Have a VOICE in HR and Use It: Being a Credible Activist

by Michael Haberman on December 3, 2009 · 0 comments


I had the very good fortune to spend a day, yesterday, with professor, author, consultant, and HR thought guru, Dave Ulrich. (Of course there were another 200 people there as well). He had a long “conversation” with us about the field of HR and what it takes to be an HR professional today. He talked about how HR can transform organinzations and what competencies it takes to do so. Much of this is detailed in his book HR Competencies (shown at the right). If you are serious about your career in HR and you feel you need to take it to the next step then you need to read this book and internalize what you learn.

I could write a very long post on these competencies, but I won’t. But I do want to mention the NUMBER ONE competency that Ulrich et al. have determined to be most important in the 21st century. That is the competency of CREDIBLE ACTIVIST. Credible is believable, credible is knowing what you are talking about, credible is knowing about business and your business in particular. Alot of HR people consider themselves credible. The jury is still out on whether their CEOs consider them credible. (Mostly because of the business knowledge requirement.) One of the reasons the CEO does not consider HR credible is HR has NO VOICE. Many HR people “speak when spoken to” and do not offer opinions on the business. 

This is where the second word in this competency comes into play. ACTIVIST. This does not mean that you have to be a rabble-rouser (click the link for the definition). It means that you have to stand up and offer opinions and points of view. And you don’t  wait to be asked. Offer your points of view BEFORE anyone asks you what you think. And have opinions and points of view on more than just HR topics. If you know your business (another competency) then you should be able to talk about operations, marketing, branding, finance, etc. Being an activist means you are not afraid to be contrarian. Your management “partners” may not listen to what you have to say, particularly at first, but you need to use your voice regardless.

Some of the people sitting at my table indicated they were afraid to do that. They were afraid to speak up, even when they knew things being done were wrong. One person said she “picked her battles carefully.” Another said she did not speak up because she did not really know the business because she had NEVER spent any field time with employees. She was “too busy” doing her work. (I probably rolled my eyes big time at this.) I know many HR people are not activists because they naturally are “conflict avoiders”. And speaking up can lead to a confrontation. But if you know you are right you need to have that confrontation and you don’t need to, and should not, back down. I used to work for an HR manager that had so little back bone I was surprised he was able to stand up. Well I don’t need to get off on that rant.

Many of the credible activists I know are also bloggers. Two of my favorite (among many) are Laurie Ruettimann of PunkRockHR and Kris Dunn of The HR Capitalist. I call Laurie a “beast sticker”. She is not afraid to take a sharp stick and poke the “beast of HR”. She can be profane, and I don’t always agree with her, but she is fun to read because she riles people. She has been accused of not being “credible” because she does not currently hold a “real” HR position. HOGWASH, this lady knows her stuff. Kris is also a beast sticker. He is in my opinion as close to being the ultimate HR pro there is. He is what I want to be when I grow up, despite the fact that I am 20 years older than he is. In fact he beat me to this same topic. As I was driving home to Atlanta from Birmingham last night and thinking about this topic he had already beat me to the punch. You can read his very well written take on CREDIBLE ACTIVIST by clicking on his name above.

BTW, Dave Ulrich says that one of the first steps in being credible in the 21st century is certification. So think a second time about getting that PHR or SPHR.

Closing thought- Become a pro, find your voice and exercise it frequently. Learn from Laurie, Kris, and a myriad of other bloggers on what to say, how to say it, and in the words of Nike, “JUST DO IT.”

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

hrfishbowl December 3, 2009 at 10:01 am

this is all good stuff and i am a huge fan of the credible activist. what i think is really sad, though, is that we as a profession have to be taught by a third party that a) this is what we should be doing and b) this is how to do it. most of what we're talking about here is common sense and leadership 101 – i know of very few other functions that have this issue with their leaders. where did this get lost on HR? has it just been suppresed all these years and we're simply looking for someone to give us permission. stop waiting for permission!

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Stu December 3, 2009 at 2:01 pm

With all due respect, the 'activist' view is still too insular: a perpective on HR credibility from traditional HR perpectives. HR will gain credibility with the C-suite when they have something it wants. Today, primarily they are viewed as compliance specialists, a necessary but, in their view, largely irrelevant part of the organization. The C-suite will want to hear from them when they are the stewards of true quarterly performance data like the keepers of the financials of an organization. Having performance data that no one else oversees is the quickest way to move from compliance officers to performance counselors. Then, and only then, will the CEO be asking for HR's view. The question is, where is such data to be found? http://www.xysync.com/HRAdvisor.pdf

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Michael D. Haberman, SPHR December 3, 2009 at 5:55 pm

Charlie:
You are absolutely correct in saying it should be an innate part of the job. Unfortunately it isn't. Over 10 years of teaching certifcation classes I am continually amazed at the number of passive HR practicioners. They don't want to make waves. It is what prompted me to tweet the other day "If the meek shall inherit the world, then HR people will be major landholders."

Although speaking up is a big part of leadership or leadership training, many HR people don't get that training. Many have come into the field through non-business roles, many starting in clerical positions. Others come from social work backgrounds and are heavily inclined to be confrontation or conflict avoiders. Who knows the reasons. The fact of the matter it is reality as I spoke about in my post.

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Michael D. Haberman, SPHR December 3, 2009 at 5:58 pm

Stu:
You make a good point and Ulrich made a point about that. HR needs to deliver value, but it is not value in the eyes of HR it is value in the eyes of your "customer" and the CEO is a customer.

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