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Random thoughts from a morning at SHRM

This conference is huge, and HR needs to make friends with the smokers on the payroll

By Todd Humber

ORLANDO, Fla. — As a Canadian, the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) annual conference can be summed up in one word: Overwhelming.

It’s at a conference like this that the size difference between Canada and the United States really makes its difference felt. I’ve had the opportunity to attend excellence HR conferences across Canada, including Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto and Saint John, N.B.

The quality may generally be equal, but it’s the size of the SHRM conference that really stands out.

There are 13,000 total attendees at this year’s conference from 91 different countries. There are 620 companies exhibiting at 1,120 booths — and some of these booths are bigger than my house. (Not kidding.)

What I learned this morning

I had the opportunity to attend a mega session on the morning of June 23 titled, “What your CEO wishes HR would start doing,” presented by Tim Sackett of HRU Technical Resources. He posed a number of questions, including “Why do CEOs hate HR?”

The answer, according to Sackett, is quite simple: It’s because CEOs (in theory, anyway) rose to their position by being better at their jobs than everyone else. Businesses aren’t a democracy, he argued, and high performers want to be treated better.

And being treated better isn’t giving a high-performing employee a three per cent raise while the average employee gets two per cent, he said.

In a wide ranging presentation that included tips on workplace hugging etiquette (including no hugging from behind, keep your eyes open and never hug anyone in a bathroom), Sackett offered a number of tidbits of advice for HR professionals.

Stop being a terrorist

Too many HR professionals use the law like it’s a hammer, said Sackett. They use it to threaten executives and managers — telling them “You can’t do that because it’s illegal.”

But in reality, in many cases it’s not illegal — it just exposes the organization to potential risk, he argued,with a slide reading “Stop being a terrorist” on the screen behind him.

“It’s not HR’s job to eliminate risk,” he said. That’s a decision for the senior management team to make as a whole. Instead, HR’s role should be to advise of the potential consequences of the action, and not pull out the hammer everytime a questionable suggestion comes forward.

Make friends with the smokers

Smoking is on the decline, but every office still has smokers — and Sackett noted that they cut through all the ranks of the organization. There will likely be someone in your mailroom who smokes, and there will likely be a member of the senior executive team that smokes.

And when they’re all out there huddling together, they’re not ignoring each other — they talk about everything. Need to know what’s going on in the office? Talk to a smoker, because they’re always the first to know.

Sure, you may get cancer from second-hand smoke — but you’ll be in the know.

Be the CEO’s psychologist

We all know it’s lonely at the top, and the CEO’s desk is the loneliest place in the office, he said.

CEOs need someone to bounce ideas off of, someone they can trust who won’t judge them for having a bad idea or pitching a plan with a fatal flaw. The most-senior HR person in the organization is perfect for that role, said Sackett.

Stop saying no

Sackett presented the case of a manager who wanted to fire a worker — let’s call him Bob — with the following characteristics:

•over age 40

•in a wheelchair


•15 years’ tenure at the organization

•average performance reviews, with no documented discipline.

If a manager walked into an HR professional’s office and said, “I want to fire Bob” the HR manager would say, emphatically, “No.”

But rather than being the department that always says no, say yes. Say, “Sure, you can fire Bob. Let’s get rid of him today. I will walk you through all of the questions that you will have to answer in court.”

It was all tongue-in-cheek, but the message was clear — if HR just keeps saying no, all they become is an annoying roadblock. It helps to walk managers through the process of why the answer has to be no.

Create a 15-minute conversation

We’ve all had that unexpected alone time with a member of the senior management team, whether it’s the CFO, the CEO or some other high-ranking vice-president.

Perhaps it’s a meeting you’re in, where only the two of you are on time. Or it could be that elevator ride, or in line at the cafeteria or on the shop floor.

You can prepare for that unexpected occurrence by creating what Sackett called a “15-minute conversation in your head.”

That way, instead of asking a lame question while you both stare uncomfortably at your BlackBerrys — “How’s the business doing?” or “How is that big project coming?” — you can strike up a more meaningful conversation.

You have to do a bit of legwork to know this, but if you know your CEO has a grandson who plays baseball, you can ask him about how he did in his last game. That might spark him to say something like, “Timmy had three hits last night. It was great.” And if you’ve got a daughter or a nephew or what not who also plays, you can discuss how she did as well.

Then, the next time you see the CEO, he might barge up to you to tell you that Timmy hit a home run last night.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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