The Delicate Dance Every HR Person Must Master Practice the steps needed to balance the push and pull of human resources and become a star!
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Employees hold people in human resources to unique standards but with a weight as heavy as those they hold for a CEO. As HR professionals, we have to hold both the company and the employee at the same time. We need to know which side we must be on and at what time, depending on the situation and how to push back on one side or the other, or both simultaneously. This is the delicate dance HR professionals need to learn to be successful. By practicing the right steps, we can attempt to master it.
Balancing empathy and professionalism
In HR, communication is everything. Without it, people start to fill in the gaps with their own narratives — "They only care about the bottom line." An organization without healthy and transparent communication is the prime environment for gossip to thrive, especially in sensitive situations like mergers and acquisitions. Everyone has horror stories, which feed into rumors of job cuts or loss of benefits because "I know someone who went through the same thing."
But communication is very nuanced, and HR professionals must appreciate that nuance to communicate and explain with a balance of empathy and professionalism. We often must communicate strategically, giving different audiences the information they need at the right times for the most effective delivery. Otherwise, we may be backed into an uncomfortable corner or say the wrong thing.
Know your audience, read the room and bring empathy to every conversation, especially when communicating hard decisions. Behind closed doors with the decision-makers, I might express my feelings about the unfair situation differently. I can be honest, express empathy around the situation and even explain what went wrong to build trust in my advocacy for employees, but I need to balance that with respect for the leadership team at all times, even if they were the cause.
How the choreography moves to music
After acquiring a company in the UK, we merged the business first, leaving those in the back office to run in parallel until we could complete the process. We had promised everyone could join our benefits plan by the second quarter, and the remaining employees were excited as the date drew near. Unfortunately, we got delayed. Financial, controllership, IT and other system integrations in Brazil caused a backlog, pushing that date to the third quarter.
HR had no purview over resolving these issues, and the delay was completely out of our control, but to this group of people, we were going back on everything we had promised.
As the one responsible for communicating the decision, I told them the truth: We underestimated the work it would take to get everyone up and running in our systems. In part, this was because the organization had too many manual processes that, I admitted to them, we knew we needed to fix, and I apologized that they got caught up in that.
I struggled to deliver that message — it was not an easy choice. Others might have swept it under the carpet or, worse, given them no explanation. Instead, by delivering the information in a real and transparent way, I showed them a little of the "behind the curtain" difficulties of running a global business so they could empathize with the hard realities that happened in that process when different geographies own different parts of the process. As hard as the pill was for them to swallow, they appreciated that I was honest, empathetic to their situation, and willing to apologize.
Practice the steps and dance
Toeing the line of the company's interests while being an approachable leader that employees go to for support takes social and emotional intelligence and a basic understanding of human psychology and communication.
Here are three steps to practice balancing empathy and professionalism to put the "human" back in "human resources":
- Be honest. The HR dance requires communicating with integrity from a place of honesty. We are all human. We don't always have all the answers or control in making decisions, and it's OK to admit that. I have left HR conversations dissatisfied with the answers because they felt canned; dishonest. I want people to come away feeling that they got an honest answer, even if the response is not what they wanted. They may not like it, but they can respect it, knowing they were seen and heard as a person.
- Trying goes a long way. Even when we know we have little influence over the outcome, if we do our best in a given situation and communicate honestly, saying, "Let me try," can go a long way. I always offer to try when employees come to me asking for more resources or help to manage too much on their plate. With the simple effort of saying, "I've got you, I see you, I'll try," even if I try and come back with no news or bad news, they see HR as their advocate, feel heard and validated, and will respect that I tried.
- There's a lot of power in an apology. Even in the face of hard decisions and bad news that HR has no power to change, it is amazing how much an apology can make people feel better. When I say, "I understand this is unfair, and I'm sorry on behalf of the organization it's happening to you. I wish it could be different," people hear this as a genuine apology, even without personally taking any blame for other people's decisions. I acknowledge the organization taking responsibility so employees can at least feel respected despite the outcome.
The more you use these steps with the people on your team, the more they learn to trust they can approach you for help or with feedback, which provides valuable information that we in HR need to do our jobs better. Go into every situation already having thought out how to explain it, offer people a way to ask questions, and be as available and honest as possible. This is how you gain the respect and trust needed to maintain a healthy and loyal team and, ultimately, an organization that trusts HR vs. being gaslighted by them.