HR is UX

Over the past few years, I’ve written repeatedly about simplicity being fundamental to the future of organisational management. I’m not alone, and increasingly there is a trend to recognise this. You know that when Deloitte starts referring to it as an emerging trend that it is no longer niche.

And whilst it is well acknowledged that simplicity is harder to achieve than complexity. I think, simplicity is…..well a little simple.

For me, the future of HR management lies in a concept that is often attributed to technology, but has as much, if not more, to do with human interaction. I’m talking about “user experience” or UX a term that didn’t really exist in this way until the mid 90s.

But UX and the approach to it can inform our HR and people management practices both in our use of technology and in the wider approach to employees.

It’s Sunday at time of writing and I’m feeling a bit lazy, so let’s borrow from Wikipedia the main benefits of UX based design,

• Avoiding unnecessary product features
• Simplifying design documentation and customer-centric technical publications
• Improving the usability of the system and therefore its acceptance by customers
• Expediting design and development through detailed and properly conceived guidelines
• Incorporating business and marketing goals while protecting the user’s freedom of choice

Anyone arguing with any of those? No, I thought not. But do we really practice it?

Think about when you open a new technology product. Let’s take an iPhone. The design, the presentation, the simplicity that belies the complexity beneath, the configurability and personalisation, the navigation and experience. Think of the excitement you felt the first time you saw or experienced one.

When smart phones came in to existence, nobody could see the point. The seemed like an expensive, laborious waste of time and money. But in time we’ve come to find them an essential that we can’t live without.

Now there’s a thing…..

I. Am. Human.

Following the last two conferences I’ve spoken at, I’ve received the following unsolicited feedback,

“You don’t speak like an HR person”

On both occasions, I’ve assumed it was a compliment and taken it as the best bit of feedback I could receive. I hope I don’t look like an HR person either (no tissues in this cardigan baby) but there is always room for improvement.

The serious point here is that language is important. The words we use, the tone we use, the way in which we communicate both verbally and in writing. They matter.

I don’t care what the intention is, if the language sends out a different message. That’s what people infer.

You tell people what they can’t do. Why not tell them what you want them to do?

You tell people what will happen if they don’t behave. Why not tell them what will happen if they do?

We use a whole vocabulary that means nothing to the vast majority of human beings. A dictionary of terms that have been created to make us feel “strategic” as we “partner” with the business to deliver “value adding interventions” to maximise our “human capital” and drive “employee engagement”.

Or instead we could work with you to make this place better, you happier and the business successful.

But then. We might have to explain how.

Which would require us to think. And not produce another strategy document.

Which could prove tricky.

I am not Human Resources. I am human.

The purpose of work

Over the years I’ve read and heard a lot about meaning in work. Finding purpose in what you do and how happiness can be found in almost anything that we want.

I’ve never completely been convinced about these arguments. In the same way employee engagement wants to make me poke out my own eyes with a rusty nail, the whole premise seems contrived. Because not all work can have meaning and not everyone wants to find meaning in their work. What worries me more about these things is that the argument feels patronising and explores work through a middle class, middle-income, professional lens.

If you’re holding down four temporary, part-time jobs, the last thing on your mind is finding meaning in the organisational vision and strategy. You just don’t want to get shafted by your employer, see your hours reduced, get charged for your uniform or have any losses deducted from your wage. You want to have some level of guarantee that you know how much you’re going to be taking home so that you can pay the bills.

But this isn’t just an economic argument. Even in the seemingly more stable office environment, some people want to come in, be treated like an adult, be allowed to do the job that they are paid for and get that pay and go home. In the same way that for many organisations, employees are faceless and interchangeable, for many employees organisations are similarly homogeneous.

This doesn’t mean that the world of work has to be grey and boring and impersonal. Far from it. By recognising that some people don’t give a flying fig about your company purpose or meaning, you’re recognise that they are individuals in their own right. If they want to get pay from work and meaning from their stamp collection, or saving small baby seals from being clubbed to death, that’s their choice. And choice is individual, and recognising individuality is the first step to creating a healthy organisation.

Instead of trying to deploy some sort of weird, HR Jedi mind control tricks, we should focus instead on making sure that there is a fair deal for all employees within our organisations, allowing them to prosper and enjoy life in whatever (legal) ways they chose to do. To use a favourite phrase of mine, we are there to create the theatre that allows our employees to make the performances of their lives. But we need to recognise that for some of them, that performance will be nothing more than a job.

Because our role is not to help people find purpose in work, our job is to make work better. Finding meaning and happiness is personal choice.

A dignified exit

As sure as night follows day, the one thing I can guarantee in your HR career is that you will need to let someone go, fire them, relieve them of their duties.

Because as much as helping people to join our organisation, helping people to leave is a part of our role and responsibility. And there will be a myriad of reasons for leaving, from performance to conduct, to reorganisations and retirements. But regardless of the reason, one thing remains the same:

You will show your true colours as both a human being and as a professional by how you handle these situations.

Too often, we take the easy option, disassociate ourselves and treat the people who are leaving as the reason. We depersonalise them, process them and rely on the legal framework and organisational procedures to justify our actions. After all, we are just following orders, right?

Well, we know all about that.

The trick, the challenge is to help people to leave with as much dignity and respect as possible. For them to be able to leave, heal, regenerate and become productive again as quickly as possible. Ideally in a job or company to which they are more suited.

There are very few examples, a handful over my twenty years of practice, where I’ve witnessed something so incredibly mean spirited, wrong or illegal that it warranted the full force of organisational justice. And in most of those cases, the authorities were also involved.

In the large majority of circumstances, it is instead the company who hired the wrong person, didn’t train or manage them properly, or just let things slide. It is the company, the organisation, that is responsible.

It might seem easier to blame the individual, to place the onus on them and to avoid any level of empathy or understanding. But ultimately this backfires on you, the organisation and the individual. So next time you come up against a situation, ask yourself this:

“What is it that I can do to make this as least traumatic as possible”

And then do it.

It won’t necessarily change the outcome, but you’ll be doing that person a service, protecting the reputation of your organisation and putting the human back in HR. You’ll also probably sleep better at night too. Trust me. Give it a go.