How Do You Keep Your Sense of Humanity in HR?

Let’s face it: HR is where the drama is inside any company. If it doesn’t start there, it inevitably ends up there–employee conflicts, disappointing talent or culture alignment, misunderstandings that become threats, unreasonable expectations and demands, and truly heart-wrenching pathos that might have started at home, but now floods over into the workplace. These stories show you the worst of humanity at times, but often the best as well. (As an author and consultant specializing in employee engagement, my favorite question is “Tell me of the last time you were proud to be associated with this company.” The answers coming from HR professionals are universally accompanied by tears of deep appreciation for the people they work with.)

As an HR professional, it’s up to you to deal with it all. And you have to be efficient about it, moving from one small fire to the next throughout the day. You must find a way to address each drama so that you’re emotionally present, authentically caring but protected at the same time. When it’s only 10 a.m. and you’ve already fielded three intense meetings with people who are 100 percent invested in their issue, it’s going to be a long day if you don’t know how to protect yourself. And a very long career. Or, worse yet, maybe a short one.

Sadly, way too many HR professionals take care of themselves emotionally by shutting off the part in themselves that sincerely feels. That approach may help you sustain longevity in your profession, but how effective is it in any other way? Your company’s HR function loses out on its precious opportunity to truly make a meaningful and positive difference in its employees’ lives (and all the engagement benefits that go along with that). And you forget your own sense of purpose as absently as you would drive off with your coffee cup on the car roof. All gone, and you don’t even realize it until it’s too late. The coffee you can replace. A lost sense of purpose is substantially more difficult to drum up again.

As an HR leader, you are the first employee you have to be empathic for. Here are three reflections on how to remember the humanity in your HR career:

“As an HR professional, you just can’t be a manager advocate, shareholder advocate or company advocate to the detriment of the employee. The employee is the spirit and soul of the company.”

–Susan J. Schmitt, senior vice president of HR, Rockwell Automation

First of all, don’t call human resources human capital. I hate that. To me, it was HR’s attempt to put itself on the same level as the CFO and the financial aspect of the organization, trying to prove its value … . When consultants would come in to pitch their services and they’d talk about human capital, my whole team would see me cringing. By calling people human capital, it’s like making them robots or drones.

The way to keep humanity in human resources is to never lose sight of the fact that people come to work with their own sets of strengths and weaknesses, their own joys and deep concerns. Having grown up in a family where my sister, Nancy, was terminally ill with cancer, I watched my mom’s employer support her the entire time. I was incredibly touched by the compassion my mother’s employer showed her in terms of time off, and even with some of the benefits decisions they made when Nancy hit her million-dollar max.

As I grew in my own HR career, those experiences always kept me mindful that almost everybody is hurting in some way. I think it’s really important for HR leaders to be sensitive to how people are showing up at work and make sure that we can help them work through some of the greatest challenges of their lives.

When I think about sustaining the sense of humanity in human resources, I consider how essential it is to be sensitive to all employees’ situations. If you’ve got one individual in the grand system who is suffering, then the whole system feels it. It’s our job as HR leaders to figure out and diagnose where that suffering is in the company and do what we can to make the organization healthy again.

Obviously, there are things I can’t do as head of HR to ease an employee’s burden. I can’t make indiscriminate exceptions for people just because I feel like it’s the compassionate thing to do. But many of us stop way short of doing what we can within the boundaries of our HR role. It’s our responsibility to do what we can because, if our people aren’t feeling supported in whatever is happening in their life, that could be the reason why they leave the company.

“Know when you’re getting cynical and find a way to get some breathing room.”

–Ed Martin, former vice president of learning, Pandora Internet Radio

My ride in this profession has been awesome. I’ve had the good fortune of never having to work for someone who would ask me to compromise my values for the sake of the bottom line. But about 20 years into my career, I was beginning to lose enthusiasm for the role because so many of the HR issues were repetitive. I was feeling that my answers to HR issues were becoming rote. I just wasn’t thinking them through anymore.

I remembered back when I was just starting out, a group of us were working for a guy I’ll call Jack. He behaved exactly the opposite of what we wanted to become. So we made a blood oath to “never be like Jack.” But then I found myself rolling my eyes at that 20-year mark. I knew I was becoming like Jack. It wasn’t fair to the people, and I was miserable.

Fortunately, I worked for a vice president who gave me the opportunity to interview for a different kind of role in the company. So I spent the next two years in marketing communications, with a staff of eight–and I was terrible at it. I was terrible at managing performance, communicating poor performance and resolving conflict while I had a business to run.

I returned to HR a better HR person because I could understand the balance between the people and the business. I developed some wisdom from having been in the hornet’s nest for those two years. It made me a better listener in my HR role, which is the first step toward humanity. I was no longer so hard on the manager who got behind on performance reviews. Instead, I’d help get those reviews done.

Have an internal radar that says to you, “I’m getting cynical. I’m no longer coming from a place of curiosity. I’m coming from a place of, ‘I’ve seen this before. This is how I’m going to react because I reacted this way the last time.’ ” When you get to that place, it’s time to start thinking of something else to do. Maybe not permanently, but find some other way to see the world than through the eyes you’ve been looking through.

“To sustain humanity in HR, you have to be able to listen. You have to be able to repeat back what people are saying. Many times, people know that you can’t change what’s going to happen. But if they feel like you’re listening, it makes a big difference.”

— Paul Falcone, vice president of HR for the Motion Picture and Television Fund and author of 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop and Keep Great Employees

You have to be able to listen, be flexible and keep your ability to empathize alive. No one thinks they’re doing anything wrong, given their self-centric view of the world. Your employees aren’t bad people. They’re not problem employees, they’re employees with problems. When faced with difficult conversations that involve the employee getting disciplined, fired or laid off, HR people often protect their own emotional health and cope with their nervousness by freezing and becoming mechanical. That’s when we lose our humanity.

In my first HR job, a manager invited me to sit in on her meetings where she terminated employees. She would say at the end of each meeting, “By the way, if you’re planning to sue us, good luck because we have the best outside counsel in Los Angeles.” She said that over and over again. Word for word. Why would you say that to people? They’re already feeling terrible because they just got fired. They’re feeling totally vulnerable, and then you kick them when they’re down? I think she stopped hearing herself over time and lost touch with what she was really doing to people.

People burn out in all kinds of jobs, not just HR. But HR people have a particular way of burning out because, let’s face it, people are very, very hard to deal with. In HR, the guns are pointed at your head from all directions. And it’s up to you to broker conflicting agendas.

You have to do it with your heart open. And that’s hard. Humanity inside the company has to start with the HR department. Look for ways to instill in people the feeling that they’re welcome and says: “You’re a good person; we’re happy you’re here. Now let’s have a little fun.”

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Martha Finney
Martha Finney is HRE’s Advice from the Top columnist. She is a lifelong HR career trends watcher and best-selling author or co-author of 26 books on HR career management, leadership and employee engagement. Her passion for the HR profession has given her unique access to CHROs, current and past, who trust her with their most powerful insights into what it takes to build a world-class HR career destined for the C-suite. She can be contacted via LinkedIn or at