Employee Relations… the Street Cred Every HR Leader Must Have.

Jessica Lee Jessica Lee, Leadership

In the future, where will our HR leaders come from?

I had a chat the other week with the venerable John Sumser. He's allowed me to continue dissecting the issue of the future of HR with him and one of the things we spoke about was the trend of seeing HR leaders being plucked from the recruiting and talent acquisition function. Think about it. Pretty much everyone likes the recruiting function. Recruiters are pretty fun, mostly extroverted. They make stuff happen that everyone likes – bringing in new talent. And being a good recruiter requires you to know the business really well – so demonstrating that you're a true business partner is actually pretty easy. So why wouldn't a CFO or CEO or COO want a recruiting leader to manage the HR function? And I think John's suspicion was that we'll see this trend continue.

For someone to rise to the top of the HR ladder though and be effective, I might argue that you have to paySTREET_CREDIBILTY_logo_ your dues and spend time cutting your teeth by doing some good 'ole employee relations. You know… settling the petty to massive squabbles between teammates, investigating a harassment issue or two or seventeen, managing the issue of a constantly truant employee who is great when they do show up in the office but their in-office presence is always inconsistent… and those are just the easy issues. You really see people at their lowest in the workplace when you do employee relations. You see the worst of the worst. But talk about the lessons learned…

When you do employee relations, you learn some really crucial skills. You have to do some massive problem solving for nearly impossible problems. You're expected to waive some magic wand that will solve everything in the workplace. You have to learn to build consensus, to play and be comfortable with playing bad cop, to deliver really horrible news with empathy and do it in such a way that you leave the recipient of your bad news feeling like they have some dignity. And that's just the starting point of what all comes with doing employee relations. But those are not skills that anyone comes equipped with naturally. It takes dealing with employee relations issue after employee relations issue to become good at and pick up all of those crucial skills. And don't you think an HR leader needs to be able to do all of those things?

I love it when I hear people say that they got into HR, or that they want to get into HR because they L-O-V-E people. "I'm a people person!" Right… your eyes rolling as you read this. I know. Sure, at the end of the day, HR is about the people. But if you spend long enough in HR, you learn that people are also the very reason why this gig can be tough because oh, the humanity you have to deal with… and sometimes, you just wish that all the people would just go away. That is, unless you grow up in and then stay in one of those feel good areas of HR. You know… recruiting or training and development. To a certain extent, maybe benefits. Compensation and rewards as well… all relatively feel good HR disciplines. And "feel good" doesn't necessarily mean easy, so let's not get offended or confused… I'm just saying, in none of those areas would anyone ever look at you as the grim reaper. When you are the employee relations pro though? Sometimes people run when you come around. They're scared of you. But if you're good at it, also think about the credibility you gain from being able to solve ugly, ugly, really ugly people related issues. It's a big deal for an HR leader to have that kind of cred under the belt, I'd argue.

But what do you think? Can you lead an HR function without having spent time managing employee relations? Is there another way to gain those crucial skills I cover above? Or as an HR leader, can you simply surround yourself with strong people who maybe fill those gaps for you? Or maybe it doesn't matter at all what HR discipline you come from. Maybe the best HR leaders are going to be non-HR folks who will think about HR completely outside of the box. Talk it out… and let's build some consensus. And if it gets ugly in the comments section, I'm sure someone will waive their magic HR wand and make everything all right.

PS – Good reading here at the Halogen employee performance and talent management blog on the attributes of an HR leader. More food for thought.