Working at a University, it’s impossible not to walk around and feel old as you see thousands of young and eager faces going to and from class. While I don’t work directly with students much, I get “drafted” every year by dozens of them to do interviews for their Human Resources or Business classes. I laugh because I wonder if their syllabi say that they must interview an HR professional or if my name specifically is on them. I think I’ll ask next time.
Every conversation I have with them goes the exact same, which shows me a few things. The same, generic interview questions are provided to them and most importantly, hardly any of them really know what they are getting themselves into majoring in HR.
I try to be as candid as possible when I discuss what I do. I also am not one to sugar coat, so I’m surprised that I haven’t gotten an email from the faculty concerned about what I’m telling them. But when you speak to someone that is in “the trenches” so to speak, you should hear the not-so-pretty, non-glamorous, non-text book type of accounts that we’ve encountered since we’ve been out of school.
It reminds me of this song by Bill Withers that was re-recorded by John Legend called” I Can’t Write Left-handed.” In the song, they tell the account of a young man returning home from war. In the conversation Bill Withers had with him, the young man spoke of his experiences and said that “Being shot at didn’t bother him…it was being shot that really shook him up.”
He goes on to account in the second verse:
Boot camp we had classes
You know we talked about fighting, fighting every day
And looking through rosy, rosy colored glasses
I must admit it seemed exciting anyway
Oh, but something that day overlooked to tell me, Lord
Bullets look better, I must say
Brother when they ain’t coming at you
But going out the other way
While I’m certainly not comparing our jobs to that of soldiers, because Lord knows I couldn’t be one, our students and young professionals are given these same tinted lenses to wear. No one taught me how to navigate in the business world once I graduated. They didn’t tell me that it would be hell to find a job. They didn’t tell us that dealing with employees and their issues would be stressful. They especially didn’t tell us how the decisions we would make in our HR offices could affect the professional lives of those same employees. The theory around reductions in force, layoffs, terminations, workplace bullying, poor communication between managers and employees and performance issues and self-esteem doesn’t even come close to actually having to deal with it day in and day out.
I remember in a particular job I had that terminations were so commonplace that I almost became numb to them. The more I had to deliver the news, the less and less I thought about what those people had to go through and what they would do with themselves once they left our building. I went from dreading those conversations to executing them without hesitation and with precision. Corrective actions became a habit and a part of my muscle memory.
T’was from these experiences that I began to understand that it was far more productive and humane to identify possible employment issues before they became terminable, and how to keep employees from meeting that fate. Unfortunately it took me having to see it to learn it, as this wasn’t taught. What was taught is that HR is about process, rules and bottom line. I know now that it’s about productivity, development and learning to make the best of the resources that we have.
I honestly believe that if new practitioners and students were shown more realistic pictures of what HR does, we’d have a stronger, better equipped crop of advocates that understand our role in companies…making a difference and not just firing the shots. At the very least, we’d weed out those that didn’t necessarily have what it took to be the right type of leader in our industry…or those that could see early on that this wasn’t the field for them.
So no, I’m not going to paint a perfect picture of what I do, because it is tough. It is oftentimes stressful and difficult. The feelings of guilt come and go as I balance emotion with logic and ultimately decide what’s best for employer and employee.
Unlike the young man in the song that was more than likely drafted to do what he did, we had choices. Those new to this profession have even more choices than we did. So while we speak and share our stories and experiences, we must tell all sides, the good and the bad, to help mold those that are committed to this industry and to give those that are on the fence enough information to make their choice…before they become the poorly equipped and uninformed HR people that we end up complaining about in our blogs and at our conferences.