Carnal HR

HR is a funny business.  The phrase I heard quite a bit when I first joined was, “part pastor, part parent.”  And I suppose it was true in that situation.  Many of us have lived in the world of HR as authority figure, confidant and organizational conscience.  That job usually comes with being the compliance office and exclusions from “real business” talk.  You don’t see a lot of priests invited to the war room, do you?

We aspire to be more.  Words like partner, adviser or consultant are used, but they are intended to drive home the idea that we are part of the team, we are part of the action, and we are here to help.  We are fam-i-lee.  I got all my sisters and me.

In the last few years, I was fortunate enough to travel extensively outside the States, and found several cultures that really embraced this idea for everyone in the business, not just HR.  We are all in this together, regardless of the department.  The most striking experience was in Mexico.  The front entrance of the production facility featured a banner that was created during a family picnic.  All of the children were invited to put their handprints in paint on the banner and sign their names.  The banner read, “Be safe at work.  We’re waiting for you to come home.”  I still get chills thinking about it.  Fam-i-lee.

There is a term I learned on that trip.  Carnal.  No, not in the sense of being worldly or of impure thoughts or deeds.  That’s a whole different kind of post.  No, in Mexico carnal is used to denote someone who isn’t actually your brother (which would be “hermano” of course), but is the next best thing.  A brother in all but blood relations.  Like Pancho and Cisco up above, as close as you can get.  Your carnal is the brother you have chosen.  Fam-i-lee.  There it is again.

The goal of real HR partnership isn’t the pastor/parent role. It’s the carnal.  Or the carnala for the female HR pros.  Being there by your side, being the person you would call on when you need something.  A chosen companion.


So who’s your carnal?

Picasso and the Paint Store

The last time I had the pleasure of chatting with the Drive Thru HR crew (Bryan Wempen and William Tincup), we talked about candidate experience, specifically about internal candidates.  Since the show is limited to 30 minutes, we only touched on a few things, but I wanted to talk a little more about this one.  You can listen to the entire show here in case you missed it.

I mentioned an experience from my days as a Talent Director dealing with an engineer who wanted to lead people.  The phrase thrown around was that Picasso wanted to run the paint store.   A good analogy, I think.  The employee we were discussing as a brilliant engineer in a difficult to find specialty.  He was immensely valuable and productive, well compensated, and highly regarded by his peers both internally and externally.  He was also quiet and reserved, a stereotypical intellectual, and was happier dealing with chemicals and formulas than with people.

Why did he want to be a manager? 

This took some time to uncover.  Not that we didn’t suspect it right away.  It was pretty clear that he wanted to advance his career, and that seemed like the logical step.  He was at the top of the engineering food chain and reported directly to the VP of Engineering.  There really was no where for him to go unless he wanted to run the show.  And anyone who spent any time around him knew that he didn’t really want to run the show.  In fact, everyone seemed to know it.

Except him.

He was convinced that in order to increase his standing, management was his only path.  And it was important that he do so, at least to him.  To the rest of the organization, he was as good as gold.  But this was about his drive, not our perception. 

Keeping Picasso engaged

The challenge for us was to steer him away from this potentially disastrous move, while not making him feel inferior or unworthy of the move.  The upside was that it was in everyone’s best interest to not make him a manager, including his, so there wasn’t a question of who’s needs were more important.  It’s not that we didn’t want to give him the keys to the store.  It’s that all of us, including him, would be better off letting someone else handle the shop duties and letting him paint.

So how did we get there?  We did what everyone should be doing anyway, and what we needed to do with him all along.  We sat down and talked about it.  We were transparent.  We made sure he understood our concerns and that we understood his desires.  Then we figured out together how to make sure we all came out ahead. 

The problem was resolved, and everyone went away happy.  It’s amazing what a simple conversation can do.

So what happened?

In case you are interested, we kept him in his role, but elevated his status internally as well as (and this was the real key) externally.  We gave him the time and support to publish more research, speak at conferences, and be our emissary to the technical community.  He had done some of this already, but we asked him to do it as an official part of his job.  We gave him the support he needed, and used those opportunities to also have him mentor and teach the younger engineers in his field.  He had the opportunity to be a mentor and leader while still being focused on his area of expertise.  Think of it as not running the paint store, but instead leading the painting classes.  Still a leader, but in an area and a way that worked to his strengths instead of his weaknesses.

You’ve got a Picasso or two in your life, I’m sure.  Are they getting the recognition they deserve?  Are you using them in the right ways?  Or are you handing them the store keys and hoping for the best? 

Spotting Ineffective Policies


Early in my managerial career, before moving into HR, I had an employee (we will call them Pat), who was a challenge…

  • Often late for work, but never by more than 15 minutes.  This was in a salaried non-exempt position, so we could work around it without too much trouble.
  • Missed a lot of days, but not so many that you start to really wonder what is happening, and always with a reasonable explanation.
  • Not a great performer, but not so bad that I would consider them incompetent.
  • Not a team player, but not openly hostile toward anyone.

This was the case for about six months.  As time passed, the behaviors became more pronounced.  I knew even then that there was an engagement issue, which was odd because the team worked really well together.  So I tried to figure out what was going on, and where we had gotten off track.

My biggest frustration, though, came from my HR partner.  When the absence rate started to climb, I looked to them for help and guidance.  Our attendance policy was, to say the least, non-specific.  Something along the lines of “reasonable absences.”  I was told this was on purpose, so as a manager I could be flexible.  Instead, I was left drifting without much help.  I was told to “document everything,” and we would address the issues in the near future.  (And we wonder why some managers question the value of HR.)

Fast forward a couple of months.  I was on the road, and heard from one of my team that there was an odd charge on our shipping account.  As it turns out, Pat had sent a personal package to a relative for Mother’s Day.  And charged the company.  I think the total cost was around $10.  Bad judgement, but not a big deal, right?  So, because this was an employee with whom we were having performance issues, and not wanting to overreact, I returned to my HR partner for guidance.

They fired Pat for theft.  That day.  While I was on the road.  And I was left in the unenviable positions of sitting on a conference call while it happened and looking like a complete tool, even though I had argued against the action.

Policy issue #1:  Too vague

The first policy issue was the attendance piece.  The whole point of having an attendance policy is to have a documented process for addressing an attendance issue!

Instead, I as a manager was left to address an issue when there was no defined guideline, discipline policy or outlined plan to deal with problems.  That’s not what a manager needs from HR.  That’s not what any of us need from a policy.  If you are going to write a policy, take the time to put enough meat behind it to be useful.  Otherwise you are just wasting paper.

Policy issue #2:  Too prescriptive

On the other side was the termination.  A $10 shipping charge?  Poor judgement, yes.  Termination worthy?  Tough to say.  For an employee with some performance issues, but nothing that spoke of dishonesty?  And a manager who doesn’t support the action?  That’s a stretch to me.

Part of living with policies is knowing when to be flexible.  As a manager and/or and HR professional, you have to know when to apply your best judgement to the situation.  You can’t always fall back on the policy manual to make decisions for you and still be fair.  You’re dealing with people.  Be a person in response.

 Striking a balance

So how do you exist in the space between?  Here are a few ideas to make your policies more effective…

  • Avoid policies you can live without.  You don’t need a 500 page policy handbook.  No one will read it, and those who do won’t be able to find anything.  Put in the important stuff, the bits that keep you out of jail, and leave out the things that are meant to replace actual management.  I’m looking at you, Dress Code.
  • If you are going to include a policy, it must be important, so be bold.  Outline what is OK, what is not, and what the response will be based on behavior.  Put some meat behind it so your managers are not left twisting in the wind.
  • Be ready to override your policies when it is appropriate.  Yes, this gets sticky.  Yes, it can make life difficult.  Yes, it means you will have to sit and talk about employees.  Sorry.  That’s what HR is for.  The “H” stands for “HUMAN.”  That’s important.

Not terribly difficult, right?  You can handle it.  Be there for your manager.  Be there for your employee.  But most of all, don’t duck tough converstations with bad policies.

You’re better than that.

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