Let’s get this party started

I’m sitting in the airport following the last session of the SHRM Diversity and Inclusion Conference on twitter, and mulling over my takeaways as I get ready to head home and do the D&I work. I learned so much, and each session is worthy of its own blog post, so I expect I’ll be processing this conference on this blog for a while. But there were some common themes that held the conference together for me.

The first theme is that, while we’ve been doing D&I work for a long time, we haven’t made nearly enough progress. That said, I’m hopeful. Even though we aren’t progressing fast enough, we are still moving that needle slowly. And as Dr. Tony Byers said, we need to keep asking the same questions and seeing that we get different answers. There was also a theme about moving away from a focus on diversity to a focus on inclusion. As I heard over and over in several versions, diversity is a fact and inclusion is a choice. We really need to be moving beyond inclusion – another saying I heard in a variety of forms is: if diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked onto the dance floor, belonging is having my music playing.

I would suggest we’re doing ok making sure everyone is invited to the party, but we’ve got a ways to go to get everyone out on the dance floor. And I firmly believe we still expect them to dance to the music we choose to play.

How can we take off our version of Lisa Ling’s ‘American’ glasses and see the world through a clear lens? Obviously the first step is to acknowledge we’re wearing our own glasses, whatever they are. And to start having those difficult conversations. But to be perfectly honest, I’m tired to hearing about these first steps. Haven’t we been talking long enough? When do we start doing?

This is not to say that we don’t have difficult conversations ahead of us. If everyone had talked and listened, presumably the world would be a different place. Another theme I heard again and again is that we must have courage to say the hard things. As Dr. Tony Byers told us his grandma said, ‘tell the truth, then duck.’

But beyond talking, we have to do the work. We have to develop strategies to create inclusive places, belonging places, for everyone. Everyone has a voice, everyone’s voice has value, everyone needs a space to be heard. Maybe one reason that our conversations haven’t solved the problem lies with who is controlling the conversations?

If I sound frustrated, it’s because this is so important to me, and I want it to be fixed. Today. I’m actually leaving this conference hopeful, motivated, energized, equipped. I learned specific tactical tips (take a sharpie to those resumes and hide bias-inducing info from your hiring managers; learn how to practice and model micro-inclusions), I learned models and tips for creating holistic strategies, I learned more hard questions to ask in order to guide myself and my organization in doing this work.

Above all, I’m encouraged because there are so many other HR professionals out there, both at the conference and those who couldn’t attend, who are committed to continuing the journey. We won’t rest until everyone is out on the dance floor, and the playlist reflects every dancer.

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D&I Preparation 

I’m in San Francisco getting ready for the SHRM Diversity and Inclusion conference that starts tomorrow, and I’m thinking about what diversity and inclusion mean.

On the plane here, I listened to an episode of The Guilty Feminist podcast about male privilege. The host, Deborah Frances-White, likened privilege to hot and cold running water. Most people reading my blog have lived their entire lives with hot and cold running water in their homes. It’s an expectation we don’t think twice about. We know in our heads that there are many people all over the world who don’t have running water, but it is so foreign to our own experience that we can hardly even imagine living without it.

Years ago we lived in a house with well water that ran on an electric pump, and once after a huge storm we lost power for about four days. I had three kids and a dog, and no running water. For four days. I don’t even remember being put out by the loss of electricity, but I remember not having water. After the power and water came back on, I thought to myself ‘I’ll never take this for granted again!’ But that gratitude probably only lasted a day at best.

Privilege is like that. Our experiences of privilege, by definition, are so assumed that we can’t separate them from ourselves. Intellectually we understand that other people don’t have the same experience, but we can’t really, truly understand what their experiences are like.

Thinking about diversity, and privilege, and intersection, I come up pretty good in the privilege sweepstakes. I’m white, middle class, able bodied, cisgender, and straight. Most spaces are open to me. I can assume I’m welcome, and included. Even in male dominated settings, my race and status often force the door open for me, even if I’m not fully welcomed.

As I prepare for the D&I conference, of course I’m wearing my HR hat. I want to use this time to add to my toolkit, and go home more equipped to ensure diversity and equity within my organization. But listening to that podcast, and remembering my four days without water, I want to be clear eyed about the lens through which I see the world. I want to recognize my own assumptions so that I can set them aside. I want to make sure that, when doing diversity and inclusion work, I’m not saying ‘let me create a place for you’, but ‘you deserve a place here, let me move over and make room’. It might sound like the end result is the same, but the message of inclusion isn’t.

My colleagues whose intersectionality is different than mine will have different experiences at this conference. I won’t begin to assume I understand the lens through which they will approach it, but I look forward to conversations and learning from them. A regular theme in my blogs is that we can’t separate ourselves as people from our role in HR. We bring our whole unique selves to the work and we have to understand how to be true to ourselves in how we approach the work. With diversity and inclusion, this can be uncomfortable. But we must be comfortable with our own discomfort if we are going to serve our employees and create spaces that are truly inclusive for everyone.

Whose side is it, anyway?

With all the talk about sexual harassment in the news, it’s only natural that HR folks would start talking about what went wrong at companies that are being rocked to their foundations. Where was HR? Why didn’t they step in and do their job? I’ve been following a twitter conversation among colleagues who I respect, and among other things they’ve been touching on the age old question: who’s side is HR on? Whose side should they be on? Protecting the organization or the individual?

I’ve mentioned before that I came to HR from an operations background, so it can be easy for me to think in terms HR’s role as supporting the company’s interest. On the other hand, the longer I’m in HR, the more I see how much influence I have to make life better for individual employees. And pondering this seeming dichotomy, I’m struck by the meaningless of it. Shouldn’t HR’s goal be to find the win for everyone? If I support the organization, I’ll support policies that make for an engaged workforce because engagement leads to productivity and the company wins. If I support the employees, I’ll support policies in the employees best interest. And guess what? That will still lead to high levels of engagement and productivity. Either way, when the employees win the company wins, and when the company wins the employees win. All ships rise together.

When it comes to sensitive topics like sexual harassment, some people might see supporting the company over the individual as sweeping the harassment under the rug or pushing the employee out. That view is short-sighted at best. The more you sweep under the rug, the more that rug starts looking lumpy, and people start to trip up on all that hidden dirt. You leave your organization open to litigation and loss of branding that can be impossible to recover from. Not only that, but that dirt becomes the elephant in the room that everyone knows about but doesn’t acknowledge. It hurts engagement and productivity. Even if you can get past the part about wronging the harassed employee, you are still not supporting the organization.

When you take reports of harassment seriously and investigate appropriately even when the accused is at the top of the organization, you do right by the victim, but you also do right by the company. You protect the company from litigation and negative publicity (because we’ve all seen – the publicity of ignoring accusations is much worse than the publicity of dealing with them), and you prove to your employees that the place they work is a company that does the right thing even when it’s hard. They will trust you when other hard things come up, knowing that you operate aboveboard.

In the end, I can’t choose a side. To do right by the company I have to do right by the employee. When I do right by the employee, I’m doing right be the company at the same time. I had a boss once whose motto was ‘doing the right thing is always the right thing to do’, and all of his business decisions followed this axiom. I’ve come to realize that in HR, doing the right thing is not always easy, but it’s always right.

Are you HR or an employee? The answer is yes.

A family member recently had a health scare that had me worried, and for a moment I thought I might be needing some time off to care for them. As I was working things out in my head, I suddenly realized – this could qualify for FML! I am a DOO in a small organization, and I’m the one who administers and tracks our FML. It doesn’t seem ethical, however, to approve or track that for myself.

Thankfully my family member is fine, so FML isn’t an issue for me right now. But it still got me to thinking about how it would work should I ever need it. I reached out to my colleagues on SHRM Connect (a great resource, by the way) and got some good advice. I’ve identified someone in finance/payroll who is not part of my reporting chain, and I’m giving them a crash course in FML requirements so should the need arise, they’ll be able to cover me.

As a DOO, there are lots of things I’m solely responsible for when it comes to the employee lifecycle, employee relations, and engagement. Sometimes it can be easy to forget that I’m also an employee that needs to be engaged and taken care of. I suspect I’m not alone in this. When you spend your time thinking about your staff’s professional development needs, do you include yourself? When you do an engagement survey, you certainly want to consider the results from an organizational perspective. But do you take the survey and answer as an employee? Your individual feedback is as important as anyone else’s.

How do you remember to consider yourself an employee who has the same right to benefit from HR as anyone else that you are serving?

On the flip side, sometimes it can be a challenge to put your own needs as an employee aside. I’ve been in meetings discussing changes to health benefits or leave policies that are going to negatively impact me, even though they are good changes for the company strategically and good for most of the workforce. It takes a conscious decision to set my own situation to the side and make the right decision for the good of the rest.

How do you separate your needs as an employee and do what’s right as the voice of HR for your organization?

While these issues might be more apparent to those of us who are sole practitioners, they are true for all of us who are both employees and HR pros. It’s impossible to fully integrate yourself as an employee separate from your HR hat, but it’s equally impossible to use that HR hat to hide your own interests as an employee. It’s important to remember that you are a real person under that hat, but equally important to remember the responsibility you’ve taken when you put the hat on. There’s no perfect answer to this tightrope we walk, but it’s important that we recognize the tension for what it is, and thoughtfully respond to situations in a way that acknowledges our whole selves.

Seriously, HR? What’s all the fuss about birthdays? 

I was chatting with a friend the other day and she mentioned that she reads my blog. Yay! She went on to tell me that she’d shared my blog with the HR manager at her work. Like me, she works for a smaller organization and her HR is a department of one. Then she proceeded to explain how her HR manager does things like celebrates all employees birthdays. “To me,” she said, “HR is like the RA of an organization.” I hope I didn’t cringe as much externally as I did inside. I (gently, I hope) told her that most HR professionals work hard not to be seen in that light – that it diminishes the weight of what we really do. She nodded thoughtfully and I think she really understood.

I’ve been thinking about this interaction ever since. How is it that HR is simultaneously seen as the ‘RA’, responsible for birthday and other innocuous fun, and at the same time we are often referred to as the fun police? Neither of these descriptions is accurate, but where do they come from? And more importantly, how can we get rid of them? I wonder, did the keeper of the birthdays originate back before HR, back when there was Personnel and the functions were strictly administrative? Because as much as birthday celebrations might seem, on the surface, related to engagement, at heart it’s an administrative function. Some employees might feel cared for and appreciated to have their birthday acknowledged, but many actively don’t want that. And quite a few honestly just don’t care.  

I am not saying to stop celebrating birthdays at work! But I am saying that if birthdays are your main engagement strategy, you might want to rethink that. And if it’s a small piece of a larger strategy, then it’s back to being an administrative function. Who handles the other admin stuff in your office? If your organization is so small that HR is a slash position that also handles admin, then be clear that your birthday duties fall under your admin hat and not your HR hat. If someone else handles admin, give them the stack of birthday cards.

In some places, birthdays and the like are handled on an ad hoc basis by someone who, regardless of role, loves those kinds of celebrations. If you are doing it because you truly enjoy it, make that clear – it’s not part of your HR role, it’s one of those extras that truly engaged employees take on, and you are an engaged employee.

Organizational culture and employee engagement is so much more than remembering employee birthdays. It’s about making sure that your employees have the tools to do their job, be it training and development or policies that don’t get in the way. It’s tying every role back to the mission of the organization so that employees understand the vital role they play in the success of the company. It’s aligning your unwritten culture to your company’s stated goals and values. Birthday cake alone (and really, I’m 100% in favor of cake) won’t make that happen. When we talk about wanting HR to be taken seriously, these are things we should be working to accomplish.

Let’s make sure our work, our energy, and our focus show us to be true HR professionals.