as a function by simply trying to find the one reason not to be outsourced.
I don’t want to minimize our skills and expertise but I believe any company can find externally most if not all the things we do. Whether it ‘s recruitment, comp & ben, training, union relations et cetara. There are great experts on the market companies can hire . And I am not saying this to promote my own company.
But as I said earlier, our job is so different from any other function. We drive values , we grow people , we ensure fairness in the workplace. We are the moral conscience of the company and we should be damn proud about it. But to do this well, we need one quality in massive quantity. That is COURAGE. and this can’t be outsourced nor is it easy to bring on board.
This is where I wanted to take you today: talk about courage . I know the title of my presentation mentioned ambition but in fact, it’s all about courage. Or the ambition to be more courageous. We need more courage in our function. In all aspects and in all we do. Let me list you a few examples:
Gender pay gap. How many times do we talk and complain about women’s salaries lagging behind.? They do lag behind.
When, let me tell you. We are part of the problem! WE extend the offers to candidates, don’t we . WE manage the annual salary reviews. We have all the data . Why do we fail to correct the gaps? Are we afraid to engage in a fight with finance??
Same with diversity or the famous glass ceiling. We are HR. We own recruitment, development and promotion processes! Why can’t we promote or bring in more women ??
Oh ‘because it is the hiring manager who eventually decides’ some will argue. Well, we should have the courage to be foreceful and push back when we see our managers tend to hire more of the same or when we intuitively feel they prefer the white guy. And yes, that takes courage, lots of courage.
Another item are company values. We need to live them, breathe them and exude them in such a strong way we gain respect and trust at all levels.
Integrity, risk taking , respect and many more of these values nobody can be be opposed to are part of the culture most companies wish to convey. How can a HR Manager be credible or respected if he or she does not take risks? Oh yes, openly disagreeing with a CEO, a CFO or with HQ is riskful and potentially dangerous for our own careers. But if WE don’t do it , who will?
At some point in my career I was asked to fire 5 heads within 2 weeks.
It basically meant these people would get laid off just a few days before X mas. The company wanted these people out before year end to get full savings from january onwards. ‘Yumi , I need you to do this for the company , said the EMEA CFO when he called me . He hardly ever called me so I knew it was important.
It felt very wrong to do what I was aked to do . I did not want to do it but knew I needed to find a way to work around it. So I told the CFO the unions would not forgive us, that the press would give us a hard time etc. It was only half a lie I guess. It worked out and the layoffs were postponed. Now this sounds dead easy but trust me, it was not. I was very nervous refusing to do what I was asked to do in a company where execution and speed of execution were highly regarded. It was most uncomfortable saying NO to this important CFO knowing he could hold this against me at some point, knowing he might complain to my boss, the HR director and knowing he might damage my reputation by spreading the rumour Belgium had a unreliable HRM who was not able to deliver.
We , HR people should dare to push back when our leaders want to take an action that is questionable.
If we don’t have the courage to stand up against them, we should not be in this function.
If we don’t have the courage to take a risk, to act according the values of the company, we should not be in this function.
We should never accept when we see a senior leader bullying or showing disrespect to employees. How can we ever be credible when we deliver another training and talk about respect when the whole company knows there is a manager out there not respecting his employees and HR does not seem to address the issue?
When we see the top failing, acting or behaving in a unacceptable way we should take a stand , act upon it with courage and not close our eyes. Even if we put our own careers on the line. What’s the worse than can happen to us? Get fired? Never forget, it is just a job.
We need the courage to confront these leaders, make them aware, challenge them and yes, put moral pressure on them . Again, if we are not willing to do that, we should not be in this function.
In all fairness. I will tell you one more /last thing.
Sometimes there is simply no cure nor hope for the leadership team. And when the rot is set in at the top, no HR leader, no matter how skillful, courageous or influential can get any traction . We can only spend so long bashing our heads against a brick wall before we realise that , in such case, the only viable course of action is to be even more courageous , call it a day and jump ship.
Yes, it takes courage to leave, to turn our back against an admired company, a top job, a big salary check, a cool company car . I’ve done it and I can tell you it is scary .
But we, HR people should not waste our talents, energy and passion on the wrong cause. We have a built in detector, a natural moral compass and we KNOW when things are wrong. We are HR people , we are role models. We should never compromise on our integrity or pretend we don’t know what’s happening. We have a moral responsiblity and we have to practice what we preach. We owe it to the employees, we owe it to the HR function and more importantly, to ourselves.
* This is the text of the presentation Yumi NG gave at the HRM Inspiration Day 2016 (Brussels, 22/11)
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