I spoke at my first American human resources conference in 2008.
George W. Bush was still president. Foreclosures were in the news and layoffs were rampant. We didn’t have universal access to healthcare and people were going bankrupt due to medical bills and prescription drug prices. The mortgage crisis was imminent, and the economic growth in our country had stalled. Just as things couldn’t get much worse, elder Millennials entered the workforce.
The world looked bleak, and HR leaders and leadership experts would come together at these stale events and say things like, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
An event planner asked me to come to her conference and be on a panel to discuss multiple generations in the workforce. How do we deal with different attitudes and expectations? How do we talk to the youth of today? What policies will stay the same, and what policies will change? With emerging technology and a push towards greater productivity, will there be enough jobs to go around?
When you have a blog called Punk Rock HR, everybody in your industry reads it, but nobody takes you seriously. It was important for me to get on stages and talk about my ideas in the public arena. So, I donned a black sweater dress and tall boots and told the audience three things:
1. Be political. HR sits at the intersection of work, power, politics, and money. Everything you do — from headcount to policy — is connected to budget, and budget is power. Think bigger than “being cultural stewards” and mitigating risk. Learn the political game your CEO is playing, and gain his favor. Then, exercise your power of influence and be the change you wish to see in the world for the greater good of humanity.
2. Pay attention to the headlines. The news is a lagging indicator of the hot-button issues in our society. If foreclosures or unemployment or student debt or childhood obesity are a part of every headline, it means you don’t have to do an employee survey and ask your workforce about their lives. You already know that financial problems and wellbeing issues are plaguing your workforce. Stop wasting time. Fix that.
3. Nobody likes to be stereotyped. Long before we knew the word “personalization,” I told HR professionals that employees are consumers of work and expect programs and policies to be tailored to their experiences. Instead of talking about generations, let’s discuss life stages and try to dig deeper at the individual level.
Finally, I wrapped up my time on stage by encouraging HR leaders to use emerging social platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn to recruit and hire talented workers. If they’re on those platforms in 2008, they are relatively early adopters and primed to say yes when someone of substance reaches out to connect. Be that person who can change lives and help someone find a dream job on Twitter.
I was nearly laughed off stage.
I received very hostile audience questions about the risks of being political in a primary season in 2008. Also, people told me the news was biased. Why, with their limited schedules, would they prioritize reading the national or local news when they wanted to spend time learning more about HR.
And people in the audience wanted to talk about Millennials and dress codes and work output. No joke, would the quality of work suffer if we went to a more casual policy and they could wear hoodies and jeans?
The whole first experience did not go well, and I remember thinking, “Am I the asshole? Is it possible that I’m wrong? Are my speaking skills that bad?”
I got off stage and went to the bathroom where I proceeded to hear a group of women make fun of me and my ideas while I was peeing. They even laughed at my outfit on stage. The audacity of a woman to wear tall boots with heels was too much!
It was so fucking mean.
Other than Kris Dunn and a few other people in the industry, I didn’t have a peer group who had my back. I wanted to die.
But, eventually, the world turned and HR professionals like me decided to start speaking. Now, Trump is president, our healthcare system is still a mess, foreclosures are up, labor force participation is down, no net-new FTE jobs have been created since the Great Recession, LinkedIn has its colossal conference, Twitter’s HR team speaks at HR conferences, and we’re starting to talk about the challenges of Gen Z workers.
Everything old is new again.
It was lonely being early to these events, but it was worth it. While you still get those hesitant HR audiences and bullshit leadership speakers who have a ten-stage plan to empowering and engaging the workforce — and who tell you to use data to be more strategic — you also have thoughtful and dedicated speakers and thinkers who understand the intersection of social justice and workplace challenges and have good ideas on how to fix this mess.
And for those speakers and bloggers out there who wonder if what they’re doing has an impact beyond that immediate audience, it does. To this day, I’m approached by young men and women who read my Punk Rock HR blog back in college — or saw me when they were just entering the workforce, and I was working for free at smaller events — and challenged themselves to ask good questions, be a little braver, and learn the political game at work.
So, when I see smart people with provocative ideas step on stage to an audience that may or may not be on board, it warms my heart. Please have faith and courage in your message. Don’t worry about getting booed off the stage. It’s HR, and even the boldest and most courageous ideas about work are already mainstream. If anything, take heart. History has your back. I know this because it had mine.