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So You Fire People?

HRThis blog post is part of our “Day In the Life” series offered this summer.

“So, you fire people?”

At a wedding last summer my fiance’s niece (who has an intense curiosity about work and jobs) had just been told what my job was.

“Well, sometimes.” I said, inexplicably feeling a bit defensive, “But I also hire people, and mostly I help resolve problems. You know, people problems.” She shrugged, clearly unimpressed by these less ruthless activities. Eight year olds are such savages.

There is no doubt that describing what we do day-to-day as HR professionals to non-HR people can be a disconcerting experience for everyone involved.

First, there is the sheer variation that exists between what we can credibly refer to as “HR roles”. A day in the life of two HR professionals can look as different as a Monet and a Picasso. What an HR person does at a small organization looks awfully different than it might at a large one. This makes any points of reference a non-HR person might have unreliable.

Non-HR Bob: “HR, right. Yes, we have an HR person who does payroll and organizes social events”

HR Sue: “Yeah, I don’t do any of that”

Then there is the unpredictable nature of working with people, change, and sometimes conflict.

Non-HR Bob: “So, what does your typical work day involve?”

HR Sue: “It depends…on whether we’re hiring, or firing, or if someone filed a complaint about someone else, or arrives in my office crying, or arrives in their manager’s office crying, or someone wants to do something that might get us sued, or…”

Usually at this point non-HR people will have given up and just muttered something about an appointment into their drink before shuffling away. Although every once in a while you’ll come across someone willing to persist.

Non-HR Bob: “So, when an employee comes and complains to you that their manager is a jerk, you sort it out?”

HR Sue: “Well, that depends…”

If at this point it seems that someone might be preparing to kick you in the shins, it is probably the opportune moment to bring up Scott Schaefer’s recent article in Harvard Business Review, which reminds us that “it depends” is by no means a sneaky side step. Rather, it is “The answer to every strategic business question”, and the trick is knowing what ‘it’ depends on. In my view, this is especially true in HR. How we respond and address concerns, conflicts, ‘people problems’ and opportunities are so dependent upon context: organizational, personal and circumstantial.

The reality is that an employee who complains about their manager might be the victim of a dangerous bully, or could be a serial complainant who is seeking retribution for a less than stellar performance review. Most likely, the truth is somewhere in between, and determining an effective response to this scenario (and most others) rests on identifying and weighing the factors that such a response depends on. Is the employee acting in good faith? What are their motivations and the desired outcome of their complaint – resolution or punitive action? What is known about the history of the employee? And their manager?

The factors that an effective response might depend on will vary depending on the issue at hand, the organization you work for, the people involved. Add to that the filters of organizational culture, policies, and precedent and it is a veritable ‘choose your own adventure’ story! Schaefer’s article notes that “Managers successfully address seemingly similar problems in very different ways and, as our corollary suggests, the trick is to find which solution fits with the specifics of your business.”That is a whole lot of ambiguity we wade through every day; x + y does not always equal z…but sometimes it does. No wonder trying to explain what we do is so difficult.

I for one accept this ambiguity, and in fact I look forward to continuing to confound eight year olds and non-HR people at weddings and cocktail parties for years to come. Don’t forget to tip your waitress…

What do you think? Does knowing what ‘it’ depends on feel like the right way to describe what we do?


  1. Great post – I especially like the running commentary with non-hr Bob. So much better than my explanation, which usually involves something about running a daycare for adults.

  2. I agree. HR solutions vary with the problem at hand, and ……starting from a position of “It depends….” is very appropriate.

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