Very much like librarians, human resources managers have acquired a bad reputation over the years. Where librarians are seen as the killjoys who hush library patrons, HR people are often viewed as the administrators who kill the best ideas – or at least shelve them indefinitely.
Even HR managers say some of their counterparts have justly earned that notoriety. But, as the work world grows increasingly complex – and as skilled employees become ever more scarce – thoughtful, talented HR managers are becoming distinguished for their ability to manage a culture, promote workplace engagement, and keep the most valuable workers motivated to do their very best.
In IBR’s March 24 issue of Workforce, IBR talks to some of these managers about how they find and retain the best employees, how they attract a diverse pool of job applicants, and how they respond to calls for things like flexible work schedules and better pay.
Among other things, being a great HR manager means being able to manage the company culture through change, says Patti Perkins, the owner of Calyx-Weaver & Associates in Eagle, which provides HR functions for Idaho companies.
Perkins said it’s true that a lot of HR managers do get caught up in issuing edicts on topics like wearing capri pants to the office or bringing champagne to an office Christmas party.
“The problem is, a lot of the HR function is about risk management, and if you are heavily oriented toward compliance, which some personalities are, and those are the people who get into the HR roles, then that is the culture that is going to be built up,” she said.
But the good ones are in tune with the company’s leaders and with its culture, enabling them to help avert crises and solve major problems.
One example: HR managers can manage change, for example when companies merge and two cultures have to learn to blend into one.
A good strategic thinker in HR will be diplomatic and effective in managing rules both written (such as who receives paid parking and who doesn’t; who has authority to spend the company’s money; and, who can bring questions to a manager above the level of their own manager) and unwritten (such as when it’s alright to question a company leader, and who can speak out in meetings and who shouldn’t). This manager will be able to merge a company where ping pong tables and beer kegs are seen as de rigueur, and one where creativity and fun have been banished from daytime hours.
“This is very, very real, because every company has a culture,” Perkins said.
State and federal regulations, social rules, and the influence of technology are evolving so rapidly it’s hard to keep up with what is acceptable in the workplace and what is not. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate hovers below 4 percent in Idaho and HR managers are being pushed harder than ever to find badly needed skilled workers. On top of this, job titles and responsibilities are changing as the economy grows, and generational changes are bringing new forces to bear.
Perkins says modern HR managers now have to be part psychologist, part business analyst, and part process analyst. And full-time diplomat.
“If everybody got along at work, I wouldn’t have anything to do,” she said. “Most of the time the thing that will drive a small business to reach out to a consultant like me is, ‘I’ve got this totally dysfunctional team and nobody is getting along. Can you figure out what is going on?’”
Anne Wallace Allen is editor of the Idaho Business Review.