Keeping the ‘human’ in human resources


Human Resources (HR) is where the drama is inside any company. If it doesn’t start there, it inevitably ends up there–employee conflicts, disappointing talent or culture alignment, misunderstandings that become threats, unreasonable expectations and demands and truly heart-wrenching pathos that might have started at home but, now, floods over into the workplace. These stories show you the worst of humanity at times, but often the best as well.

Keeping the “human” in your workforce is largely dependent upon how the HR department operates. The HR team must work tirelessly to create an environment and culture that inspires humans to bring the best version of themselves to work every day. Issues that affect your human resources are influenced by their daily work experience.

To allow individuals to perform at their best and make meaningful contributions, HR has a responsibility to influence the C-Suit to give humans at work physical, emotional and psychological support.


There are three important conditions required for HR to assume and keep this impactful position: (1) Establish guardrails in the form of balanced policies and practices that allow the business to function efficiently while creating an engaged environment where people want to work. Good HR policies should lean on the concept of organisational justice, which was originally derived from Equity Theory. This is a psychological theory that suggests that individuals make judgements of fairness based on the amount they give (input) compared to the amount they get back (output). By providing a formal process through which employees can voice dissatisfaction with work conditions, employment actions or treatment, HR helps keep “human” in the workforce; (2) operate as a competent professional services company, engendering trust and confidence in HR’s ability to deliver high quality solutions and services. HR must operate like a vendor selected to deliver a value-added service and held to specific standards. HR must provide thought leadership, excellent service, value creation and creative solutions to solve business problems.

To operate as a competent professional services vendor, HR must: (a) Attract, retain and motivate HR talent who can deliver value and embrace partnership with the business; (b) have underlying processes, practices, monitoring methods and technology that yield positive human experiences; (c) hire and reward quality leaders that are aligned with accepted rules of engagement, goals and strategies.

The third condition is that HR must become trusted and influential advisers that work for the greater good of the organisation. HR should be a consultancy. We have deep people expertise and advise others who are not the expert. Sometimes, they think they know better and don’t want to listen or take advice. A consultant must have the ability to influence so that the consulting relationship can flourish. The influence is predicated on building credibility via expertise and trustworthiness.


HR can influence corporate culture and act as a corporate conscience, much as Memento Mori kept ancient Roman generals grounded. Triumphant generals were paraded through the streets after a military victory, accompanied by a servant whose responsibility was to whisper in the general’s ear continuously, “Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori”. “Look behind you! Remember thou art mortal. Remember you must die!”

HR acts as the servant reminding the general (C-suite) that, despite all the victories, they, too, are mortal. Despite its successes, the company is only mortal, comprised of human beings. Without a continuous focus on people, the probability of growth or high performance diminishes.

Real humanity in HR requires more than just trying to protect the organisation from a lawsuit. For true success, review your people policies and ask these two questions: (i) Is this policy aligned with our corporate mission, vision, values and behaviours? (ii) Will this policy enhance our employee attraction, engagement and retention, ensuring that all of our people can bring their true selves to work? For policies where the answer to one or both of these questions is “no”, it’s time to refine and renew the wording so that it supports the organisation and your talent.

HR people have to be able to listen, be flexible and keep your ability to empathise alive. Your employees aren’t bad people. They’re not problem employees, they’re employees with problems. When faced with difficult conversations that involve the employee getting disciplined, fired or laid off, HR people often protect their own emotional health and cope with their nervousness by freezing and becoming mechanical. That’s when we lose our humanity.

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