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Do you need to be a ‘corporate cheerleader’ to work in HR?

Avoid overzealously promoting the organization

By Brian Kreissl

I have discussed some of the different HR stereotypes over the past few years. A few seem unfair and quite contradictory and are dependent on the background and experience of the people who hold such opinions. For example, senior business leaders sometimes have a different view of HR than rank-and-file employees or jobseekers.

Nevertheless, one of the enduring stereotypes among a wide variety of stakeholders seems to be the HR practitioner as “corporate cheerleader.” While not everyone uses that actual terminology, there are many variations of the theme that HR professionals are too often seen to toe the party line when it comes to organizational policies, norms and cultural values.

The idea is that because HR is often called upon to act as the face of the organization both internally and externally, individual HR practitioners can sometimes come across as somewhat overzealous in their promotion of the organization. While there is nothing wrong with being positive about one’s employer, taking that to an extreme can result in a cult-like atmosphere that seems phony, disingenuous and even a little totalitarian at times.

It can also lead to groupthink, the tendency to sweep problems under the carpet, resistance to change, unwillingness to consider other perspectives, a culture that is too homogenous and a lack of diversity. Many people feel uncomfortable in such environments and will be afraid to speak up about potential issues or problems for fear of being labelled as being too negative.

Because of that, people tend not to trust HR practitioners who behave in this manner. I also believe organizations sometimes end up doing themselves a disservice by adopting a culture that seems not to tolerate individuality or dissent. Such an atmosphere turns a lot of people off.

In some ways, this contradicts the old chestnut that “HR doesn’t understand the business.” That’s because it is difficult to be all that closely aligned with the interests of the organization if one doesn’t understand its basic strategy or its vision, mission or values.

What is ‘corporate cheerleading?’

What types of behaviours and activities amount to corporate cheerleading?

One particular example from my past comes to mind, although it might be a little too extreme because it involved actual “cheerleading” (and I don’t think it was even led by corporate HR).

At one time, I worked in another relatively small organization that was acquired by a larger company. On the day the deal was announced, everyone in our office was asked to get together for a cheering session.

I don’t know how other people felt about engaging in such an activity, but I found it somewhat juvenile and patronizing. While I agree employees should believe in the organization they work for and its products, services, culture, policies and values, I think such activities go too far. Employees aren’t children and making them “cheer” about something seems forced and even a little cult-like to me.

In all fairness, I think there was genuine excitement at the prospect of being taken over by a large, well-known organization — particularly one that had a very good reputation as an employer of choice and with respect to its products and services. However, I think delivering a couple of quick speeches, giving everyone a mug with the new company’s logo and providing some cake would have been sufficient.

How should HR practitioners behave?

So, if HR practitioners shouldn’t be too overzealous in their promotion of the organization, how should they behave?

HR should definitely be involved in promoting their organization as an employer of choice. That applies not only with respect to external candidates, but also to current and even former employees.

But it is particularly important to ensure the employment value proposition and the organization’s HR programs actually measure up to those standards before trying to spin the company as a great place to work.

People value authenticity and transparency in organizational communications. They also need to have a realistic job preview so they understand what they’re getting themselves into and appreciate what it’s like to work for the organization and in the job in question. This applies “warts and all.”

It’s also important to be able to recognize and talk about organizational issues and challenges. While those can often be presented as opportunities to do even better, pretending everything is perfect and the organization can do no wrong doesn’t help anyone.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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