Do you have to be a ‘people person’ to work in HR?

Most HR practitioners still have an interest in people

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

According to the prevailing wisdom when I first started working in HR, it wasn’t a particularly good idea for someone to say she had decided on a career in HR because she was a “people person.” The idea was that just about everyone should be a “people person” because most people have to work in teams with others, and because HR involves working with numbers and technology to a large extent — as well as working with people.

However, I still believe most people go into HR because they have an interest in working with people in some capacity. Being a “people person” could mean a lot of things, and that could manifest itself in a lot of different ways.

To some people, it’s all about caring about people, while others have an academic curiosity and interest in people from a sociological, psychological or anthropological perspective. Still others believe they are “people people” because they are extroverted and like to talk.

Not an in-house counselling service

There is no question that people who go into HR thinking it is some type of in-house counselling service are sadly mistaken as to the true nature and purpose of the HR function. HR practitioners aren’t social workers, psychologists or therapists, but it’s surprising just how many people still think HR is there to solve their personal problems or just listen to them vent.

I have discussed this before, but there are countless comments on the Internet from people who were shocked and dismayed to find that HR doesn’t respect some sort of doctor-patient confidentiality when people go to them with their problems. “Don’t go to HR,” they say. “They are there to represent the interests of the company and won’t keep what you tell them in confidence.”

The implication is there is a conspiracy among HR practitioners to rat out employees and take the side of management or the organization no matter what. While that isn’t true either, people usually come to that conclusion because they had an experience where an HR practitioner had to conduct a proper workplace investigation or at least obtain both sides of a story before taking action based on an employee complaint.

This line of thinking is based on an incorrect understanding of what HR is all about in the first place. I suppose some people might decide to go into HR based on that type of misconception, but they soon learn that, other than a few exceptions, HR isn’t about providing counselling or psychotherapy to employees (although coaching and facilitation are part of the job).

That’s not to say HR doesn’t have an important role to play as employee advocate at times, but it really is a delicate balancing act. All else being equal, HR practitioners are more likely to represent the interests of the employer because the mandate of the HR profession is generally to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of the organization’s human resources.

HR is still about people

In that respect, HR really doesn’t conform to the old “touchy-feely” stereotype. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for “people people” in the HR function. In fact, I read a very interesting article on LinkedIn by Google’s David Germann just the other day arguing there is room in HR for both “people people” and what he calls “data-heads.”

I personally went into HR because I wanted a career in business that also leveraged my legal background, and didn’t want to focus entirely on number crunching or technology. I am fascinated by people and what makes them tick, but I am also not scared of numbers and enjoy working with technology and legal compliance issues as well.

While I think there is room for people who are very analytical and quantitative in nature, I still think HR is about people and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. Metrics, analytics and systems are great, but we should never forget the fact that this data relates to real live people.

In spite of the fact that HR still struggles at times to be taken seriously as a business profession, we shouldn’t try to reduce everything to hard numbers in order to justify our existence or have to quantify the return on investment for everything. In other words, I never want to see a situation where we take the “human” part out of human resources.

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