How to make a grown man cry and other valuable HR lessons

A couple of weeks back UK blogger Michael Carty asked the question via his XpertHR blog and on Twitter about HR rites of passage. I offered up an example of a particularly horrendous mistake I made early in my HR career. I learned probably my most valuable lessons that day. That got me thinking about what I have learned in my career and, in particular, some of the things that I learned the hard way. The sorts of things the text books don’t tell you about. So in no particular order here goes.

Dealing with tearful employees is a regular occurrence. The first person I made cry as an HR practitioner was a man in his late 50’s. How did I make him cry? Well, according to our company policy his fixed term contract couldn’t be renewed. I was new in the job and trying to make my mark. I was unable to find any paper trail from my predecessor and assumed notice of his contract termination was an administrative oversight (not uncommon in that particular team). I invited him in for a chat, apologised profusely and delivered the bad news that he would have to leave at the conclusion of his contract. He burst into tears on the spot.

What I didn’t realise and hadn’t bothered to find out was he had previously been unemployed for a long time (this was the mid 90’s) and had given up hope of ever finding work again until we gave him a break. He had done a fine job and his manager had argued the case successfully to make him permanent. I knew none of this when I spoke to him. And I told him on a Friday afternoon. He was distraught all weekend. Cue one very angry line manager on Monday morning who freely offered me some career advice of her own! My own manager was a wise old owl and when I confessed to my mistake and asked him if he wanted me to leave now, just smiled and told me to learn from the experience and never do it again. I didn’t.

Lessons learned
1. Write everything down in HR, you need a paper trail
2. Find out all the facts before acting
3. Always talk to line managers first
4. HR is not an administrative function. These are people’s lives we are dealing with. Look beyond the policy and do what’s right
5. Never deliver bad news on a Friday afternoon
6. Accept that some people you deal with will probably always despise you.

As a newcomer at another organisation I worked in, one departing employee sent out the obligatory farewell email to the whole company making it obvious he was not a happy camper. He concluded by saying “Remember, if it ain’t in writing it ain’t worth shit.” I was surprised by the bitterness of his farewell while sniggering at the cheek of it. What is it they say about burning bridges and all that? But apparently those who knew him were not surprised. But I’ve always remembered it.

Lessons learned
1. If it ain’t in writing it ain’t worth shit
2. It’s amazing how bitter and twisted some employees can become
3. Don’t be defensive when employees say what they really think

I’ve had my fair share of brilliant, inspiring managers and the truly awful, incompetent managers. Sadly, even in HR we are not immune from poor management practices. In the midst of major change and office closures, I remember the HR Director flying in to address the whole HR team in my office a day after shafting our local boss (by phone no less) and telling us there were jobs available for everyone who wanted to relocate. Yes, our jobs were going to be relocated to other cities. He lied. There were only jobs for one or two, as some of us found out when we put our hands up to relocate in the following weeks. He ended up losing his job before my redundancy kicked in but the damage had been done by then.

Lessons learned
1. If it ain’t in writing it ain’t worth shit
2. Avoid politics – you don’t win in the long-term
3. Treat people with decency and respect because what goes around comes around
4. When you choose a new job, who you are working for is just as important as what you will be doing and the reputation of the company
5. Just because someone has a seat at the top table, doesn’t mean they are any good at their job or that you can trust them.

My first experience of major change was a merger of two Government departments. It happened suddenly with no consultation and no warning. Like most people in the organisation I spent the next few months mourning the loss of “our” department and moaning to anyone who would listen about how “we” were being taken over by the other lot. Then a light went on. Someone showed me the cycle of feelings that people go through when change happens. It literally changed my life (no pun intended). Since then, whenever confronted with major change at work I embrace it and try to lead from the front.

Lessons learned
1. Change is good. Embrace it early and lead others through it
2. It’s OK to be pissed off. Just get over it quickly and look forward
3. Be part of the solution not part of the problem

Finally, going back to the blubbering baby boomer mentioned above, I have to say that this was a monumental cock-up on my part that haunts me to this day. But I learned an enormous lesson and know I’m much better at my job as a result of the experience. I’m sure you will have your own rites of passage horror stories. So what valuable lessons have you learned in HR?

13 thoughts on “How to make a grown man cry and other valuable HR lessons

  1. Lydia says:

    Watch your trap – a passing comment may be far more serious. I’m haunted by my accidental outing of an pregnant employee…

  2. michaelchanrubio says:

    Oh boy this was a tough one, and only this year…

    I had an employee who was going to abort her child without informing the father who was another employee.

    She wasn’t admitting to the abortion but she was ingesting snake oil type medicine from faith healers and drinking alcohol… trying to unhealthily cause miscarriage.

    I told the father, hours before she had her last ultrasound.

    They were both 20 years old, maybe 22 at most.

    She was upset with me, very upset. And the guy, he chickened out like crazy and tendered his resignation (for shame; I rejected it — talked him out of it).

    It was messy and nasty, and rightly or wrongly, she did get her miscarriage.

    We’re all still there, everything seems fine. I feel guilty as hell but at the same time I felt like I did the right thing. I still don’t know though.

    1. hrmannz says:

      Oh Michael, what a tough one. You don’t say why she confided in you in the first place but I honestly can’t say what I would do in that situation. I guess you have to be true to yourself and do what feels right to you personally and professionally at the time.

      1. michaelchanrubio says:

        It initially reached me via my direct report (the HR Officer), but the girl is my direct report too and she knew that I knew as I was advising HR to handle the assistance with the hospital and yes, I put her on suicide watch.

        Thanks for the straight talk, which validates how much of a real thorny situation I and my HR team had to deal with.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s