Letter to A Rookie HR Manager

I started off in HR some 20 years ago, putting me in the enviable/not so enviable position of mid-career HR guy: Old enough to laugh off some of the more comical aspects of the circus, but too young to flee the burning building to sweet relief on a beach where there are NO PEOPLE. And if you’ll indulge me in a bit of whimsy, for a moment, you may even find some good fun in the exercise I’m about to embark upon. How would you onboard yourself if you knew that your first day of your first job in HR was actually your first day of your HR career?

I think mine might sound like this. Cue harp music.

Good morning, and thanks for actually getting here close to, but not exactly on time. I know traffic brings out the worst possible emotions of the human experience out in you and that you’ve recently been wondering if you should go into deep analysis for that road rage thing. I know. I know everything about you. In fact, I know exactly where you got that hand me down tie, fashioned into what I will mercifully dub “Cubist Period Picasso Half- Windsor”. Henceforth, the tie your buddy left in your dorm room, having worn it as a headband will be considered good for formal fraternity party evening wear ONLY and NOT for your first day on the job. Any job. In fact, to wear a tie at all was a gutsy move in a business casual office. I know you’re trying to divert attention from your baby face and general expression of terror as you walk past your friends in the warehouse and into the foreboding office among the taskmasters and their cronies with access badges to places the great people that you used to work nights with can’t go and wouldn’t want to. I know you’re trying to look like you and belong. That you’re legit. That you’re not some impostor.

I know because I’m you. Or you’re me. Whichever works. Now sit down, and listen to me. Or you. Whichever.

And while we’re talking, I want you to know that you belong here, that you earned this, and that despite your finest efforts in the social component of your college years, you’re ready for this. If you’ll take a look at the Policy And Procedures Manual you’ve been handed, you’ll find a myriad of rules, regulations, resources, nods to culture and generally dry copy on how you’re part of a “team” and how excited people are to have you aboard.

Now, for one minute I’d like you to try to silence your natural cynicism and sense of snark, and ponder the fact that someone actually took the time to write that. Yep. Someone committed an inordinate amount of time, energy, and effort to compiling, complying and composing what you consider to be corporate propaganda. Believe me when I tell you that it’s actually an art form and more love goes into writing it than you can see right now.

But you will because you’re going to do it yourself, one day soon. That’s right.

And while we’re talking, let’s turn to your actual job description. You don’t realize this now, but you’re fortunate to even have one. Many people more talented than you’ll ever be, start their first day on the job with nothing more than an arm pointed towards the work floor every day, all over the world. No “good luck”. No “You’re gonna be great”. One day, you’ll be responsible for composing these. Understand its importance and impact, even if nobody else does. That will be a recurring theme from now on. Trust me.

You’re going to be responsible for selecting and training people one day. That’s right. You. The kid who accidentally parked in the tow-away zone of the adjacent warehouse space that distributes department store catalog items because you were here close to, but not exactly on time. But, I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s the best part of the job, of any job you’ll ever have. Not the parking thing, but the selecting and training people thing. Giving someone a shot-a first one at proving themselves, a second one at redeeming themselves, another one to feed their families or feel whole and productive again- is going to fulfill you far more than any other aspect of any other position in this long, strange trip you will eventually grow to call your career. And no, it’s not a destination. It’s a journey. I avoid sounding schmaltzy by calling it a “continuum”. It’s a good word. Makes you sound smart.

But keep these few things in mind.

1. Align Your Resources: You don’t need to know the answer to every question, and you don’t need to be able to solve every problem. You do need to be aware that there are tools and modalities that you can research to make your job, not easier, but more manageable, and ultimately, your efforts successful. As an example, if there is a holy grail in HR, it’s making the “right” hire. That person in that job at that moment. Evaluating, testing and following a logical qualification process are the most intuitive ways to go about it. Work with hiring managers to create “ideal” qualities and fashion a profile of an “ideal” candidate. Work towards alignment and fit. Learn the word efficacy and strive towards it. Strategy can only come rising above the fog of war and creating partnerships towards those ends. It’ll make a world of difference.

2. Recognize The Leader Within Everyone: Leadership isn’t an inborn trait, despite what you may have heard all your life. There is no genetic component. This is a philosophical distinction you’ll make for yourself once you go to grad school. You actually do this to yourself. Twice. I’m not even kidding. There are, however, traits and tendencies that people adopt throughout their development and in concert with their individual life/work experiences. These can be recognized, understood and effectively managed. Leadership can be nurtured and developed. And there are psychometric tools that will assist in what will become one of the more fascinating aspects of your career. The pursuit, discovery, and study of what moves and motivates people to become the best versions of themselves. We’ve all got strengths where we have weaknesses, and anything can be taught. People will consistently fascinate you. They may not always do what you expect (or even hope they do) but remember that they want to do well. They wish to do so.

3. Be Intellectually Curious: Don’t fight your own nature, despite the conventional wisdom of a sound-byte driven, three-word slogan business world of platitudes and attitudes. You’re smarter than that. And so, as it turns out, are most people. It’s simply a matter of helping to create an environment; a culture where that is celebrated and not vilified. You are in a unique position to help allow that to grow. If you thought it was a responsibility having a conscience, now try actually being one.

4. Be Prepared To Meet and Become A Mentor: From the very beginning of your career, you’ll be observed with some degree of interest. Avoid thinking about the more selfish or cynical reasons a handful of people may have for getting to know what you’re about, and turn your attention to the people around you in the best possible light. Pay special attention to the people who are effective because they understand the power of affect; the people who recognize their role and impact on the people around them, and by extension, the organization itself. Someone will see something of himself or herself in you. In fact, a few will. They’ll go out of their way to try to guide you on your way. Listen to them. Learn as much as you can from them. And recognize that, sooner than you may think, someone will look to you for the very same reasons. Be a helper.

That said, we’re happy to have you on board. Coffee and microwave’s in the break room, you’ll eventually be eligible for benefits you won’t understand but be expected to administer, you’ll eventually be eligible for vacation days you’ll feel guilty for taking, and you’re going to want to take notes. Lots, and lots of notes. Oh, and that whole “open-door policy” thing is real. Hope you don’t mind company.

You’re gonna be great. See you soon.