Put the “Human” Back in HR for a Positive Workplace Culture

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Every HR manager can think of a time they didn’t feel they were part of the team. Perhaps an employee was particularly upset about a meeting and took it out on you, or maybe you had to implement an unpopular policy and your otherwise friendly co-workers were shooting daggers at you with their eyes for days.

For my friend Jessica, the HR director who oversees several dentist offices, that moment happened when she checked in on an office after firing a team member only to hear an administrative professional humming the Star Wars “Death March” as she walked into the building (true story).

If you’re like most HR managers, you love your job, but time and time again you find yourself pushed between a rock and a hard place with a policy that you must enforce and a team of employees who can’t tell if they should fear, worship, or just plain avoid the HR team.

For these reasons, we all know members of the HR team can’t act like regular employees. But does that mean everyone on HR has to be the workplace equivalent to the wicked stepmother? If you feel like something a little less than human at work and you want to create a positive workplace culture, here are four things your HR team can do:

 

Understand where to draw the line

Because it’s critical to maintain professional relationships and the appearance of impartiality, the close personal friendships that coworkers often enjoy are off limits to those in HR. This can be tough for seasoned HR professionals, let alone first-time employees who are passionate about contributing to a positive workplace culture.

Boundaries don’t happen by magic. Make time each week to reflect on your workplace relationships, re-evaluate different social situations, and make notes on what to do differently next week. You don’t need to over-analyze every comment, but you do need to be aware of the power of your actions and words.

 

Balance bad news

Far too often, HR teams act like enforcers: they only show up when something bad is happening. Is it any wonder that team members start to have a negative association with you, or hum a death march when they see your car pull up?

The solution is simple, but requires year-round effort: you must balance the bad news with positive interactions. Here are a few ideas that can get you started on rebuilding a positive workplace culture for HR:

  • Show gratitude whenever possible, not just during the holidays
  • Sponsor monthly or quarterly get-togethers where your #1 priority is just to socialize and spread good vibes
  • Be available to answer questions or meet with employees as needed
  • Give a voice to employees who contribute to a positive workplace culture by asking certain employees for constructive feedback and acting on it
  • Kick off regular stay interviews to give positive feedback to hard-working employees

 

Be honest when you feel stuck

As an HR professional, you have to practice a firm poker face; there are simply some details you are not permitted to share with employees before, during, or after a workplace event. However, part of humanizing yourself and promoting a positive workplace culture is being as honest as you can when you deem it is appropriate.

As you move through your work tasks, be open to moments when you can share your feelings honestly with employees. Employees won’t always like how things turn out, but that doesn’t mean they need to resent the messenger’s role in the proceedings. For example, instead of sharing an employee’s consequence stone-faced, say, “I feel like I’m stuck in a hard place; here are the legal requirements, and here is how they fit this situation. If there were anything else we could do, we absolutely would, but there’s no leeway in this situation.”

 

Collect fallback phrases

It is inevitable that you will be asked questions you can’t answer at some point in your career, and not having an answer handy might make you look unresponsive. Don’t wait for those moments. Plan ahead and figure out the friendliest, most welcoming way you can turn down inquiries without being standoffish. Here are a few suggestions:

    • “I would love to share more, but I’m not at liberty to discuss it.”
    • “I’m afraid I can’t comment on that right now, but I’d be happy to answer any questions you have about X!”
    • “I can’t share those details at this time, but here’s what I can tell you…”
    • [Decline in some way], then say “Thank you for understanding!”

 

Fortify your peer friendships

While it stinks that you can’t form the same relationships in the workplace that others do, there’s plenty you can do to build your own positive workplace culture. Start by actively building peer friendships within your organization (with others in the HR team or leadership team). Then expand to your local professional organization, where sympathizing with other HR professionals will go a long way to helping you deal with workplace negativity in proportion.

Everyone in your company deserves to feel welcome at work — including the HR team. While you can’t always avoid difficult situations, you can use these ideas to turn run-of-the-mill negative situations into opportunities for building a positive workplace culture.

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