4 Lessons in Putting People First

People put their arms around each other as a symbol of teamwork.

Here's how your HR practices can help you become an important strategic partner and build the best environment possible for all the members of your workforce.

As part of a series of must-read books for HR professionals, we're taking a deep dive into HR leader Steve Browne's book "HR on Purpose: Developing Deliberate People Passion." Browne shares how to shake things up and build a people-centric organization. Here's how your HR practices can help you become an important strategic partner and build the best environment possible for all the members of your workforce.

1. Focus on People

Early in Browne's career, the president of the organization he worked for called him into his office for a private meeting. The president produced a roster and asked Browne about various people in the organization. He started with the executives, but quickly moved to middle management, administrators and night-time plant workers in their most remote locations. For employee after employee, Browne shared what he knew — from names to jobs to specific facts about their life. At the end of the conversation, the president said, "Don't ever forget that you're here for my people." This fundamentally shifted the way Browne approached HR. So as an HR leader you should be constantly asking yourself this simple question: Is your HR team focused on creating the best possible experience for your team?

2. Redefine How You View Culture

After a visit to a company where all the employees wore matching suits and weren't particularly warm to visitors, Browne began to think about culture as something beyond a set of norms that HR enforces. He writes, "Culture is the number one reason employees stay or leave your company." Browne's recommendations for culture include:

-Letting go of the idea that there's a single organizational culture that can be enforced by matching T-shirts, slogans or programs. Instead, focus on the values and mission you want to embody, through the unique lens of each person's strengths or weaknesses.

-Recognize there are many cultures in every organization. Browne notes, "You have an overall company culture as well as microcultures within departments, locations, geographies, etc. This is a challenge only if you try to shape and make everything fit into a tight package."

-Senior management doesn't own culture, HR does. Browne argues that because culture is focused on people, it falls to HR. Yet he also writes, "Culture starts with you. If you approach HR from the hard side of things surrounded by rules and compliance, take a look at your culture and see how much people reflect that. If your approach is intentional, inviting, inquisitive and intriguing, look at the people around you and see how much they reflect that."

3. Analyze Your Policies With a "Bottom Shelf Approach"

Browne advocates looking at policies as a set of guidelines to direct people on how to behave, rather than unbreakable rules. He suggests looking at policies through the lens of what needs to be put on the bottom shelf. The author writes, "You need to ask yourself, 'Are we doing things that hinder our ability for our people to perform?'" For example, he once worked in a conservative office where everyone wore suits and ties. His first job was reviewing the employee handbook, which stated the organization had a business casual policy. When he first came to work without a tie, it caused a stir. The point was to ask whether a business formal attire code added value to the bottom line or simply created burdens that kept staff from doing their highest level work?

It can be useful to evaluate policies and ask:

-Are these policies outdated?

-Are there policies, such as dress code, that reflect a set of values that no longer serve us?

-Are policies unnecessarily long and complex?

Again, it's critical that your policies reflect what's best for your people.

4. Be Strategic

Browne notes, "For the past 15 years, HR has yearned for a mythical seat at the table." The industry has faced increasing pressure to move from transactional focus, such as overseeing open enrollment or filling positions, to looking at everything HR does as a strategic contribution. However, it's important to be strategic every day by taking a global perspective, finding the larger impact, being strategic and looking for patterns that can be addressed holistically.

The book "HR on Purpose" argues that HR leaders have a bigger impact when they view their role as having strategic value to the organization overall. If they resolve to be people-focused and dedicated to creating great experience, you can best serve the needs of your people, and then roll that up to accomplish your organization's most important goals.

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