I grew up in a municipal Human Resources Department between the years 1979 and 1990. It was a different world then and I was profoundly lucky. The HR unit I entered, with no prior experience in HR, was in virtual shambles, hated and feared by most of the organization, mostly because the department had become a political football and was fundamentally incompetent from a technical standpoint. Over time, and with new leadership, the department regained its credibility and went on to become a genuine center of organizational excellence. By then we had a great team and we had great leaders.
I learned, personally, not just professionally, what HR is really all about, which is the hard fought wisdom that comes from being constantly engaged and with a critical role to play in the lives and feelings of people at work. I learned all about the differences in perspective that those in management roles and those in first-line roles bring to their decisions and actions. I learned the sociology of the workplace and how truth and openness are often distant dreams for people, while day to day relationships go on being fragmentary and people take home their anger and sense of powerlessness.
The day I arrived I was helpfully oriented to my new job — the one on paper — called “Personnel Analyst.” The real job, however, was well hidden. “Don’t eat in the cafeteria,” a well-meaning colleague advised that day. “People around here, learning you are new, will just work you over for the answers they want to hear to their questions; then blackmail the rest of us with some alleged promise you’ve made to them.” Another said, “I won’t be introducing you to the Director of the [such and such] department for awhile. He’ll eat you alive unless you know how to deal with him.” The helpful, “real” orientation.
My first assignment was to take on the organization’s blood drive. It was intended for me to be a way to meet people. I tried to put my friendliest foot forward, but was often greeted by distance and mistrust, as if the blood I was asking for (metaphorically) was not going to a charitable cause.
And then there was the employee survey, some months after I arrived, where employees anonymously rated the HR function. We found that pretty much all eight of us in the department had had our names called out as liars and cheats and incompetents. The feedback was so bad all we could do was laugh and wonder who the heck they were talking about. That was before the better leaders came and we learned we were neither an appendage of management nor simply a mouthpiece for employees, but some much more subtle brokerage in the wars of self-interest.
I stayed over ten years in that department for reasons that had to do with my desire to learn how to talk to people, how to advise and support, how to calm people from their negative assumptions, and help others learn to trust me as I learned to be trustworthy.
HR really can be a place that holds the soul of an organization, but it takes a ton of work to do it, especially when fear and betrayal and subtle or not so subtle animosity have been the norms. Of the many things I received through my experiences, perhaps the best was simply the vision of a workplace where people treated each other with deep respect, compassion, care, where they told the truth, and where the truth was heard. That vision, that inner and outer view of people, of their capabilities and true dimensions, that sensitivity to trust and mistrust as core dimensions of any workplace, of any relationship any time anywhere, that vision of meaningful relationships that comes into the heart and stays because it must in order to do the work — that was the primary gift. Hard fought wisdom is the legacy of doing HR work well. It can change a person and it certainly changed me.
One time, in Hawai’i, I took a class in how to make a dried gourd into a useful water vessel. The process includes putting sand and stones, and a little water, into the gourd, then shaking it hard to loosen the scraps of dried flesh inside the gourd. You need to have something truly abrasive, like the sand and stones, and you have to dump it out and refill it many times, shaking it as hard as you can many times over in order to get all the constricting old flesh out of the way. But eventually, if you stick with it, you get something quite helpful and you can use it for quite a long time.