There is no doubt that, in some organisations, HR has an image problem.
Despite being indispensable to the business, the function still struggles to get positive recognition from its peers in other departments and has to endure degrading labels, such as ‘Human Remains’ and ‘Hardly Resourceful’.
The extent of the problem was underlined in Personnel Today’s 360-Degree Appraisal of HR: HR feels it adds great value to the organisation, while managers in other parts of the business are not so sure. HR professionals gave themselves far more credit than line managers, whose average opinion on many of HR’s key responsibilities fell somewhere between HR performing ‘not very well’ and ‘fairly well’.
But negative feedback can be a great springboard for improvement. In the corporate war for respect, personal development experts say there are a number of areas where the HR profession can improve the way it comes across to the rest of the organisation.
First, advises motivational trainer Steve Miller, HR professionals should develop more faith in themselves and truly believe they are a vital part of the business.
“This mindset doesn’t exist in a lot of HR departments, and when they talk one-to-one with someone from a commercial part of the organisation they come across as submissive,” he says.
If you are submissive, you are less likely to garner respect. Through the use of motivational training, heads of HR may be able to inject some inspiration and new-found energy and enthusiasm into their departments.
This, says Miller, will encourage HR employees to get out into the business more, talk to people they may never have spoken to before, and show that they are passionate about HR. It will also enable them to engage colleagues in conversations about commercial elements of the business.
Fiona Yorke, the principal at behavioural skills consultancy Ultimate U, would also like to see HR being more assertive in the workplace. She says HR habitually worries unduly about what other people think and so avoids saying anything controversial.
Using assertive language, not backing down but arguing your corner, and challenging other views when required without coming across as aggressive, are all ways of gaining respect, she says.
HR often finds itself at the centre of some critical business decisions, such as staff lay-offs and disputes, and should be able to explain with conviction how it has arrived at a certain decision. “HR has the right to an opinion, and should be positive about owning its own themes within an organisation,” says Yorke. “If what you say is genuine, thought-out and well-presented, then how people react is not your responsibility.”
Learn to say yes
If HR is to shrug off its reputation for wrapping everything in red tape, it also needs to adopt more of a “can-do mentality”, similar to that shown by sales teams, according to Elizabeth Clark, a coach in flirting and charisma at Rapport Unlimited.
“HR has to start finding ways of saying ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’,” she says. “We train our sales teams to negotiate for a win-win situation, whereas HR is told to head for the policy manual without even engaging their intellect first.”
Clark believes HR can also learn a lot from the sales function in terms of their attitude towards customers. In the same way that sales people research their customers’ needs and make customer service a priority, HR should spend more time examining the requirements of the various stakeholders within an organisation – in effect, HR’s customers.
HR professionals need to be more upbeat in their approach to their role, according to Octavius Black at change management consultancy The Mind Gym. He would like to see HR professionals “organise their efforts around business positives rather than compliance and regulation”.
Black feels HR gets too bogged down in issues such as health and safety, employment law and pensions, and is therefore perceived as a barrier to getting things done rather than a facilitator.
“This is all important stuff, but it takes over and the HR vision gets lost,” he says.
HR, says Black, should be dedicating more time to “motivational stuff” – be it developing high-performing teams or encouraging a culture of innovation and learning within the organisation.
Say what you mean
Much of how people perceive you is based on how you come across, so HR could take some lessons from personal presentation experts and image consultants.
Joanne Price, director of voice coaching company Vocal Academy, says people base their opinions more on how you say something than what you are actually saying. She encourages HR professionals to be aware of the tone of voice they use and to develop a confident and clear way of speaking. Slowing down our speech and taking time to breathe are other tips.
“Breathing gives us time to think and also calms the voice, improving the quality of tone and helping us to become better listeners,” she says.
Clarity in HR’s written communications will also help it be better understood by the rest of the organisation, says Scott Keyser, co-founder of Write for Results, a business writing consultancy.
When communicating a new initiative, HR must ensure it spells out plainly the business benefits it hopes will follow.
Keyser says: “People always ask: ‘What’s in it for me’. If you haven’t made that clear, your communications won’t be engaging for the reader.”
Stripping out HR jargon and presenting all written information in easy-to-understand language is another piece of advice.
Look the business
For image consultant Tessa Hood, attention to the smallest pieces of detail will help to improve the function’s credibility.
To enhance approachability, avoid putting a desk between you and others when holding a meeting. And wearing less formal business clothing, such as lighter unbuttoned suits, can make you seem more amenable.
Body language is also key. Good eye contact, genuine smiles, a firm but not crushing handshake and good grooming are all important elements of creating a good impression.
But Hood has a final word of warning. “Don’t forget that authenticity and honesty in all this is vital,” she says. “Nothing can be built on untruths. If you don’t believe it yourself, you will soon get found out.”
Make yourself heard: top tips
Flirting and charisma coach Elizabeth Clark at Rapport Unlimited gives her tips for raising HR’s game. Instead of saying ‘no’, take five minutes to get a better outcome and build a positive reputation.
You have two ears and only one mouth.
Let people know that you can appreciate their dilemma even if you can’t solve it.
Let them know you will investigate further, but you’re not promising anything. You wouldn’t leave someone with the expectation of breakfast on the first date when coffee isn’t even on the agenda.
Keep an open posture with your palms on display, lots of eye contact, and smile where appropriate. As when dating, negative body language will take the encounter into a downward spiral.
HR is often presented with the symptoms of a problem, but not the root cause. Put on your detective hat and identify what the underlying cause may be. In many cases, it’s in a different area from where the problem symptoms are.
Be true to your word
If you say you will do something, do it. If you broke a date without telling the other party, you probably wouldn’t get a second date and they’d tell all their mates to avoid you like the plague.