November 2005 Insight Newsletter

How Should The Wronged Fight Back?

Keith Hammonds, Deputy Editor, Fast Company magazine lit up HR people resoundingly last August with his article entitled, “Why We Hate HR.”

It was a personal affront to my history in senior HR as well as the entire profession. A link to Keith’s article appears at the end of this, but in brief it blames HR people for their short-comings, calls us stupid (oh, pardon me, “not the sharpest tacks”) and generally accuses us of frustrating, delaying and mishandling just about every aspect of the function.

I’ll respond to the article elsewhere, but thought this personal example of dealing with damaging disrespect from authority might help show why people have trouble with such situations and what they can do.

Avoiding The Wrong Response

I’ve been kicking myself since August for not immediately writing to Fast Company in response to Keith’s article. Yet I know that would have been wrong. The right response is more important than an instant one. The dream of the perfect, instant comeback is rarely achievable.

Once injured, we need to take enough time to make sure we don’t simply lash out. Even now my temper boils when I re-read his article. It’s tempting to take the same approach he has, at a personal level, blaming him though he’s only saying what thousands of others think.

Was he needlessly inflammatory? Yes. Many HR people rose to the bait, angry, but acknowledging many of his points rang true… for some people in HR. In reality, however, most of his points are false as generalizations. We need to look logically at why we react and why so personally. About the only thing Keith and I agree on is that HR presents a huge opportunity for competitive advantage that is largely wasted by most organizations. That will be the thrust of my specific rebuttal eventually.

Why do people often stay silent in such emotional situations or, more to the point, how do we best fight back? How many others in organizations do the same when they’re disrespected and what can we encourage them to do about it?

There’s enough believability in the individual stories of HR horrors Keith cites, mostly without verifiable facts, to make his points sting. Though we can say with certainty these are likely exceptions to the rule, we’re tarred with them. Do we deserve to be lumped together like this?

Whatever response is needed must be made in a state most difficult to achieve when you’re angry: with balance, poise and reason. If you can’t carefully avoid the invitation to lose your temper, you’ll look like an incoherent whiner or someone so out of control they should be fired before they poison the work atmosphere for others. Difficult though this is, it’s achievable and needs to be part of our goal.

Most people similarly stung by something a boss says or does have exactly this sort of emotional difficulty imagining themselves dealing calmly with the affront. They often have the added difficulty that an angry response could land them on the street without a salary. So we start to formulate logical arguments, but lose it along the way in the internal fury we work up as we try to think our way through the situation. It takes a lot of mental practice and perhaps some solid coaching or role-playing with a friend not to simply give in to “venting” during whatever response we consider. Step over that line and you lose.

One Key Is Focusing Both Good and Bad

Whatever else, Keith is simply a voice for one common, biased opinion of HR. We in HR have to take the blame for having tolerated a thousand comments like this without effectively responding. If Keith’s attack moves us to improve our situation, he will have done us a mighty service. We need to find and acknowledge the part we’ve played in the scenario before proceeding further. It may have been a part we couldn’t entirely change, but we need to understand it anyway. By tolerating too many snide remarks we’ve encouraged this public lashing.

The wronged frequently end up angry with themselves. They’ve laid themselves open to criticism, bullying or disrespect, but they need to see that all situations have both a good and bad side. Their openness was needed to invite cooperation. HR works to be open, to have broad shoulders, to take the blame for other senior leaders whose actions they cannot prevent, but who make things difficult. It’s a challenge to know where the balance is, how much to tolerate, how much to fight back. Once you see there are two sides that must be balanced and two people contributing, it becomes easier to deal with emotional situations.

Cooling Down Paves The Way For A Plan And Vice Versa

The goal is to develop a plan, one you can carry out step by step. You wouldn’t be so angry if this weren’t a difficult problem, if it were one easily solved. Of course you have the option to give up, which is exactly what many people do, by changing jobs, quitting or simply tolerating insults indefinitely. There are times when that may be the only alternative, but too often we give up simply because more productive actions look too daunting or we haven’t found a way to balance emotions or the complex demands of the particular situation.

In my case, I’ll be writing as balanced an article as I can rebutting each and every one of Keith’s arguments. Difficult as that will be without exploding, it will become both the plan and a vehicle for reversing not only his incorrect view, but those of the average critic of HR. Sometimes it’s not so obvious how to find a solid strategy for moving the situation forward, but it’s always worth the try, if not in dollars, most certainly in self-respect. It has to be done well, with thought and with greater respect and diligence than the first attack. The point is not to hurt back, but to create a better solution and model for everyone.

The HR profession is coming into its own and will do that with or without me. But I owe it to myself and those who follow in the profession not to simply remain silent and let the trashing go on. In the process, I intend to reinforce for others what has already become in my mind a 100% certainty that HR provides enormous value when done right and supported properly by the rest of the organization. Even if I can never convince Keith Hammonds, I am confident I will convince HR people to act on this and ultimately bring along CEO’s and other senior executives as well as Board members along the way.

Is there ever a direct personal benefit from what looms as a long-term challenge? Absolutely. We have the satisfaction of knowing from day one that we’re not push-overs. Whether I live to see final victory or not is far less important. If the push-back can help others see ways to do the same, we all benefit.

For those interested in a good laugh or cry, depending on your view, the original article is here: Fast Company article. Get ready for a debate!

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.”
– Marie Curie