50 Painful & Inspiring Lessons I’ve Learned in HR…

by Alan Collins

I thought I’d take the opportunity here to share 50 things I’ve learned from 25 years in the HR trenches.  About two lessons per year.

These are truths I’ve gained from lots of personal screw-ups, some successes, three companies, 16 HR jobs and other HR professionals that I’ve worked with who either guide me or inspire me.

Some of these you may have seen already.

But hopefully, there are a couple of items here you might find helpful in managing your own career in HR — without going through all the pain and agony. 

While they are in no particular order, I try never to ignore #50.

Enjoy!

1.  It’s easy to impress your clients with your HR knowledge, when you’ve impressed them with your knowledge of their business first.

2.  Get out of your office!  If your company has factories, spend time with the folks on the front line who make the product.  And while you’re out there, talk about THEIR issues, not yours.  Do this on a regular basis.  This is the best way of getting a pulse beat on the business and the culture. In fact, if you don’t have to get a new pair of safety shoes every year, you’re not doing your job.

3.   Structured career paths in HR are obsolete!   Progression in HR is no longer linear — it zig zags and goes in directions you don’t anticipate.  Sometimes it flows through horrible HR roles.  If the HR position you’re in has some stressful pain points or inconveniences, console yourself by knowing that no successful HR career is built without them.

4.  Learn to listen.  Some HR opportunities come knocking softly.

5.   Go first.   Waiting for others to reach out to you – creates success in waiting, not in building relationships.

6.   Unless your boss knows you’re great and so does her boss…and anyone else who could be your boss… advancing your HR career will be nearly impossible.

7.   Without commitment at the top, making real progress on any culture change or workplace transformation initiative (e.g. improving diversity, enhancing employee engagement, etc.) is like pushing water uphill with a rake.

8.   Take criticism or “feedback” for what it is: a GIFT given to you to make you better at what you do. Don’t concern yourself with the person or the method of delivery. Instead, glean out the teachable nuggets and move on.

9.   Be authentic and be yourself.  Everyone else is taken.

10.  Do HR work that truly inspires other people and helps your company succeed…and career opportunities will chase you.

11.  Never, ever underestimate what you know. What may be insignificant or common knowledge to you…may be a revelation of immense value to someone else.

12.  The best way to protect yourself in potential employee litigation situations is to: Document, Document, Document.

13.  When seeking career advice, avoid mentors who belittle your HR ambitions — the poor ones do that.  The great ones make you feel that, you too, can become great.

14.  Don’t become imprisoned by perfection.  There’s never going to be a precisely right moment to speak, share a great HR idea, or take a chance.  Just seize the moment—and don’t let thoughts like “I don’t feel like I’m ready” get in the way.  Look to see if you have the most important things in place or the opportunity will pass you by. Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the really good.

15.  As an HR leader, if you’re never disappointed, your expectations are not high enough.  Raise your bar and start expecting more.

16.  Sadly, I’ve learned as an HR leader that the fastest way to change results is to change the people producing them.

17.  When your HR workload is taking priority over your family or taking care of yourself, you’re not prioritizing or delegating enough.

18.  If your company’s culture doesn’t allow you to bring your real, authentic self to work, you will be uncomfortable short-term and miserable long-term.

19.  The way to receive huge amounts of recognition and credit in HR is to give away as much of them as you can to other people.

20.  Enthusiasm and passion will cover many of your deficiencies in HR.

21.  The only 2 ways to get people to change is through creating INSPIRATION or DESPERATION —  and as much I prefer the former, I’ve learned the latter is more effective.

22.  The HR leader’s job is change.  If you’re not spearheading and guiding change, you’re MANAGING, not leading.

23. If you want to master your time, invest 10% of your time planning how you will maximize the other 90%.

24. There are three people that need to know your salary — the IRS, your spouse & the headhunter finding you a better job.

25. Take action!  Motion beats meditation!  The person who goes from notion to motion fastest wins!

26. I’ve learned that one year after you leave college, if you’re knocking it out of the park in your first HR job, no one cares what your GPA was.

27. In HR, when one door closes, another opens. Don’t let anger over the closed door blind you to opportunities in the open one.

28. When wrestling with a tough HR problem, it helps to find a dark room and shut your eyes in order to see things more clearly.

29.  Every person you meet is a potential door to a better opportunity.  Build good relationships and bridges with your colleagues, even if you’re working in a horrible HR role…because you never know how these people will factor into the larger picture of your career.

30. Stay current and on top of your game: Just when you think you are winning the rat race, along come faster rats.

31. You don’t have to wait for great opportunities for your chance to do great things. Seize small everyday things and do them in a great way.

32. You don’t progress based ONLY on how smart you are.  Smart people are a dime a dozen in HR.  Smart people advance their careers based on HOW MANY POSITIVE ACTIONS, RISKS and MISTAKES they’re willing to learn from in order to ultimately succeed.

33. Flying under the radar may be good for geese, but it’s a terrible strategy if you want to advance your HR career.

34. When I complain about my time management problems, I remind myself that I have the EXACT number of hours in a day as Oprah, LeBron James,  Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and every billionaire on earth.

35. When traveling on the road, put a card or note in your wallet with your name, your phone number, the phone number of a friend/relative & the motel you’re staying at – just in case.

36. If you’re an HR leader, let your direct reports hear you say complimentary things about them to their clients or the higher ups.

37. I’ve learned that encouragement from a great boss can turn your HR career around in an instant.   Seek out and cherish that kind of boss.  And become that boss to someone else.

38. Keep a note pad, pencil or your smartphone on your bedside table.  Great HR ideas and breakthroughs sometimes strike at 3 AM.

39. Treat your permanent HR position as a temporary job disguised with benefits…because in today’s economy, it is.

40. In HR as in life, your supporters make you happy but it’s your critics that make you better.  An honest critic is your best friend.

41.  You need an HR specialty.  Even if you’re a generalist and jack of all trades, you need to be a master of ONE.

42. Great HR folks are unafraid to take a stand and express their point of view.  Sometimes when you straddle the fence, you sit on a spike.

43. When negotiating your salary, think of what you want — then ask for 5% more.

44. When you find an ideal HR job, don’t sweat the pay.  If you’ve got what it takes, your salary will soon reflect your value — if not where you are, then elsewhere.

45. Always stand when greeting a visitor who comes into your office or cube.  It shows respect.

46. Don’t expect others to listen to your HR advice and ignore your example.

47. Watch for big organization problems.  They disguise big HR opportunities you can leverage to advance your career.

48. In HR, every knock on your door, e-mail, or call can potentially ruin your day…or be an opportunity that can make your career. Be prepared.

49. Take the stairs when it’s four flights or less.

50. Accept a breath mint if someone offers you one.

Thanks for allowing me to share and pass on these nuggets.  Feel free to share your OWN lessons or experiences below by clicking HERE.

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Want more real world strategies for moving your career forward in Human Resources?  Then check out:  UNWRITTEN HR RULES: 21 Strategies For Attaining Awesome Career Success in Human Resources.  Get more information by going HERE.

About the author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR and the author of a variety of best selling books for HR professionals  including UNWRITTEN HR RULES.   He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

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34 Responses to “50 Painful & Inspiring Lessons I’ve Learned in HR…”

  1. Tammie Says:

    Thank you! I needed that. Great suggestions. also, If you are doing a reduction in force, don’t carry around a box of tissues or they will see you coming!

  2. Mike Craig Says:

    Alan,

    Your top 50 list was terrific. I really enjoyed it and after spending several years in HR leadership posisitions, your comments struck a chord.

    Thanks for this list,
    Mike

  3. Mahesh Babu Says:

    Hi Alan,

    The article was quite informative for up-coming professionals like me, pls. share more of your knowledge, it would be of great help to us
    Mahesh Babu

  4. admin Says:

    Tammie – would agree 100% with your tissue comment. Thanks for sharing.

    Dilip – thanks as well. I’ve posted my views on your blog as you suggested.

    Mike – glad the comments struck a chord.

    Alan

  5. cohonba Says:

    Alan-I love this type of information.As someone who is trying to break into HR I love learning from others mistakes and successes.This information will help me be more aware of things to come.

  6. Gloria Says:

    Alan, Thanks for this list. These points are applicable across many industries.

  7. Joyce Ingram Says:

    Alan,

    Words of wisdom from a proven HR Executive. Thanks! All “50 Things” are relevant whether you are new to HR or an experienced professional. I plan to share this list with my team.

    Joyce Ingram

  8. Paul Melihercik Says:

    51. Reread the H.C Anderson classic, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Then take a risk and tell him he is naked.

  9. Davetta Haywood Says:

    Great information for career and life coaching. It just makes sense!

  10. Midge Reichert Says:

    Keep an open door policy; employees will respond to it and management will appreciate it!

  11. Harvey Barnett Says:

    To quote Ron White – I learned – “You can’t fix stupid.”

  12. Cecilia Quintero Says:

    Alan,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your 50 Things list. In the spirit of giving & receiving here are some of mine:

    #1) The world is small; today’s competitor may be your new CEO tomorrow.
    #2) Silence is golden, discretion is the better part of remaining employed.
    #3) I learned some of life’s most valuable lessons from employees hitting rock bottom, be humble during these delicate teachable moments.
    #4) Courtesy costs you nothing, the courts will decide what the price of disrespecting someone will run you.
    #5) Integrity and reputation matter, there is no room for compromise here (even for the sake of office politics) as those with deficits are soon exposed.

    Thanks for your post.
    Cecilia

  13. admin Says:

    Absolutely great additions to the list – keep ’em coming.

    thanks,
    Alan

  14. Lorna kwamboka Says:

    Very nice,this will guide further to enable me accomplish more.
    Thank you,
    Great !!!!

  15. RJ Narsavage Says:

    Alan … What an incredible list ! Thank you very much. This is the perfect list at the perfect time for me -someone who has nearly 20 years experience as an ” unofficial ” HR administrator in different capacities and is now just finishing his formal education in HR. Awesome !

    ~ Robert

  16. M Westfall Says:

    Alan, as a rookie just starting out in the HR field, your list provides immensely valuable insight into how to be successful in my career and what I may expect on the job. Great way to stay focused and motivated when faced with challenges. I’m going to keep your list with me as a begin my first job and beyond!
    Thank you

  17. Franci Claudon Says:

    When someone shows you who they are – believe them or they will keep showing you until you do.

  18. Kerry McCoy, SPHR-CA Says:

    Great list, Alan. Here’s one that’s on my “list:” Marketing isn’t just something another department does–it’s the core of great HR.

  19. Don Says:

    Nice list.

    I’d add:

    1. Honesty + tact are the best course in the long run (unless you are in a really punitive organization).

    2. Taking action on HR problems sooner rather than later is better. Garbage stinks the longer it sits.

    3. Good HR people help managers do well and look good and let them take the credit. Poor HR people take over from management and blame them for mistakes.

    4. If you “like to work with people,” HR is not the role for you. Try social work.

  20. Mark Armstrong Says:

    Excellent advice no matter what one does for a living.

    I especially liked “Be yourself because everyone else is taken”– there are few lessons harder to learn or more important.

    And I liked the Breath Mint (#50). Like always stopping at a kid’s lemonade stand no matter how thirsty you are. How pleasant life would be if we could all remember to be gracious and accept the kindness of others.

    Many thanks for a very thoughtful post.

    Cheers, Mark

  21. Lisa Says:

    Excellent! I must remind myself “When I complain about my time management problems, I remind myself that I have the EXACT number of hours in a day as Tiger Woods, Bill Gates, Oprah and Obama.” Love #50 as well!

  22. Peter Says:

    I haven’t been in the field for too long, but one thing I have learned so far is:

    “Correct spelling and grammar in your e-mails can go a very long way”

  23. Karina Says:

    I’d like to add:

    In HR, you’re only as good as your word, therefore ALWAYS keep your word.

  24. Niels Dale Says:

    Being emotionally consistent is as important as the analytical tools you use or the strategies you implement.

  25. Alida Harper Trocke Says:

    Awesome! These not only apply to HR but to any good leader. Here are a couple more that popped into mind (after only 20 years in the field, mind you!):
    *You’re not doing your job if you don’t speak up! Even when it’s to point out the giant pink elephant trying to hide in the corner.
    *You’re also not doing your job if you haven’t intimately learned the business and its particular challenges, opportunities, processes, pressures and language.
    *Our job may not win us popularity contests–we’re often in the position of having to tell people exactly what they don’t want to hear (like the word “no”)–but consistent integrity and honesty will go a long way in ensuring we don’t “lose” folks to suspicion and bitterness.
    *Hire slowly…fire quickly.
    *Everyone has a lot on their plate, so be respectful of everyone’s time: be brief, be bright, be gone!
    *There’s ALWAYS more than one side to the story and often the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
    *That said, we can’t ever forget that someone’s perception is their reality. A key skill for leaders, therefore, is an ability to re-frame issues and get folks to see things through an alternate lens (or at least agree that the concept of an alternate lens is possible).

  26. Robin Hicks Says:

    Simply FANTASTIC list! I’m a senior-level HR Generalist currently in transition (sad to say, a PROTRACTED transition), and this list helped me to both reconnect to and restore my voice about what it is I love about HR and why it is I’ve been successful in HR roles in the past. As I prepare for interviews with prospective employers (hopefully SOON!), I’m going to use several items from this list to point out how it is I’m distinguished from other candidates. Wish me well and wish me luck (as I do you)!

  27. nithin Says:

    Inspires fresh buds as myself. Warns about uphill strain. Totally a learning opportunity

  28. Alan Says:

    Much success Robin! Knock ’em dead.

    Best,
    Alan

  29. Robin Hicks Says:

    Thanks, Alan! And if business or pleasure ever brings you to NYC, let me know. Would be my pleasure to say “hello” to you over lunch or drinks. I think we’d have much to share about this “HR thing”, both its trenches and its hilltops (laugh).

  30. Viktorie Knezkova Says:

    Thank you so much for that list, Alan… I really, really love it.
    I’m in HR field pretty new, and it is so great to see, that there is a chance to be successful by acting as a honest human being.

  31. Charlene Ralph Says:

    Hi Alan! This is phenomenal and truly inspiring. It shows a great deal about your background, knowledge and enthusiasm! Thanks.

  32. Lisa Says:

    This was very useful information. I especially like number 8. Taking criticism is something that is hard for me to do and I will try to always remember that it is a gift and use it as such.

  33. Raul Says:

    Thanks Alan

    I have actually enjoyed most of your inspirational quotes and promisse to re read them as a guide in this HR carrier

  34. Lois Says:

    Great list Alan. I would add: Treat everyone with dignity and respect, regardless of the situation.

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