Keeping the Human in Human Resources

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Vaso Perimenis

When it comes to Human Resources, the most important part is the human.

What image comes to mind when you hear the words “Human Resources”? Do you see people sitting at desks, processing transactions or entering employee data into systems? Do you think about a department that hires and fires employees?

I see a team of professionals who are stewards for the culture and environment of their organization, and who are catalysts for change that allow both the business and people to thrive. HR and leaders can work together to identify and ameliorate the issues that inhibit a purposeful, positive and productive culture.

Is Human Resources a department within a company, or does human resources also refer to a company’s workforce? Keeping the “human” in your workforce is largely dependent upon how Human Resources operates.

The HR team must work tirelessly to create an environment and culture that inspires humans to bring the best version of themselves to work every day. The issues that affect your human resources are influenced by their daily work experience.  What is the perception of the fairness of policies, the internal justice of the application of those policies, and the leaders who apply them?

To allow individuals to perform at their best and make meaningful contributions, HR has a responsibility to influence the C-suite to give humans at work physical, emotional and psychological support.

There are three important conditions required for HR to assume and keep this impactful position:

  1. Establish guardrails in the form of balanced policies and practices that allow the business to function efficiently while creating an engaged environment where people want to work.
  2. Operate as a competent professional services company, engendering trust and confidence in HR’s ability to deliver high quality solutions and services.
  3. Become trusted and influential advisors that work for the greater good of the organization. 

Balanced policies

As Peter Drucker observed, “The policies of an enterprise have to be balanced with the kind of reputation an enterprise wants to build up with special reference to the social and human needs, objectives and values”.  Good HR policies should lean on the concept of organizational justice which was originally derived from equity theory.  This is a psychological theory that suggests individuals make judgements of fairness based on the amount they give (input) compared to the amount they get back (output).

Does your organization have a progressive discipline policy? Although some leaders argue that this process only delays the inevitable, I posit that someone who is not aware of performance or behavior issues should be given an opportunity to improve.

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Consider a “progressive improvement” policy where the focus is coaching and feedback versus negative consequences. If you treat people as humans, rather than assets, they will respond in kind. Sometimes people have difficulty bringing their best selves to work every day. Through dialogue and mutual understanding, we can use feedback to correct course.

Human Resources is primarily responsible for upholding organizational justice. By providing a formal process through which employees can voice dissatisfaction with work conditions, employment actions or treatment, Human Resources helps keep “human” in the workforce. Human Resources must also identify patterns that lead to recommended organizational improvement.

Unbalanced policies can lead to fear and low morale. A balanced policy can encourage mutual learning and collaboration to improve performance.

Competent Professional Services

HR has historically operated as a cost center which is a simple expense allocation to the general ledger.  In today’s world, non-revenue generating support areas must justify their existence, in the value that they add to the organization’s objectives.

HR must operate like a vendor selected to deliver a value-added service and held to specific standards. HR must provide thought leadership, excellent service, value creation and creative solutions to solve business problems.

To operate as a competent professional services vendor, HR must:


  1. Attract, retain and motivate HR talent who can deliver value and embrace partnership with the business. This requires attractive total rewards, hard-wired feedback loop and performance measures/expectations.
  2. Have underlying processes, practices, monitoring methods and technology that yield positive human experiences.
  3. Hire and reward quality leaders that are aligned with accepted rules of engagement, goals and strategies.


Human Resources should be a consultancy. We have deep people expertise and advise others who are not the expert.  Sometimes, they think they know better, and don’t want to listen or take advice. A consultant must have the ability to influence, so that the consulting relationship can flourish. The influence is predicated on building credibility via expertise and trustworthiness.

According to Trusted Advisor Associates, their Trust Equation is T (Trust) = CRIS.  Credibility has to do with the words we speak—are we believable? Reliability has to do with the actions we take—are we dependable? Intimacy has to do with the safety of discussions—am I discrete? Self-Orientation has to do with attention—on whom is my attention focused?

Client leaders are willing to follow the advice of HR professionals who are not only subject matter experts but are perceived as “the” expert. The perception is based on daily human interactions and experiences with the HR team. Over time, HR professionals gain the respect and liking of their clients and thus become a trusted business advisor. 

Once elevated to this lofty trusted advisor status, HR can influence corporate culture and act as a corporate conscience, much as Memento Mori kept ancient Roman generals grounded. Triumphant generals were paraded through the streets after a military victory, accompanied by a servant whose responsibility was to whisper in the general’s ear continuously, “Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori.”  “Remember thou art mortal. Remember you must die!”

Human Resources acts as the servant reminding the general (C-suite) that despite all the victories, they, too, are mortal.  Despite its successes, the company is only mortal, comprised of human beings.  Without a continuous focus on people, the probability of growth or high performance diminishes (i.e. “dies”). 

HR has a unique position in the company to keep humans on the corporate agenda, as a vital growth, performance and competitive advantage engine. Human performance and productivity drive financial performance. Now is the time for HR to elevate its game and contribute directly to organizational and human success.

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