Skip to main content

Columbia Business Monthly

Putting the “Human” Back In Human Resources

Sep 05, 2018 01:02PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Julian Dalzell
Lecturer and Executive-in-Residence,
USC Darla Moore School of Business

It was July 2002 in Fort Worth, Texas. My daughter had just been crowned as Miss Texas and we knew that this meant she would be managed by the Miss Texas organization for the next year. Her appearances would be arranged and managed by a business manager, she would be accompanied by a chaperone at all public appearances, and she would need to ask for time off if she wanted to visit us, travel, etc. outside of those public appearances. So family time would be at a premium. As parents, we had 10 minutes or so between the end of her crowning ceremony and the arrival at the gala reception. My wife chose that moment to deliver some advice that has stayed with me and which I have tried to build into my advocacy in the HR profession:
“In the course of the next 12 months, you will be meeting thousands of people from all ages and all segments of society. In the course of time, most will not remember what you said, they may not remember your name or what you were wearing—but they will remember how you made them feel.”
I think those words should reflect in how we deliver the basics of human resources. There are two words in our title—human and resources. And we should never forget that as much as our professions reflect the need to enable a business or organization to succeed through the effective use of human capital—the resources—we are dealing with people who have lives, hopes, dreams, and needs that can be met by the organization that we represent. One of the best leaders I worked for addressed the HR function before we executed a major organizational downsizing in New Orleans at the end of the 90s—which were dark days for the oil industry.
“We need to be clear about roles here. My line leaders and I are accountable for deciding who goes and who stays. Your role is to challenge us to ensure that we do that ethically, fairly, and legally. But your role is also to ensure that people are treated in a way that enables them to leave with their self-esteem and dignity intact as far as that is possible under the circumstances. And how that happens is how I will judge you.” We ended up letting 1,000 people go that year without a single lawsuit or discrimination case and no incidents of workplace violence, or even a threat of it.
So, in the day-to-day practice of HR, how can we conduct ourselves in a way that is reflective of the values that I think are embodied in the words of my wife and my former boss? Three main ways come to mind:

Human beings are enigmatic, unpredictable, and sensitive. Not everyone is an extreme case of these adjectives, but all are to some extent. So it follows that we need to anticipate the outcomes of those characteristics when we are dealing with situations at work rather than being surprised when people act in the manner described. Instead of saying “you shouldn’t feel that way,” acknowledge that people own their feelings and that just because they do not seem logical to you, it does not mean that they are not logical to the individual.

It is a parallel to the logic that says “it’s only a 5 percent reduction in force” when to an individual it is 100 percent of them if they are selected to leave the company. Focus not on denying the feeling but on helping the individuals experiencing them.

Rules and policies are made to deal with the average. I would not advocate the absence of rules and policies. That would be chaos and a recipe for disaster. But the blind execution of policies that clearly make no sense in some circumstances equally makes no sense. You would not punish a man without legs for not wearing safety boots!

Be clear what our role is and what it is not. We are not the police, we are not there to remove the burden or accountability for the management of people, and we are NOT there to just say “no.” We are there to enable managers to make rational, fair, and tough decisions in a humane manner.

It may be altruistic to believe that we can be seen by others as a resource and be human, but nothing short of that goal is worthy of our 100 percent effort.

Julian Dalzell is a lecturer and executive-in-residence at the Darla Moore School of Business. Before joining the faculty, he spent 43 years in a variety of roles around the world with the Royal Dutch/Shell group of companies.