A New Voice for Human Resources

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In recent years, there’s been lots of soul-searching in the HR community. We’ve needed to prove we’re ever more ‘commercial’ and demonstrate return on our investments. It’s pushed our profession forward in leaps and bounds.

But some side effects haven’t been so helpful. We’re losing a little of our personality, and that’s affecting the way we talk to our employees.

We were told to be business partners, so we started using business language — we ‘improve organisational effectiveness’, ‘drive high-performance culture’ and ‘transform line management capability’. We’re serious. We’re an asset to the bottom line. And that’s helped us get more traction with our leaders. It’s shown we have real answers to the people issues that are holding our teams back. And we do. 

But then we use that same language when we speak to our employees, and things go wrong…

Because in real life, no one talks like this. So people don’t listen when we promote very human things, like learning or inclusion, in weird, inaccessible ways. Even worse, they think we’re so far removed from their day to day reality that they ignore us. 

And that's a tragedy. Because there’s real momentum behind culture change in the workplace, and we should be leading from the front. Because we put so much heart and energy into our initiatives, and this often lets us down. And because all of our aims - whether diversity, wellbeing, reward or flexibility to name a few - improve performance in such a positive, sustainable way. By helping people get more from their working lives.

The solution is to stop wrapping HR in the language of the cultural practices we’re trying to move away from. Yes, to know our business case and KPI's. But to have the bravery to keep it simple and personal when we take our messages to employees. 

Three tips from a master communicator... 

David Ogilvy says everything best, and his marketing commandments are never truer than when applied to HR. 

“Don’t address your readers as though they were gathered together in a stadium. When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing to each of them a letter on behalf of your client.”

You wouldn’t tell someone to ‘optimise their management capability,’ or reveal their ‘cognitive bias is creating negative outcomes’ over a coffee, so don’t do it in a programme launch to thousands of employees.

“There are no dull products, only dull writers.”

 John Lewis's reckless ballerina showed us that insurance doesn't need to be dull.  And neither do HR initiatives. Every communication, whether the launch of a new HRIS system or performance management programme, is an opportunity to tap into what matters to your employees. 

“The most important decision is how to position your product”

Dove isn't a bar of soap, but a campaign for real beauty. Innocent isn't a smoothie, but a step towards living better and dying older. 

What's your new flexible working policy? A way to help talent retention? To improve gender diversity?  To offer a way of working that doesn't sacrifice personal lives? To change your business? To change the world?

Our positions should always be simple and human, and sometimes, like Innocent's new manager handbook, they should be funny. Because in HR, our work and decisions impact hundreds and thousands of lives, and that's how we should talk. We need to remember why the things we do matter to each of our employees. We need to use that language to connect with them.

James ElferComment