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.

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