Excuse me, I think you have my seat

In HR we always talk about gaining a seat at the table. In fact I have been to conferences where there were break out sessions dedicated to this concept and let me say that this just makes me sad. Sad not because there are HR folks who don’t have a seat at the table, but rather that there are folks who think that they need to go to a conference to learn how to get a seat at the table. I am trying to visualize how that conversation would go:
Business Leader: “How was the conference?”
HR Dork: “It was great! I spent two days learning how to get a seat at the table.”

What is said or happens next, I’ll leave that to your imagination. However, I am fairly certain in saying that the business leader likely didn’t think that was a good use of resources, which is precisely why this person felt it a good idea to spend time and money going to a conference like this in the first place. Which brings me back to the concept of the table that you are trying to get a seat at in the first place.

Let’s say your company makes rubber balls. The table is going to be represented by all facets that are responsible for the manufacture and distribution of said rubber balls. The question is, what might that involve? The manufacturing of the rubber balls, selling or marketing the rubber balls to our customers, logistics for getting the rubber balls from your facilities and warehouses to your customers, there’s the financial aspect – accounting for the money coming in and going out as well as securing necessary capital, both to ensure we have the money to continue operating. These are the basics, of course, but there is one underlying factor that fits all this together – people (OK, and rubber balls). You need to have the right strategy to get the right people hired into the respective roles. You need to ensure that your workforce is functioning at maximum capacity. You need to ensure that you are prepared for contingencies like work stoppages and accidents. You need to make sure that your policies are designed so that the business runs at maximum efficiency while still maintaining the flexibility to adjust if needed. This is where HR sits at the table. Is the CFO concerned that her labor costs are too high? Talk to the HR dude. Is the 3rd shift difficult to fill and the COO feel that the schedule could be adjusted to make it easier to find folks? Talk to the HR lady. Is the Marketing Veep rethinking his commission schedule? Talk with the HR guru.

The challenge is this: in many instances they (and by they, I mean executives) do not think that way. They don’t automatically think of their HR business partner as that: a partner. They think of HR as a necessary evil, as who you go to when you have a problem, not who you go to to ensure you don’t have a problem in the first place. Here’s the deal, though. It isn’t the leaders’ fault, it is HR’s. You can’t fault leaders for not wanting to work with HR on anything other than problems if that is all HR seems to be good at. “Oh, we’ve got a problem with this employee – we need to call HR,” that is going to happen – actually in many cases it needs to happen. Where the breakdown happens is that the problem is given to HR and we as HR practitioners do not go back and say “OK, this happened. It has been cleaned up/fixed, now what do we need to do to prevent it from happening again?” Notice I didn’t say “OK, this happened. It has been cleaned up/fixed, now this is what you need to do so that it doesn’t happen again.” This is not what a partner says. It is not collaborative, it is a directive. It isn’t someone working with you, it is someone bossing you around, and nobody likes being bossed around. No one wants to sit at a table with that person.

So the lesson for HR practitioners is simple: stop bossing people around.

But what about you non-HR folks? Remember this: HR truly can help you run your business more efficiently; though often times our egos get in the way. The next time your HR person gives you a directive, ask them why. Why are they telling you this is what you have to do? If you get push back, just say “I’m asking as a business partner, I need to understand so I can better explain it to my boss.” If you still get flack, that might raise some flags about your HR practitioner. If it happens enough, you are probably justified in not giving this person a seat, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t invite HR to the table, you just find someone who belongs there.

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