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In Search Of the Vanishing Human in HR

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Human resources is almost a misnomer. People still have the ultimate say, but increased deferment to technology and processes strips away the human element.

For more than two decades, Laurie Ruettimann has fought the good fight and is determined to go on even if she is the last HR human standing.

After her early days as an HR assistant and rising through more lucrative though unsatisfying—“I hated my job”—assorted corporate ladders, she followed a new direction.

“I became a writer, speaker, and podcaster as a result of the heartbreak and outrage I’ve experienced throughout my corporate career,” Ruettimann said. “While I love calling out boorish behavior, I am dedicated to the revolutionary—and long-overdue mission—of fixing work by telling stories and teaching leaders how to create workplace cultures that support, empower and engage workers meaningfully.”

Today, she helps executives and HR leaders prioritize the employee experience to avoid the collateral damage of a toxic work environment.

“You can find me all over the internet, shaking my fist and yelling at clouds,” Ruettimann said.

She found common ground with Chelsea Krost, a millennial expert and top-rated marketing and branding voice. Together, they talked about the nature of human resources, if a business needs an HR department, HR and social media, recruiting and retaining top talent, plus other issues.

HR connects the company to the employee. It is both liaison and conflict resolver—ideally an avenue for solutions.

“I’ll start with optimism,” Ruettimann said. “When done right, HR is the one department that can enable great work by helping companies hire people and ensure their emotional, physical and financial wellbeing.

“HR professionals can be progressive leaders who implement their vision of the future of work—not just overlords of some corporate agenda that puts profit over people,” she said.

At the same time, there are drawbacks.

“Sometimes HR is a compromise,” Ruettimann said. “They help companies enforce policies. I know HR teams who want to elevate people over profits, but they’re stuck. They are just employees, too.”

In addition, as she boldly stated in an article, “Let’s face it. HR is powerless to help women who are harassed.”

HR fundamentals

Krost listed basic HR functions as a department of a business:

  • Hires and fires staff
  • Coordinates employee training
  • Handles employee communication
  • Monitors performance
  • Enforces policies and procedures

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“HR is important to keep a certain level of professionalism in the workplace,” Krost said. “They are there to handle those ‘sticky situations’ and help to enforce policies that let a company or brand grow and excel.”

The need for human resources departments depends on the business’s size. As it grows to the point where intimate touch between the upper echelon and workers starts to slip away, an HR department would be good for continued interaction.

“Every company over 25 people needs an HR department,” Ruettimann said. “Not a lawyer. Not a ‘head of talent.’ If you have people, you need a people department that actually cares about people.

“Lots of startups hire a recruiter first,” she said. “That’s a mistake. You need philosophies, standards, values and guardrails. You need an ombudsman. Then you need a leader of talent who hires according to those standards.”

For example, Ruettimann cited an article by hiring manager Heather R. Huhman: “Don’t Wait Until Your Angry Employees Run to the Internet Before Hiring an Ombudsman.”

“In my model of HR that I teach, the chief people officer is the CEO,” Ruettimann said. “There is nobody more responsible for the engagement and productivity of the workforce than the leader of the company.”

Human resources is based on four quadrants: hiring, onboarding, employee experience, and exits.

“These four elements are important to ensure employees feel comfortable, safe and supported in the workplace,” Krost said. “Companies today should strive to foster a workplace environment that makes employees a priority. Happy employees are the best brand ambassadors.

“Meanwhile, eyes and ears should always be on the alert,” she said. “Don’t stop paying attention just because you haven’t heard of any problems. Always be aware.”

Just a bit dated

Although those are the classic HR parameters, Ruettimann finds other elements “a little 2009.”

“Throw out your old HR models,” she said. “People don’t care about buzzwords. They don’t care who works in talent management or field HR operations. They don’t care if your title is HR manager or HR business partner. They just want their work-related questions answered.

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“Most companies have a difficult time managing the employee experience—it’s so broad,” Ruettimann said. “The best companies ask, ‘How do we treat people within the four quadrants of HR and deliver on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging?”

She wants companies to use different measures of success.

“I prefer to pay HR based on engagement and happiness scores,” Ruettimann said. “Happy employees mean you have an effective HR.

“We get caught up in the buzzwords,” she said. “As long as the workforce is safe and happy, call HR anything you’d like.”

For good or ill, social media plays a role in HR. The workforce communicates in ever greater ways online. If human resources wants to stay in contact with employees, the channel has to be where the people live.

“Can I be cynical for a second?” Ruettimann said. “Social media makes HR worse—hiring, onboarding, employee experience and certainly the way people leave. The only meaningful connection is a human connection.

“There was once great promise for social media and hiring,” she said. “According to background screening provider EBI, only 2 percent of applicants are called for an interview for the average job opening. The needle isn’t moving—and that makes me sad.”

On the plus side, innovation is creeping in.

“Some of the best HR departments are using private podcasts to keep employees informed and deliver messages from key leaders in the organization,” Ruettimann said, citing Danny Ozment’s employee communication podcasts.

In some cases, social media can be a positive but overall not necessarily good influence on the work environment.

“Someone once told me that we get the social media we deserve,” Ruettimann said. “I like that because it demands courteousness and accountability.”

Talent’s great attractor

Whatever its effect, social plays a big role in talent acquisition.

“Finding candidates can be a daunting task, but the world of social allows HR to view and follow potential candidates,” Krost said. “Thanks to networks like LinkedIn, we can find people seeking jobs and see their experience.

“Social media helps HR departments communicate with remote employees,” she said. “Through social media groups and chats, HR departments can ensure that remote workers feel just as much support and connection to the company as in-office workers.”

HR departments can recruit and retain top talent if they speak the social media language of the people they hope to recruit and retain. Underline truth, engagement and credibility.

“For recruiting and retention, HR must work collaboratively with business leaders and train them to do it,” Ruettimann said. “If it’s an HR initiative, it will fail.

“A majority of hires still come from employee referrals,” she said. “Until we stop relying on this older and lazier way of hiring, we won’t get to the heart of addressing racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia and other biases.”

Top companies cannot afford to take a break.

“The best HR departments never stop working with their managers to hire,” Ruettimann said. “They are always looking for talent, always open to conversations and will make space for people when they find someone who fits.”

Krost said businesses should do this to retain top talent:

  • Acknowledge shared needs and values in the workplace.
  • Provide reverse mentorship opportunities.
  • Fuel the entrepreneur within and let them innovate.

There are sensitivities that come with bosses being friends with their employees. Relationships must be professional, avoiding perceptions of playing favorites.

Krost said having relationships outside of the workplace with employees can lead to several issues:

  • Employees with an unfair advantage
  • Difficulty in managing expectations
  • Jealousy from coworkers

Friends versus finances

Real talk,” Ruettimann said. “Work is not your family or friends. You are only truly ‘friends’ with someone if your relationship exists outside of the job, outside of social media and during your off-hours.

“Friends are the people you talk to about topics other than work,” she said. “Anybody who controls your financial future is not your friend.”

People who go into business with friends and family have to maintain a healthy balance.

“Work amplifies the best and worst in all of us,” Ruettimann said. “Family businesses succeed when families have a culture of respect and communication already baked into the way they operate.”

The best technology in human resources is geared toward eliminating bias. Of course, the output is only as good as the input fed by humans.

“The best HR tech should be invisible to the worker,” Ruettimann said. “Do you even know anything about what tech is being used at your company? Do you like it?

“For all the HR tech out there, hiring and engagement aren’t any better than it was a decade ago,” she said. “The best HR tech is the human heart.”

Krost pointed to a LinkedIn survey in which 83 percent of talent said a negative interview experience could change their minds about a role or company they once liked. Meanwhile, 87 percent of talent said a positive interview experience could change their minds about a role or company they once doubted.

In the future, artificial intelligence will play an ever-greater role in human resources. This comes at the risk of letting machines do work better left to retain the last vestiges of human interaction.

“I fear that HR will grow more complex,” Ruettimann said. “Leaders believe automation and digitization improve productivity and delivery, but we haven’t found easy ways to do it.

“In my dream world, HR grows more human,” she said. “If you want to fix work, the best thing you can do is be your own HR.”

Financial network KPMG has released a report on what it sees as the future of HR. The results are a combination of hope and caution.

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Jim Katzaman
Jim Katzaman is a manager at Largo Financial Services. A writer by trade, he graduated from Lebanon Valley College, Pennsylvania, with a Bachelor of Arts in English. He enlisted in the Air Force and served for 25 years in public affairs – better known in the civilian world as public relations. He also earned an Associate’s Degree in Applied Science in Public Affairs. Since retiring, he has been a consultant and in the federal General Service as a public affairs specialist. He also acquired life and health insurance licenses, which resulted in his present affiliation with Largo Financial Services. In addition to expertise in financial affairs, he gathers the majority of his story content from Twitter chats. This has led him to publish about a wide range of topics such as social media, marketing, sexual harassment, workplace trends, productivity and financial management. Medium has named him a top writer in social media.

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