By Mike Cook
For the BBJ
Long ago (1972) and far away (East Lansing, Michigan) a young lad of 25 (me) graduated from an obscure (at the time) masters program that offered a degree in something called labor and industrial relations. At the time, human resource management was just evolving from the industrial age title. Personnel and professionals in the field were few and far between. The function might have aptly been named the Department of Necessary Evil, and everyone in an organization would know exactly whom you were talking about.
In early 1973 openings for professionals in Human Resources were scarce. I found myself moving my young family to exotic New Jersey to assume a role with Standard Oil (Chevron) to begin my professional career. I studied HR because I thought the major most closely reflected my interest in athletic coaching, which I enjoyed but which didn’t seem to pay very well. To my great dismay and surprise, I found that HR work consisted primarily of shepherding the myriad rules, regulations and administrative matters that made up what might be called the“care and feeding”of the workforce. Certainly necessary but also as certainly not my long term cup of tea.
Following an eight year career where I demonstrated a knack for the work required I finally left the large and comfy corporation and struck out on my own in search of the coaching and development opportunities I was yearning for. Leaving that well paying position with the yummy benefits package, stock plan, pension etc., should have taken some careful analysis. But I was so frustrated at the time I simply left without much forethought and stumbled my way forward into what eventually became a very rewarding career as both a business owner and an organizational development practitioner.
But enough about me, what about the profession I left behind? As it turns out, the field remains a mystery to many, a challenge to some, an obstacle to be surmounted, a black hole to be avoided, an object of scorn in some cases and in my mind an as yet unfulfilled promise for the most part. The profession, when appreciated, has the ability to provided easily quantifiable and large-scale and necessary benefits.
If you operate a business, listen up. Just because HR wasn’t right for me doesn’t mean your business doesn’t need HR expertise. There is a lot you need to know about human resource practices and don’t even know you need to know. One of your biggest challenges as a business owner is that while you are encouraged to think of employees as your greatest asset they only show up on your balance sheet as expenses…liability. Do you think that shapes your thinking about HR? Of course it does, it even affects the thinking inside HR. Liability Manager–that’s an exciting title!
I’d encourage you to read the article titled “In Defense of HR,” by Allison Griswold that appeared at Slate.com on September 22nd. If you are part of the American business community you have a really weak relationship to the HR function and you cannot afford that. In the article you’ll find all the justification you need to develop a new appreciation of HR as well as recognize that you may have been unconsciously exposing yourself to risk that could prove costly to your business. And all because one of the quirks of accounting is that there is no place on the asset side of either the balance sheet or our minds to truly recognize employees as assets, and as business owners and managers our minds are bound by this out of date convention.
You may not need an HR professional full time, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need one at all. You have an accountant, a lawyer and an insurance agent, right? You do need an HR counsel, even if only occasionally. Fortunately in Bellingham there are a number of highly competent independent HR resources. Do an internet search for HR services in Bellingham. Better yet visit mountbakershrm.shrm.org and send in an inquiry to get a recommendation on who might be the best resource for your business. Above all, HR people are helpful. You’ll get the help you need.
Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.