Only you can prevent HR fires.

Back in the mid-80’s there was a popular book entitled ‘The Tyranny of the Urgent.’ The basic premise is that urgent things, the things we have to pay attention to right now, take our focus away from the important things – things that aren’t as deadline driven but have longer lasting impact. I’ve been thinking about this lately as I hear lots of HR folks talk about the incessant need to ‘put out fires’. I think we need to change our mindset about what constitutes a fire, what is urgent, and what is important.

First of all, one of the great things about HR is that we cover such a wide variety of areas and that no two days are alike. HR folks, we need to remember that this is a good thing, and this is what we signed up for. The H in HR stands for human, and human interactions are by definition going to be messy. HR professionals wade right into that mess every time we coach a manager on handling performance issues or drafting a PIP (or whatever corrective action your organization uses), works with an employee to document their need for FMLA, or coaches hiring managers and interview panels on checking bias in the interview process.

But this is what we do. And messy people work with messy timelines. Someone is going to suddenly need FMLA right in the middle of your open enrollment season. Just as you are knee deep in an annual review of your company handbook, either a key employee is going to quit or your company is going to win a contract and suddenly you need to drop everything and focus on recruitment. But friends, these are not fires – this is the job. Treating every unexpected employee who drops into your office with an insurance problem as a fire is exhausting. You start to believe that you never have time to do your real work, when this is every bit as much your real work as drafting policy and maximizing your HRIS system.

How can we address these constant unplanned interruptions and still get the big picture stuff done? The handbook still needs to be reviewed, open enrollment still needs to start and end on time, polices still need to be written and implemented. Training and development takes time and focused energy. I believe that the first step is taking off the firefighting helmet and seeing all of the fires as part of the fabric of the day, week, season, and year. Unless someone is literally on fire in your office, their emergency can wait a few minutes while you wrap up what you are in the middle of. If someone is crying, offer them a tissues and let them know you need to save the work on your computer so that you can focus on their need. Trust me, they’ll take that moment to gather their composure and appreciate you wanting to clear possible distractions.

If the fire is less emotionally inflammatory, set some boundaries. ‘I’m sorry you are having trouble with your insurance card. Can you document in an email what happened so I can share it with our broker? I should have an answer later today’ (or within 48 hours, or whatever makes sense). You want and need employees to see you as approachable and ready to help them, but you don’t need to always drop everything the second they show up. They will appreciate the boundaries you set if you are honest and responsive and really get back to them when and how you said you would. Promise an answer by tomorrow but your broker is still looking into it? Tell them. They’ll understand.

Finally, plan for fires. Have a plan for how you ramp up staffing for new contracts. Do you have current job descriptions for every position so you can backfill when someone quits. For performance issues, do you have a really good corrective action template that can walk a manager trough the steps without you holding their hand? Obviously this doesn’t take away the need to talk to the manager, coach them when necessary, review the PIP, and walk them through navigating the corrective action conversation. But if you’ve documented the steps, it’s easier for you to walk through them yourself as well as guide the manager. We tend to be big on processes for the big stuff – recruitment, open enrollment, etc., but we forget that processes can be in place for the seemingly one-off things that happen again and again.  

If someone comes into your office and they are literally on fire, grab a fire extinguisher and call 911. For anything else, stop thinking ‘fire’ and remember this is part and parcel of the job, and dive into that messy humanity.

The trouble with ROI

Like many of you, I ‘fell’ into HR. I came in by way of operations, found HR, fell in love, and never looked back. I have always believed that my operations background brings value to my HR work – I have a holistic view of the business and understand how HR fits into the whole. Because operations looks heavily at profit, it was easy for me to jump on the ROI bandwagon I heard in grad school, and in various HR workshops. How can we sell senior management on learning, development, good benefits, employee engagement? Measure the ROI. Show senior leaders the dollars and cents cost of good programs to ensure retention, and they’ll go for it.

Over the last few years, I’ve been rethinking this theory, and I’ve decided that ROI, when it comes to HR, shouldn’t be looking only at dollars and cents. As HR professionals, we know doing right by our employees will pay off. Engaged employees are more productive and stay with the organization longer, reducing the cost of turnover. And we know that developing skills in our employees will benefit the company’s bottom line, long term. But just like we know that most compliance regulations were created to protect and benefit employees, we also understand that many have become a bureaucratic nightmare that fly in the face of common sense, sometimes to the detriment of those employees it sought to protect. In the same way, I believe that the ROI argument that originated as a way to get senior leadership to do right by their employees has become a stumbling block to doing that right thing.  

If the only reason that senior leadership is willing to spend money on employees is because they see they’ll get that money back, those employees will know and feel bought. Real employee engagement, the kind that leads to the productivity and retention everyone wants, comes from being sold on the mission of the organization, and being able to tangibly align ones work with that mission. Every company has a mission, whether it’s clearly articulated or not. Non-profits often have it easy in spelling out that mission, but for-profits have clear missions as well. Are you selling the best? The most affordable? The most? Is your market families? Singles? Those on a budget or those looking for luxury? No matter what, your organization has a purpose, and employees want to believe in and feel connected to that purpose.

So what does that mean for HR? We can’t throw ROI out the window, and we have to have a basic understanding of the financial picture of our organization to make wise recommendations related to learning and development, benefits, and more. That operations background is still serving me. But our primary focus in building engagement is to make sure that every employee, from custodians and mail room employees to those on the factory floor to those in the C-suite, can directly see how their work connects to and drives forward the mission of the organization. That’s an investment that will continue to yield rewards for a long time to come.

Counting the cost

I got married and started a family relatively young, so that by the time I turned thirty, I had three kids, a mortgage, and drove a station wagon (that we later traded in for a minivan.) Even with all that, throughout my twenties I dreamt of packing up the kids and moving overseas, or going back and finishing college (which I ended up doing much later), or living on a houseboat, or all kinds of adventures. The world was mine for the taking. When I turned thirty, I felt like I was finally truly an adult, and I had a moment of epiphany when I realized that, while I could do anything, I couldn’t do everything. This realization opened up my world, and helped me to start counting the opportunity cost of everything I did.

You know what opportunity cost is – the things you won’t be able to do or buy once you commit your time and money to something else. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I consider applying to run for a position on my local DC SHRM board. I want to do it, but what will I have to say no to in order to find the time? I want to be clear eyed about my commitments.

In HR, we need to do the same. We spend time planning new initiatives, getting line items added to the budget, getting buy in from senior management. We look at ROI and show how valuable the new project will be. Maybe we want to set up a new internship program. It will create a pipeline for entry level employment and cut down on turnover and recruiting costs! It will improve our brand, and give back to our industry! All good things, but it will also pull our own time and attention away from other worthy projects.

I wonder, sometimes, if we look at the opportunity cost of our own time enough in HR. If we want to throw out annual reviews and coach managers to provide more frequent feedback, how much time will that mean for us? What other good work will be put off by moving on this initiative? Have we factored the opportunity cost of our own time for this project into our ROI?

I don’t mean that we shouldn’t take on big projects and initiatives – we need to do the big work to move our organizations forward. But, just like my personal time commitment to my local SHRM chapter, we need to know what things won’t get done when we take these projects on. Our time as HR professionals is valuable to our organizations. The work we do is vital to maintaining an engaged and productive workforce. We need to recognize the worth of our time and attention, and make sure we are choosing initiatives that will give our organizations the most bang, not just for the buck we spend, but for the time, energy, and attention we give.