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Habits of Successful HR Departments

Great HR departments do a little of everything— they coordinate with the CEO on salaries and hiring, pick out the snacks in the break room, help the new hire who’s relocating find a house, and a lot more. They’re the architect of the company’s culture, a sympathetic ear for the kid in Marketing who’s having a bad week, and often the only thing protecting employees from their horrible bosses.

So how do they do it? Like any kind of success, HR success is built on habits. Let’s go over some of the habits that can make — or break — your HR department.

Culture is key

So much of an HR department’s work depends on company culture. A healthy, well-defined company culture only needs a light touch from HR, while an ambiguous or unhealthy one is going to generate friction, discontent, and inefficiency — making everyone’s job a lot tougher.

So how do you define and build a company culture? First, you have to understand the values, goals, and beliefs that define the company. If you’re a tech company, maybe you want to chase innovation and disruption; if you’re a real estate company, maybe you’re trying to save sellers and buyers money. This is where the company’s vision and mission statements come in. These documents are like a country’s constitution; they lay out the rules and structures. 

Once these are defined, HR’s job is to make sure these values are built-in to everything they do. For example, hiring impacts company culture — candidates should be evaluated on their ability to add to the company’s existing culture and share a similar vision.

Get leadership on board

It’s a lot easier to build a thriving company culture when you’ve got buy-in from the top. A savvy HR department works closely with upper management to coordinate on company policies that reflect company values, as well as peripheral issues like compliance. A supportive and unified front from management will make sure things run smoothly, and encourage buy-in at the employee level.

Listening solves a lot of problems

When employees come to you to complain, always listen to them — and listen well. Often, employees will tell you exactly where the friction points and problem areas are in your workplace, essentially helping you do your job. Whether it’s just one or several employees sharing a complaint, be mindful of the long-term ramifications of not taking action. It serves a company well to engage with employees’ pain points regularly to maintain employee wellness and prevent burnout.

On the other hand, sometimes employees just want to vent. In these cases, listen, sympathize, and acknowledge. You may not need to take any further action; often, the mere act of listening is enough to dissipate an employee’s discontent and prevent the situation from escalating. Be sure to ask employees what a solution looks like for them.

Remember that rules are made to be broken (occasionally)

Which philosopher said, “there can be no justice without exceptions”? Whoever he was, he must have worked in HR. While one of HR’s most important responsibilities is to enforce company policy, a smart HR executive knows when to bend the rules and make an exception. Employees don’t like to feel subject to arbitrary, inflexible authority, and in times of high stress, like product launches or right before big deadlines, a few small exceptions can cultivate a lot of goodwill.

That being said, every company has fundamental policies that, if broken, should always lead to consequences. A smart HR executive knows when to make an exception and when not to.

Keep an eye on the big picture

Successful HR departments don’t restrict themselves to reductive definitions of HR— the minutiae of hiring, payroll, culture, and training. While those are all vital to the smooth functioning of a company, a great HR department has the vision to match the company’s. 

That means you should have a general understanding of how each level of the company operates, who its most important clients and customers are, the various products and services offered, and even an idea of the market landscape. The better you know the company, the more effectively you can help achieve your collective goals. And exhibiting this kind of deep knowledge is one of the most effective ways of exhibiting your department’s value.

Don’t withhold praise

Company culture exists to produce positive outcomes — so when you see those positive outcomes happening, make sure you acknowledge them! Your top sales leaders may be raking in the commission, but a pat on the back from HR is arguably just as meaningful for their job satisfaction.

Praise makes employees feel good, drives their motivation and morale, and lets them know you notice their good work. It draws a straight line between company culture and its benefits — for everybody. Acknowledging employee accomplishments with praise is the secret to turning your company culture into an organic, self-sustaining organism.

Act as a role model

The best way to encourage positive employee behaviors is to demonstrate them yourselves. Employees look to HR for leadership, so HR professionals should make a conscious effort to embody the behaviors and values they’re trying to cultivate. 

On the other hand, if they fail to exhibit the behaviors they’re trying to encourage, they could seem hypocritical — and employee morale and buy-in will surely remain low.

Don’t overlook your fellow employees when hiring

When a position opens up, always begin your candidate search internally. This is important for two reasons.

One, your employees will notice if you begin your search externally. It will make them feel that you don’t value them and that you don’t have their interests in mind. This can hasten talent loss. On the other hand, if they feel appreciated and have a sense that there’s the possibility of upward mobility, you will retain that top-quality talent.

The second reason is that, unless you’re looking for a candidate with very specialized skills that can’t be found within the company, your best candidate is almost certainly in-house. If you’ve cultivated a strong company culture it’s extremely unlikely that anyone from outside the company will have a better appreciation for and understanding of that company culture than someone who’s already under the same roof. 

Hold everyone accountable

The other side of praise is accountability. Just as employees who exemplify or uphold company values deserve recognition, ones who undermine policies or break regulations should be held fully accountable for their actions. Your workforce will notice when you let a transgression slide, and if they sense you’re not committed to a rule or policy, it will be hard to make them respect it. 

Accountability especially applies to upper management. If employees sense there’s one standard for the employees, and another standard for management, morale will quickly decline.

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