Five principles for raising HR standards in your NFP

Does HR battle to be taken seriously in your organisation?

While professions like finance, legal and operations are almost always present at the leadership table, HR often fights to be treated in the same way in many organisations. Why?

Garry Ridge and Stan Sewitch argue that the issue is the way HR sees itself.

Ridge is the (Australian) CEO of consumer goods manufacturer WD-40 Company, and Sewitch is his VP of Global Organisational Development. In their essay entitled How HR can get the squeaks out of an organisation, Ridge and Sewitch suggest that HR professionals are mistaken if they think they are (or should be) decision-makers within an organisation:

“To be a business partner in today’s and tomorrow’s world of business, HR must recognise that it is not a decision-making function . . . Its role is to provide the best advice possible to leaders who must make decisions about strategy, sales, operations, hiring, promotions, separations, job structure, and succession. It’s an advisory function for 99 percent of its activities. HR strays afield of its role when it behaves otherwise.”

Ridge and Sewitch identify four dysfunctional roles that HR can fall into: trying to enforce rules, coddling workers, attempting to influence organisational decisions outside its field of expertise, and accepting duties delegated from leaders struggling with relationships – instead of equipping them to do it themselves.

At WD-40 Company, Ridge and Sewitch aim to avoid such pitfalls by designing an advisory role HR can truly deliver on. The result? Higher accountability, more skilled leaders, and an unmistakeably valuable contribution from HR.

Sound like something you’d like to see in your organisation? Here are the five principles the HR team at WD-40 Company follows:

1. Know your stuff

According to Ridge and Sewitch, the pillar on which HR is built is the knowledge of its staff. Above all else, HR professionals must be specialists not only in the field but also in the organisation itself. After all, how can you provide relevant and specialised advice if you don’t understand how the organisation operates?

To this end, HR professionals at WD-40 Company are encouraged to take on cross-functional projects. For example, they might participate in sales calls or product education training in order to become more familiar with the intricacies of the organisation in which they operate.

And if you’ve got a good understanding of the organisation but don’t know the answer to a question you’re asked? Get comfortable admitting as much – it’s a powerful trust-building exercise between HR and the rest of the organisation, as well as a valuable opportunity to identify areas you might need to work on to improve your HR knowledge.

More broadly, Ridge and Sewitch advocate for HR professionals gaining non-HR experience throughout their careers. Working on a project in another department allows you to observe HR from the same point of view as everyone else – and whether that view is flattering or not, it’s a valuable insight otherwise indiscernible from inside the HR office.

2. Earn the role of trusted advisor

To take on that key HR function of trusted advisor, you must be motivated to provide solutions to problems – and hold yourself accountable for the quality of your advice.

To do so, consider going where you are invited – and, paradoxically, that doesn’t necessarily mean waiting around for an invitation. Offering an idea shows respect and an understanding of who’s accountable for the decision.

A “may I offer an idea?” will rarely be greeted with a no. It’ll also go a long way towards ensuring you’re invited back for future advice.

3. Support decisions fully

When engaging in debates and discussions, there’s a critical question to consider: whose decision is it? Outside of matters tied directly to HR itself, the answer is almost never HR – unless your HR team has fallen into one of those dysfunctional roles listed above.

So while you might agree or disagree with the final decision, Ridge and Sewitch assert that HR’s role is to support it unreservedly. If it’s not illegal or unethical, then you’re going to need to embrace it.

4. Understand psychology

In most organisations, people consult HR to solve problems that go beyond their own scope of knowledge and expertise. And though these problems exist in an organisational context, they’re human in nature – and that means applying the principles of human behaviour to your HR activities is imperative.

As an HR professional, you must become a student of human behaviour and delve into psychology to better understand the human condition. Ridge and Sewitch say WD-40 Company focuses on the evidence-based psychology in every aspect of its HR services, and assert that the science of psychology should be studied on an ongoing basis.

5. Help people help themselves

Is a staff member having a problem with their manager and coming to you for help?

Rather than solving that problem for them, Ridge and Sewitch stress that HR’s true responsibility is to help people help themselves. At WD-40, HR teaches managers and other staff the principles of conflict resolution and coaches them through the issue – empowering staff rather than taking charge of the issue.

In summary, WD-40 Company looks for ways to render HR non-essential to everyday organisational functions and decision flows, except as an advisor – a potentially radical idea that aims to create better leaders throughout the organisation.

What role does the HR team play in your organisation? Should HR be involved in making decisions, or be happy as an advisor? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

This post is based on the essay How HR can get the squeaks out of an organisation, published in The Rise of HR: Wisdom from 73 Thought Leaders, an anthology of essays by the Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI). You can download the entire ebook as a PDF by clicking here.

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