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Four misconceptions common in young HR pros


It’s great for people to study HR at university or college. They learn a lot of useful things. Unfortunately they may also learn some things that just ain’t so. As an HR leader you should be on the lookout for these four misperceptions common among young HR pros.

Seeing HR as an end in itself

If you spend years studying HR as your main topic then it’s natural to come to think that HR sits at the centre of the universe. Enthusiastic new HR pros may be eager to improve engagement, reduce turnover, or modernize onboarding. There’s nothing wrong with those goals, but HR needs to realize they are secondary objectives. Business leaders don’t really care about engagement, turnover or onboarding; they only care about them when they are the best possible lever to use to improve business results.

Consider turnover. It may be low enough that it is simply injecting a healthy amount of new blood. It could also be that the business was designed to handle high turnover and reducing it wouldn’t have a big payoff. Finally, it might be that some other intervention, such as product redesign, would have a bigger impact on business results and it makes sense to focus attention there, not on turnover. Sometimes we should try to reduce turnover, but not always.

HR is important, no one doubts that, but new professionals need to learn HR’s place in the overall scheme of things.

Believing they know what to do

If you study HR you’ll learn a lot of techniques: perhaps a team-building process or an assessment tool or a coaching method. When presented with a business issue there is a natural tendency to pick one of the techniques you have learned and voice it enthusiastically. This is exactly what students have been trained to do: they’re given a question, they blurt out one of the answers they’ve been taught, they get a good mark.

In the real world the first step when confronted with a problem is almost always to find out a whole lot more before suggesting a solution. Getting people to step away from enthusiasm with specific solutions and instead engaging with stakeholders to better understand the situation will make them effective much earlier in their career.

Thinking HR is about helping people

It’s traditional for people to go into HR because they like people. There’s nothing wrong with liking people, but young professionals need to understand that the reason they are being paid a salary is to make the business more successful. The good news is that treating people well is often an effective way to help the business. Over and above business results, many boards believe in treating people well as a core value. This means HR pros don’t need to abandon their nice side, it’s just that they need to be constantly aware that the business has specific needs and those needs are the priority.

Seeing compliance as a weapon for punishing managers

The strange flip side of HR being nice is that they sometimes relish the power they have to make people miserable.

This issue is sneaky because it starts with something true, which is that HR needs to help the company remain compliant on labour laws. However, if you listen to the tone in which it’s put it’s often framed as a weapon. For example, HR pros sometimes like to talk about how much trouble a manager could get into for everyday conversation in an interview that edges into things that technically shouldn’t be discussed (such as age). Yes, you can come down heavy on that manager. It’s exciting for these young people because it gives them a giddy source of power—but it’s the wrong thing to do. It can get absolutely poisonous in the world of diversity and HR needs to avoid using the program as an excuse to beat up managers.

What these misperceptions have in common

None of these misperceptions are taught explicitly in schools. Rather they are attitudes picked up subliminally. This makes them harder to change because they get embedded as unquestioned values or truths. We need to be alert for hints that new HR pros are thinking this way, then help them dig a little so that they recognize they have an underlying assumption or worldview or attitude which isn’t helpful.

It’s not easy confronting these beliefs, no one wants to argue that you shouldn’t be nice nor accuse someone of using compliance as a weapon. It’s this “not easy” work that good mentors do.


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