The Sunny Side of Human Resources

Before pursuing a career in HR, realize you may have to be the bad guy. But in a good company, you could also play a positive role, and have some fun

Dear Liz,

I am considering a career in human resources but I know there are some parts of the job that could be difficult for me. For instance, I can't imagine having to fire someone. What is the worst part of the HR job description?



Dear Natalya,

Depending on your specialty, you could spend 30 years as an HR person—say, an HR information systems analyst—and never have a face-to-face employee meeting, much less have to fire anyone. But if you go into general HR or employee relations, where a typical assignment has the title HR generalist, or its newfangled cousin, HR business partner (which I think is a sad and unnecessary alternative to the sturdy generalist title) then you'll surely spend lots of time in one-on-one employee interactions. And yes, they can be difficult and awkward at times.

But in a typical generalist role you won't be thrown into the lion's den right off the bat; you'll work your way up the sensitivity scale, starting with just-the-facts situations like helping new employees fill out their initial paperwork and gradually building up to the most challenging issues. It's like anything else, Natalya: After years in HR, firing people who deserve to be fired becomes less and less difficult.

There is actually an HR duty that is far more heart-wrenching than firing an employee for cause, and that is laying off people who have done nothing wrong. That is brutal. I have notified people of layoffs any number of times and it doesn't get easier if you have any empathy at all (of course, I have met a few HR folks who seem to be missing that gene).

More Than Bearers of Bad News

Apart from conveying really bad news—a workforce reduction or a painful reorganization—there are a few other less-than-sensational aspects of an HR career, depending on your temperament and the companies you work for. Lots of HR people I know, for instance, complain about the constant cost-cutting that turns them into the bad guys who must inform employees on a regular basis of reductions in everything from travel allowances to flavors of tea in the break room.

Other HR people wish that the role they play could be more instrumental in making the company a great place to work and less focused on policy and documentation. Still other HR folks spend more time than they'd like protecting the company from employee-relations lawsuits and wage-and-hour claims.

Valuable Role

So HR isn't always the most creative assignment on the planet. But in a good company, one that truly values its employees (and in a typical, thorough interview process, these companies' values will shine through), an HR role can be incredibly rewarding and fun. Personally, I love HR and am very grateful that—some 20 years ago—a boss threw me into an HR assignment against my will. I wouldn't trade my HR experience for anything.

If you pursue an HR career and find that the first organization you join isn't one where the HR function and the people it supports are viewed as critical to the business' success, move on. There's an enormous, gaping gulf between the working lives of HR people in great companies and HR people in so-so ones.



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