Is it a full moon or something?
I ask because I have four different people in the past two days who are aspiring HR people want to know what advice I have for new HR professionals. I’ve had 10 of these in August alone. My first piece of advice is that you might want to get into a profession that doesn’t involve spending your days putting people out of work, which is what a whole lot of HR folks are doing right now. It’s not that much fun. Really.
But in the interest of getting four emails and a blog post done at the same time, I’m going to answer this right here. I apologize in advance to those of you who couldn’t care less (although I think some of this applies to people starting out in other professions as well, especially the last two). I’ll talk about job hunting again on Wednesday.
Here’s what wish I’d know when I started out in HR:
1. It’s a free country. People have a right to be idiots, and you are not going to change that. The sooner you get that through your head, the happier and more successful you will be. In my first real HR management job, I beat my head against the wall trying to get my managers to stop doing illegal and/or stupid things. It didn’t work, and I made a lot of enemies by walking around saying, ‘No, you can’t do that.” Eventually I left, exhausted, and they went back to doing exactly what they wanted to do (and with a pretty sour impression of what HR was all about, which was largely my fault, because I handled the whole thing all wrong). You’re not a cop. No one is required to listen to you. They’ll suffer the consequences if they do something illegal, but you’re not the enforcer. You’re an adviser. That’s a totally different thing. If they REALLY want to do stuff that is illegal or immoral, you don’t need to “fix” them. You need to find a new job.
2. It’s all in the delivery. What I should have done in that first HR management job was to find ways to achieve what needed to be achieved without breaking laws OR pissing people off. Instead of saying, “No, you can’t fire Joe, you have no documentation…geez!” I should have said, “So you want to fire Joe. Help me understand why, and then let’s talk about how you can get the problem solved.” You can’t change people’s behavior by force, but you can change it by partnering with them. Maybe we can improve Joe, maybe we can document quickly and get it over with, or maybe there’s another solution. But if you’re starting the conversation with, “No, you can’t do that,” you’re going to be completely ineffective. Try to never let those words pass your lips (unless it’s something really heinous…like if they want to sell crack out of the lunchroom or something).
3. Don’t be an HR person. It’s way more fun to be a businessperson than an HR person. It also pays better, and you get promoted faster. I have been the replacement hire for a number of HR leaders who said things like, “I don’t know why they make me to to this operations meeting, because it has nothing to do with HR,” or “I have no interest in these budget meetings/status reports/whatever.” Never EVER pass up an opportunity to learn about the rest of the business. HR is not rocket science, but successfully running a company sure is. You’ll master the former pretty quickly, but the latter requires lifelong study (and even then it eludes a lot of people). I can’t stress enough how much fun HR can be when you are a trusted member of the leadership team, rather than just “The HR Person.” You get to do amazing things, instead of writing dress codes or filling out forms. Your colleagues at all levels will also respect you more, because they’ll see that you respect what they do. That will make it far more likely that they’ll take your advice.
4. Be prepared for no one to take your advice. Early in my career, a really good HR person told me that people only took his advice about a third of the time. I was shocked, and thought he was just blowing off steam. Nope—he was right. This is mostly an advisory role we’re in, and you can’t take it personally when people don’t listen to you. That said, once you understand that your job is to advise, you start to understand that your real mission is to build credibility so that people will listen to you. Again, getting into the business and out of the HR bubble is the best way to do this.
5. Don’t get sucked into the drama. When I started in HR, there was no internet. In some ways, that was good, because most of my friends and colleagues were not HR people. The internet has changed all that. Now we have Twitter and blogs and message boards and other sites that can put you so far into the HR bubble that you pretty much only talk to other HR folks. That’s not healthy. You start to spend too much time thinking about your seat at the table, and whether SHRM sucks or not, and how we can “add value” or “be impactful” or whatever the stupid phrase of the month is. You know what makes all of that crap moot? Doing good work. There is no “how WE can get a seat at the table” because “WE” aren’t really a “WE” most of the time. In my entire career, I never once had trouble getting that seat at the table (except in the first job…but that was my own fault). Some of my colleagues did, but that was either because they sucked or because they worked for people who sucked. You’re not “the profession.” You’re you. Do good work, and avoid people who spend all of their time talking about “the profession” (unless that’s their job, because some people actually make a living doing that, which makes me want to poke my eye out with a fork). All that navel-gazing isn’t going to make your CEO think you’re smart.
6. Don’t plan too far ahead, and don’t be too wedded to your plans. I am just about the least spontaneous person you’ll ever know. I NEED to plan ahead, and if things aren’t planned, I get cranky. This is a really bad trait in business, in HR, and in life, because nobody gives a crap about your plans. I had my whole career mapped out when I decided to go to college, and it turned out my plan was totally flawed. Then I went into HR and made a new plan, and that turned out to be flawed too. I went through this a couple more times before I figured out that my biggest career leaps/successes came when I chucked the plan. Now, I’ve come to understand that the best strategy is to keep as many options open as I can. This means developing multiple skills (which is why I have bounced back and forth between generalist and recruiting work, to ensure I was always fresh in both areas), keeping your network running both in and out of HR, and especially being ready to say YES rather than NO when something comes at you from left field. Honestly, I think that this kind of flexibility is probably one of the biggest predictors of happiness in life. Crap is going to come at you, and you can either be ready for it and open to it, or you can let it flatten you. One thing I have never been is flattened (so far anyway), but I’ve seen other people wiped out by a wave of change, and it sure looks painful. Aim to be ready for anything, rather than ready for what you think you want, and you’ll be much happier.
7. Don’t ever charge more on a credit card than you can pay off in a month. There are a zillion books, articles and blogs out there that tell you not to get into credit card debt. Everyone’s heard it. What I don’t see a lot of people talking about is the fact that if you DO get into debt, it’s going to have a serious impact on your career. For one thing, a lot of employers check credit as part of the background check (a practice I loathe, but it’s out there). More importantly, though, once you’re in debt, your options are narrowed dramatically. Got a great job opportunity in another part of the country? You can’t take it, because your cards are maxed and you can’t afford to move. Your boss tells you you’d be a shoe-in for the VP slot if you got a master’s degree, but you’d have to work part-time for a while to go back to school? Nope, you can’t, because that debt requires your full-time pay. You see a gig you’d love working for a nonprofit you believe in? It’s a 10% paycut, and you can’t afford it. Sick of HR and want to make a change? You can’t afford to start over in a new line of work (this one is SO common). The company wants to send you to a conference? You have to make an excuse, because you know the rental car company is not going to take your credit card. I have known SO many people who have been limited in their career choices by their credit card debt. It’s just one more reason not to fall into that trap. In some ways, a lot of you are lucky to be coming up during this big recession, when it’s more socially acceptable to say no to keeping up with the Joneses. As things improve, though, it’s going to be harder to resist. I went through that whole credit card debt thing in my twenties, and so did most everyone I know (and some are still in it, with kids and a mortgage, which must be terrifying). Don’t be stupid like us. Managing your money is key to keeping your career options open.
DISCLAIMER: I’ve never had an employer who wanted to sell crack out of the lunchroom. That’s totally made up. The closest I came is the one where they had a football pool, and the guy who was running the pool got fired. The pool was worth $1,600, and the money disappeared when he did. An angry employee sent an anonymous letter to the police chief, telling them that we were a bad employer because we were allowing illegal gambling, and that we (the employer) should have to pay the employees back, because it was our fault for firing the guy who stole the money. So then I had to write a no-football-pools-in-the-office policy. Are you SURE you want to be in HR? Because that’s the kind of crap you’re going to have to do. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Photo by Tony Peters