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Why I’m Not An Idealist In Politics Or HR

I don’t do politics blogging well anymore and I am a big proponent of sticking with what you do best. That being said, being an ex-politics junkie means old habits break very slowly. And by slowly, I mean not at all. So when I thought of a great parallel in both the political and HR world, I had to run with it.

The Obama/Palin Factor In Politics

There is no denying to me that both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin are incredibly interesting politicians and that Joe Biden and John McCain are the complete opposite. As I was driving home from work, I thought of why this was. And what is sure to be obvious to some people, my feeling is that both of these candidates represent the idealist in ourselves. Unmolested by the politics of Washington DC, we feel like we can rest hope on these people. They don’t have to bend to the rules. They can have strong opinions without having to worry about the record.

While Obama and Palin embrace the idealist side of politics, Biden and McCain represent the realist in us all. They’ve been doing the same thing for over 20 years. They have long records with nuanced political positions. They have votes that, given the circumstances at the time, made sense but now are hard to look back and defend. You can pick their thousands of votes apart. They’ve come to realize that playing within the system is the only way you can make any progress. Their records show they’ve had to game the system at times to push forward their agenda.

What Does This Have To Do With HR?

As we have been in the process of doing a search for a HR manager, there seems to be quite a few HR people with an idealist view of the HR world. They talk about eliciting positive change in the workplace through proactive communication. They talk about diversity initiatives working. They talk about strategic HR. They talk about creating a learning culture.

Nobody wants to sell you a Joe Biden or John McCain. Everyone wants to be Barack Obama or Sarah Palin. They want to show that they are an idealist and they don’t have to bend to the rules everyone else does. They want to be sexy. And really, can you blame them? Being an idealist is cool.

When you have seven to ten years in HR though, how can you sell that optimism and idealism honestly though? The people I have encountered seem genuine in their beliefs. Certainly though, a seven to ten year veteran in HR has to be more like Biden or McCain than Obama or Palin. They know what a layoff looks like. They’ve seen people hurt by company policies. They’ve seen under-trained managers wreak havoc on unwitting departments.

What Companies Want To Hear Versus What They Need

They aren’t selling that experience though. Nobody wants to talk about the DOL audit they weathered or the employee that was wrongly fired (that you vowed to never let happen again). People want to talk about matching people with great careers. While I am all for idealism, I think it has to be tempered with appropriate expectations and a good dose of reality. Because while being an idealist in HR, I’ve found:

  • A supervisor who undermined my policies while acting like he was being open with me
  • A manager who made it an unwritten rule to not hire Hispanics
  • A senior leadership team that undermined HR
  • An organization that paid a lot of lip service to being pro-training but never bucked up

That’s the reality HR people face every day. It is a road block to idealism. It turns us into Joe Biden’s and John McCain’s. It makes us doubt the idealism that the Barack Obama’s and Sarah Palin’s bring to the table. We work to find dings in their armor. And when they fail to break the status quo (and they almost all do), we sit back and say “What did you expect?”

No matter who is elected, most will be disappointed that their selected person will not be able to break the barriers they had hoped for and if you choose the idealist for HR, you are no doubt going to be disappointed that they will not be able to break down those same barriers. That’s why I’m clamoring for a Biden or McCain. Someone who has proven they know how to push the right buttons to get the change. At the most critical times, that’s what you really need too — no matter how much you are looking for that idealist to come in and change the world.

By Lance Haun

Strategy for The Starr Conspiracy. Former HR pro. Portland guy (Go Blazers!) and WSU alum (Go Cougs!). I get to write about what I want here.

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