Episode 7

Stop Apologising For Working in HR, Instead Start Evangelising!

Considered by many to be the parish priest of HR, Steve Browne has for the last 30 years evangelised about a profession that has, at times, appeared ill at ease with itself.

This feel good and positive interview whilst looking at some of the absurdities of modern HR life comes though with an underlying warning for all HR professionals on the perils of not confronting poor or toxic work cultures.

About my guest

Considered by many to be the parish priest of HR, Steve Browne has for the last 30 years evangelised about a profession that has, at times, appeared ill at ease with itself.

He states in his book ‘HR On Purpose’, the view from those outside of the profession is that we make ‘magnificent apologists’ and we have often taken the stance of the organisational martyr. Steve Browne would like us to think differently by ‘owning’ what we do, recognising the value that we bring and understanding the transformative power that simple, pragmatic cultural shifts can have.

As an unapologetic non-conformist, Steve Browne’s refreshing and upbeat approach appeals to those HR professionals and business leaders who intrinsically value and recognise the contribution all employees make to the success of an organisation.

This feel good and positive interview whilst looking at some of the absurdities of modern HR life comes though with an underlying warning for all HR professionals on the perils of not confronting poor or toxic work cultures.


[Chris]: If you’re enjoying the Oven-Ready HR Podcast, please do rate and review us and feel free to share with your network. To find out more about Chris Taylor, your host, visit OvenReadyHR.com, and follow us on Twitter too @OvenHr. Thank you.

This week’s Oven-Ready HR guest is literally a giant in the application of pragmatic people policies that make a genuine and lasting difference to the colleagues he works with. Few, if any, HR leader evangelises about the profession as much, or offers guidance on how to apply down to earth, practical, and sound initiatives, as much as he does.

Growing up in rural Ohio, my guest was all set to pursue a career as a chemical engineer but quickly discovered the lab wasn’t for him. Despondent, he returned home to talk to his mother about his future. Her advice was simple. “Find a career where you can be with people all of the time, as you’ve always enjoyed a wide social network.”

Alongside his day job, as vice-president of HR, at LaRosa’s Pizzeria, a privately held and highly successful Italian restaurant business with some 60 plus locations headquartered in Cincinnati. Steve Brown is also a successful author, mentor, blogger, and thought leader.

Steve Brown’s tough message to the profession can be neatly summed up as, “Stop chasing all of the latest fads. Get out from behind your desk. Talk to all your employees. Be less transactional and more strategic in your delivery, and if employees are a source of frustration, then HR isn’t the career for you.”

Steve Brown’s own approach to his career is classic Mark Twain. “Find a job you love, you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Steve Brown, welcome.

[Steve]: Thanks, Chris. How are you?

[Chris]: I’m very well, thank you. It’s Friday, and actually, the sun is shining, so, and it’s been raining here for weeks on end, so I can only say that’s a bonus, really.

[Steve]: That’s wonderful.

[Chris]: Now, I think of you as the HR person’s HR person. Is that a fair assessment, or is that rather exhausting, a burden to carry?

[Steve]: At times, it seems surreal, and this is what I don’t get. Because of my parents, and you mentioned my mum, they always set the example that be grateful for who you are and what you do, not have people focus on you for who you are. I’m the kind of person who’s much more comfortable learning about others and being in their presence to learn about them than I am to have the focus on me.

[Chris]: Yes.

[Steve]: Any notoriety, so to speak, I’m thankful for it. But I also understand it’s, I’m just a guy. I’d sit and have a coffee or a pint with you–

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Steve]: –more likely than being sought after.

[Chris]: Okay. So, you’re a reluctant HR thinker, would you say?

[Steve]: Yes. Yeah. I feel very comfortable sharing perspectives, thoughts, and approaches. But I do it to hopefully move us forward or have discussion or dialogue, not somebody to sit at my feet going, “Ooh, that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.”

[Chris]: Okay. So, the business of hiring, engaging, supporting employees to perform at the top of that game is probably universal. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world. It’s applications, irrespective of industry and country. So, do you agree that the fundamentals of good HR can be applied anywhere in the world?

[Steve]: I do. I think that where we struggle with that is, we tend to think of things systematically first.

[Chris]: Oh.

[Steve]: What’s the process for getting somebody in the hopper? Do they have to fill out an application? Do they have to fill out an assessment? I agree that there should be some ways to whittle down people for consideration, but I was just talking about this yesterday. My son, he’s a college graduate. Graduated with high marks in his school and is now in an MBA programme, and people won’t hire him because he doesn’t have experience.

[Chris]: The chicken and the egg.

[Steve]: Yeah. What floors me is this, you need experience, but I’m not going to give it to you.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Steve]: It’s so counter to it, and what we’ve forgotten as employers is someone had given us experience at one time. If we could strip back some of those things, then yes, I think you can say it could be applied worldwide. But I find that employers have barriers to cross and hurdles to jump over instead of doors to walk through.

[Chris]: That’s a good [tip.]

[Steve]: If we had doors to walk through, I think you’d welcome people you’ve never considered before.

[Chris]: Sure. So, it’s about diversity then.

[Steve]: It absolutely is, and honestly, it should be natural when it comes to that versus programmatic, because diversity is a fact. It’s not a programme. We’re all different.

[Chris]: Okay. So, these are self-imposed barriers, would you say, that organisations have placed?

[Steve]: I think so because many organisations, including ones I’ve worked for and the one I work for now. It’s funny. When you look at the hiring process, it’s not to bring people in. It’s to weed people out. So, if I have ten candidates, I get to one. Instead of saying, “I’m looking for one. I’m going to consider ten.” We do it the other way around, so we’re screening out, not inviting in, and I think we miss talent. To me, that’s not really a talent focus. That’s more of a fill a job rec process.

[Chris]: Because you started in recruitment, didn’t you, in hiring?

[Steve]: I did.

[Chris]: Okay. Do you think any of that has moved forward in terms of the process of hiring? Would you think we are still in a rather analogue way of doing it?

[Steve]: I think there have been great improvements, especially because of all those coming up with AI, and also how people express themselves. We are more talent focussed in approach. However, in practice, I don’t know that we are. We still come back to the method that’s been used for over a hundred years.

I’ll give you a quick example. We just hired a director of marketing a little over a year ago without a job description, and the reason we didn’t have one was it was a new role. We wanted to go in a different way, and we wanted somebody to come and express what they could do and what they could bring to the company.

I had people who chose not to interview because there was no job description, and I said, “Okay, fair enough.” The reason they gave me was if I match the job description, so, you say, “Chris, I’m looking for five years of experience. I have five years’ experience,” and they play the matching game.

So, what I found is by mistake, we’re hiring a matching game of, do you connect the dots on my job description, and I think you’re talented. I’m not really finding out if you’re talented or not. We did it without the job description, best person came to the top, hired her. We did it with her person because we were filling the department, same thing. A more entry-level position, no job description, found the best person, but I’m out of my way to do that.

[Chris]: Okay. And there was pushback perhaps internally and also from candidates to say, as you said, “There’s no job description. I can’t send my resume in.”

[Steve]: Right.

[Chris]: Is that what they were saying?

[Steve]: That’s what it was because what people do is what they’ve been taught, and what we’ve proposed is match my job description. It’s funny if it is, and algorithms and online systems are built for buzzwords and check words and stuff like that. So, you can write something that’s completely false, but you match the dots.

[Chris]: Yeah. Yeah.

[Steve]: And I said, “We’re missing this.” Actually, the head of the department said, “Let’s try it.” He’s a good risktaker, so we tried it, and it was free to do that.

[Chris]: That’s the problem with hiring managers, isn’t it, in a way, is they are risk-averse?

[Steve]: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

[Chris]: Because they’re frightened of getting it wrong.

[Steve]: Sure, sure. When you think of how well hiring really happens in organisations, and most organisations do it really well, but if it was a little more open and you were allowed to and encouraged to be a little more risk-oriented, I think you’d find more diverse candidates instantly. You’d find people who don’t think like you look like you act like you because they’re not trying to fit a model. Secondly, you’d find ways that your organisation wants to go, and there are talented people if they could take you there because you can’t do it internally.

[Chris]: Okay. So, your career you’ve worked in, would you say, blue-collar and white-collar industries?

[Steve]: Yes.

[Chris]: In your book, “HR On Purpose,” you allude quite often to the suspicion of HR amongst employees. Is there a feeling, do you think, that HR is not seen as getting its hands dirty enough? That it isn’t on the shop floor and that actually you’re sitting in your office, and you don’t really know what’s going on amongst your employees?

[Steve]: Absolutely, and that’s in both blue-collar and white-collar environments. What I think happens, Chris, is this. We don’t value people for what they do. We expect them to do a job. I had an example at our manufacturing plant where we have people that honestly stretch dough every day.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Steve]: Now, they get there at four in the morning every day. I’m not awake at four in the morning, and they’re at work. But if those people aren’t valued for what they do, I don’t have a job. So, my white-collar job of being the head of people, very grateful, very thankful, but the person who makes the dough has as much value as I ever did, probably more so than I did. Too many HR people and senior leadership in general, once you get higher in an organisation, you de-value those below you.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Steve]: It’s wrong. It’s natural. It happens. It’s happened for, unfortunately, centuries. We think that levels of title come with power. Therefore, everybody else’s beholden to them, and it’s just so backwards.

[Chris]: But it is, though, isn’t it? But it is.

[Steve]: Oh, it’s awful. Whenever I go to, and when I came over to visit in the UK, if I go to the pub, I want to beat the barmaid or the bar person, and say, “Hi, who are you? What do you do?” They’re kind enough to take care of me. Why wouldn’t I value who they are?

[Chris]: Absolutely.

[Steve]: I think that’s true at the senior level too. So, not to say blue-collar versus white-collar. We don’t treat our senior people like people. We treat them as titles or levels. I spend most of the day talking to my CEO about his family because I know if I take care of the people’s side of him, he can do the business side. But if I don’t take care of the people’s side of him, that’s a missing gap, and he won’t perform as well as he could.

[Chris]: So, getting out from behind our desks as HR professionals is something that you really, really evangelise about?

[Steve]: It is. It is because it’s funny. The thing I use is we don’t like doing it because people talk back, and things don’t. A spreadsheet on my monitor or the paper on my desk doesn’t respond, but if I go see Chris, he’s going to tell me something, and I just know something’s going to go wrong.

[Chris]: Yeah. I may not want to hear it, but I need to hear it.

[Steve]: It’s a terrible mindset instead of saying, “I’m going to see Chris, and something great is going to happen today. I’m going to learn something I didn’t hear.” Or “Even if I hear an awful story, I’m now aware of something I never was before that I never would find just sitting in my cube.”

[Chris]: Yeah, so workplace culture then. It’s a commonly thrown around term that actually is probably misunderstood by most people. There’s a lot of references these days in the media to toxic employment cultures. How do you define culture, and what small steps do you think can encourage a more productive and a respectful one?

[Steve]: This sounds awful. In my book.

[Chris]: I’m dying for you to say that. I’m dying for you to say that.

[Steve]: I said, there are many, many ways to define culture. To me, it’s the reason you stay or leave a company.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Steve]: I know that simplified, but inside that it’s more complex than you think. To me, it’s the behaviour that is supported and promoted or the behaviour that’s allowed. That turns into different facets of culture. If I have people who are ugly to each other and the culture allows that, and no one addresses it, then that’s what culture is in that organisation. It doesn’t matter which industry you’re in or what type of work that you do. If you allow poor behaviour, and that is amplified, and people are promoted or compensated for poor behaviour, then you’re going to get what you deserve. You can turn that around, but you have to model what it is.

So, something as simple as greeting somebody during the day. Thanking them for coming in. Thanking them for the work that they do, and genuinely meaning it. Asking, “What are you working on today? Is there anything I can do to help you?” Those type of simple things make a huge difference.

My boss, who unfortunately passed away recently, gave me the most sage advice where he said, “Acknowledgement is the greatest form of recognition.” If I knew something about you and your family, you have a son, and he’s involved in such-and-such school; it makes more of an impact to say, “Chris, how is your son doing at school? Chris, where are you on that deadline for that project?”

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Steve]: People don’t believe that. I think it’s come to light more. Because of the pandemic, we’ve learnt that people are more important than we thought or we have treated. It’s going to affect our culture, and I pray that companies become the people-centric organisations they should have been forever.

[Chris]: The ones that they allude that they are on their websites and everything else.

[Steve]: No doubt. You know?

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Steve]: It looks good on the wall, but in practise, that’s just a bunch of rubbish.

[Chris]: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But maybe you’re right. Maybe, actually, that this awful pandemic will actually bring employees, employers, actually, people closer together. And actually, remember that the person that cleans the office or the person that works behind the counter in the supermarket, actually, they have done an amazing and incredibly valuable job. They are key positions, and they deserve our thanks. They deserve, as you say, “Recognition.”

[Steve]: Right.

[Chris]: It’s not just about managing up. It’s also managing in every different direction and making sure everyone else’s is on board. But you don’t conform to the standard HR professional at all. Are you? I mean, you don’t—

[Steve]: I don’t think so.

[Chris]: You’ve used that, I suppose. That’s your strength, isn’t it? You go into this office. You were told to be in business attire, and I think you decided not to wear a tie.

[Steve]: Yes.

[Chris]: Can you tell me a bit about what happened?

[Steve]: Well, before I worked at my current company, I worked for an engineering company, and this was long ago when business casual meant a tie.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Steve]: Which I think is hilarious. “Hey, let’s be casual, but we still have to dress up.” It’s interesting how we make something so simple as a piece of clothing, the norm that drives the organisation. So, after I had been there a full day, I chose not to wear a tie. I just wore a dress shirt and slacks. The CEO came by and was furious and typical of most organisations instead of confronting me in the behaviour, which he thought was atrocious, he went to his office and passively in passive-aggressiveness called my boss, who sat across from me. It’s an open office.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Steve]: I could hear him yelling down the hall. He’s yelling at her, and she’s pointing at me. My hands are in the air. I’m like, “What’s going on?” So, she comes over and says, “Oh, my gosh. You’ve set the world on fire. What are you doing? How dare you?”

I pulled out the policy that had been written by the company that says, “We are a business-casual environment.” This is business casual. I’m not breaking the rules. I’m following the rules. I was using them in a different way and interpreting them. Rules are more parameters to work within instead of restrictions.

He never did talk to me about it directly, but the next day, when he came in without a tie, the company changed. From then on, you saw the whole temperature of the place drop about 20 degrees, and people were more accessible and more fun because of a piece of clothing.

[Chris]: Yeah. It’s extraordinary, but that little change.

[Steve]: Yeah. Yeah, and I think if HR people especially would address the simple things that are within their reach, they’d have far more impact than trying to do major shifts because major shifts are very rarely successful and very, very rarely sustainable.

[Chris]: You talk a lot about that, though, because you said that we all follow the latest fads. That’s interesting because when I talked to Dave Ulrich, it was very striking that he felt that really the only HR strategy that’s actually worth pursuing is one that delivers business performance, so delighting the end customer. In your instance, I guess, happy employees equal, happy diners equals healthy bottom line.

[Steve]: Agreed.

[Chris]: Your approach is much the same, I’d agree.

[Steve]: Yeah, I think so. I think Dave does incredible work. I think we approach at it from different ends of the spectrum. I’m more on the front end. I know if I care for my employee more, they will do good work that they’ve already been given to and tasked to do, and they’re talented. I believe they’re talented, but if I support them, they will do better. If they do better, it’s a domino effect to where it reaches our end customer.

We are in the people business. Every company is in the people business. We think it’s a product-driven society. Products are results. We’re a people. We need to interact. We’re having a conversation today as people so that we can hopefully share new ideas to influence others to do better.

[Chris]: Absolutely. You’ve got a new presidential team in Washington, and this is committed, I think, would you say, to equality of opportunity, diversity, and something that I know you’re an advocate of? Are there any policies that you’re hoping they might introduce over the next four years?

[Steve]: Yes. I think there are gaps that can be addressed and peeled back. Equity is an issue because we try to make it too tight. The challenge with policies in general, Chris, is we try to write policies that exclude instead of policies that include.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Steve]: We write for the exception rather than the majority, and we’re afraid that if we write to the majority, we’re going to lose sight of somebody. That’s just being blind to what’s in front of you. When you write systems and regulations and policies, I would love to see them be fully inclusive, balanced, and consistent. If they’re written to too narrow of focus of a group of people or a certain sector of people, it’s hard to apply in an organisation.

So, if the government regulations come out in tandem with input from employers and employers also are open to listen to what government regulations could move us forward, I think we’d be light years ahead. But we tend to come at it from sides or exceptions. I wish we would look at the whole picture. Then we can look at equity and wages, equity and workplace, flexible workplaces. Lots of changes.

[Chris]: Yeah, and there’s a big drive, I think, particularly since the pandemic is that employees want flexibility in terms of where they work and how they work. There was a movement towards that already because, of course, many people have elderly parents that are in care or need care. The technology has been given to us for years to be able to work remotely, and now we’re beginning to embrace that. I think that’s a positive move. Wouldn’t you say?

[Steve]: I would. The one thing that is really attacked organisationally is the myth of control. We tend to think if I can control Chris’s movements and his actions and what he does in the way organisation he’s going to perform, which has never, ever, ever been the case.

[Chris]: Good.

[Steve]: My thing is if I encourage, allow, and give him permission or her permission to do their work well and equip them, watch what happens.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Steve]: I think the pandemic, especially on the virtual side, has forced the issue, but it’s also asked the employee to be more accountable, to be more connected, to be more creative. Those things in the traditional workplace would never have happened. So, there’s something we can learn from this unfortunate thing that happened worldwide. I hope we grow from it instead of try to go back to command and control.

[Chris]: Absolutely. In your career, you’ve often been an HR department of one, haven’t you?

[Steve]: Yes.

[Chris]: Is there any advice that you would give a start-up or a small organization, who were thinking about bringing an HR professional on board? What should they look for? They should get rid of the job description, and–. What would you say?

[Steve]: Yes, I would really dive into, “Tell me how you interact with others,” and have them tell you stories—good, bad, indifferent. Where they’ve been challenged, where they were willing to challenge others, where they were empathetic, and really listen to how they approach others. I can teach you HR. I can’t teach you how to care for others.

In a people-centric organisation, I think you’re going to have to get people who really do genuinely care for others, and that’s allowed, by the way. It’s not illegal. It’s not inappropriate. It’s not crossing a line. It’s actually needed. The more we can fill someone’s bucket every day, the better they’re going to be. However, the organisation has to be willing to say, “I’ll do that.”

I was recently doing some work with some of the senior people at our company and we said, “We’re going to be candid.” I’m like, “What does that really mean?” And sure enough, we’d laid that groundwork, and then it got real. It wasn’t ugly, but that’s a much different approach of, we’re going to get candid, but I’m really going to say what I want anyway. If I could get HR people, especially HR Departments of one, to be fully integrated and people-oriented in their company, they would crush it. They’d be great.

[Chris]: It’s a lonely role, though, isn’t it?

[Steve]: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It is, it is. I think you can make it less lonely by doing things like this, by getting connected to people you don’t know and trust that they are wonderful people. We tend to think, Oh, if I meet this person, I don’t know they’re going to want something from me. Well, no kidding. But maybe they want to learn from you. Maybe they want to hear what you have to say. Maybe they want to hear from you and learn from you.

I don’t understand why when people immediate each other, the instant status or approach is, something’s going to go wrong. I’ve never been that person. I think people are amazing and intriguing and fantastic.

[Chris]: Finally, would you say, because I think you’ve covered this in your book, is, finally, would you say that HR professionals need to stop apologising for being in HR?

[Steve]: Oh, gosh, yes.

[Chris]: And actually, own it.

[Steve]: Yes. Who likes that? When you get up in the morning, “Hey, I’m sorry. I got to talk to you. I know this is going to be awful.” Well, you set the tone. Oh, my gosh, you set the tone. I don’t apologise for talking to you. I want to talk to you.

[Chris]: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I very much enjoyed talking to you, Steve Brown. Thank you very much, indeed.

[Steve]: Thanks, Chris. Thanks for the opportunity.

[Chris]: You’re welcome.

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