Faces of HR

Were You Thrown Into HR? Here’s How One HR Professional Adapted

One thing I have learned from interviewing so many HR professionals is that the path to HR is rarely direct. Virtually everyone begins in another field and gravitates toward HR. Others fall into the field when they take on some HR duties and realize they are good at it. In this week’s “Faces of HR,” I explore that path a little deeper.

Cheryl Johnson, Chief Human Resources Officer, Paylocity

Meet Cheryl Johnson, Chief Human Resources Officer at Paylocity. She found herself doing complex HR tasks at 19 years of age. Having literally been thrown into the deep end, she shares how she made sense of it all and transformed into the seasoned HR professional she is today.

How did you get into HR?

I went to college to study nursing, which was what my mom, my grandma, and my aunt did. So that’s what I thought I was going to do, too. I did fine; I made it into the nursing program, but I just really had no passion for it. I worked really hard, studied a lot, and got good grades, but I didn’t like it at all. I went to my college advisor at the beginning of my second year and told her that nursing isn’t going to work out. She said to me, “Take a class you like. What is a class that you really don’t have to study for—it just comes natural?”

For me, that was psychology. I was just naturally curious about human behavior. So I studied psychology. Then I had an internship at a manufacturing facility where they were starting everything from scratch. I got assigned to this guy who was running the metallurgy department, and he had zero experience in running a department. He was a scientist. He was told to set up a mini organization within a company from scratch. I was his first hire. I didn’t know anything. All I knew was that he didn’t know anything either. And he asked me to just go figure stuff out. I needed to start hiring people. I didn’t even know what kinds of people I needed to hire. I didn’t know how I was going to train them or how to make them happy.

I started networking. I reached out to a bunch of different HR people at their other manufacturing sites and their quality assurance departments. I started basically mapping out the org structure based on all the information I could collect. I put together this proposal of what his org structure should look like and what kinds of functions he needed and at what levels. I was a 19-year-old who didn’t know anything. When I presented it to him, he said he loved it and asked me to present it to the plant manager. Then, he wanted to know how I was going to hire and train these people.

I ended up building new hire training. I built a recruiting model. I basically did the role of HR without knowing I was even doing HR. At this time, I was approaching my senior year. I went to my college advisor again and said, “OK, here’s what I’m spending my day doing. Is there actually a job for this? Can I get paid to do this full time, not just as an intern?” And that’s how I learned about Human Resources. During my last year, I shifted my focus to industrial and organizational psychology so I could get the psychology of the workplace. That’s how I integrated those experiences. It was pure curiosity and just where my natural instincts led, and that’s what got me into HR.

It’s really interesting to talk to someone who was doing HR without knowing what HR was. A significant portion of our audience began that way, and I’m sure they will see themselves in your story.

I think a lot of people got put into HR because they were “people people.” They were the ones who were nice and friendly, and they knew how to talk to people. But they didn’t have the technical side of HR. Look at my example with org design and driving the right strategy to get people to be committed to the organization and their goals.

Part of me thinks, “If you are a people person, you probably shouldn’t be in HR, actually, because you don’t get to make people happy every day.” Right? They’re typically the ones conveying news that may not be good to hear or helping someone restructure a department and telling people why they may not get the promotion. Sure, you sometimes get to tell someone why he or she did get the promotion, but you’re really there to help optimize the way people work. And it’s not always rainbows and unicorns. Sometimes, it’s uncomfortable. So, if you’re in HR because you like people and that’s the only reason, you might be stressed out a lot.

What do you think is something about HR your employees or employees in general just don’t understand?

That we’re also employees. People forget we are employees. I think a lot of times, they think we are immune to the frustrations or the stresses because we’re the ones who sometimes help design or uphold it. They don’t realize that we also have to consume the employee experience that we’re designing.

Also, we are in a very challenging spot where we have to uphold the perspective and the care for the employee, for the company, for the leadership, and for all the stakeholders. I think sometimes, if you talk to an employee, the person can get frustrated because he or she feels like HR should be there as the employee advocate first and foremost. Then, the reality is that we have to find a balance among all the stakeholders, which can be pretty challenging.

Yeah, I can imagine. Do you feel that leaders have a similar lack of understanding?

Oh, for sure. I mean, you think about something as simple as a leader wanting to hire someone onto his or her team and wants to give the person a certain job title and a specific pay. And your HR person may have to look at the entire org structure and say, “Well actually, that would be unfair compared with how we’re structuring a similar role in another part of the company that you have zero visibility to.” But we can see that what you’re about to do would actually create an inequity in the organization. I think the manager will look at it and say, “But you’re my HR business partner. You’re supposed to be there for me as the leader of the company.” Sometimes, people get really frustrated when you also have to take the perspective of the broad company, not just their function.

Another thing that happens a lot is when leaders say, “I want to exit an employee.” And your question is, “Do they know why? Do they have any indication?” And a lot of times, managers get frustrated when they feel like you’re keeping them from acting as quickly as they want to because you’re actually advocating for the employee and the employee experience.

We’re constantly juggling. We don’t pick a side. We look at the situation, and we understand where there may be gaps, and sometimes, those gaps will frustrate either the employee or the manager of the organization. But I think a lot of people, because they’re not walking in our shoes, don’t realize the purview that we have and that we’re responsible for upholding all of those things.

That’s a great answer. What advice would you have for somebody who just fell into HR like you did?

I think the best advice is to make sure you get experience in different aspects of HR. Someone may have fallen into HR and become an HR generalist and is only seeing the HR world through the lens of being a generalist. I think being able to see all the different sides of HR, including workforce analytics, compensation, total rewards, communication, change management, L &D, recruiting, etc., is really important. That’s one of the things I did. Recruiting was one of my first real jobs after my internship, and I was obsessed with trying to experience every part of HR because one, I didn’t really know what all the other parts were and two, it’s hard to know how they all integrate if you don’t get some experience seeing it.

For the person who says, “Well, in the company I’m at, there’s only a couple people”: You don’t necessarily have to get into the job. You don’t have to switch and say, “Now I’m going to be a recruiter.” Although, I think that’s actually a really good experience to go try some of these other roles out. Volunteer to be in a kind of collaborative project. If you’re not experiencing recruiting, see how you can spend more time with recruiting to understand the recruiting cycle and how the HR partner can actually influence the recruiting cycle more effectively. That, to me, is probably number one: See all the different parts of HR.

Second, learn the business. You will never be able to add strategic influence to the organization if you don’t understand how the business works. How does the company make money? How do decisions get made? Who are the competitors, and why are they better or worse? Why are you better or worse? What is the natural cadence of the work? When is a busy time for your company? If you don’t actually understand something as basic as when it is busy for the company and you start rolling out training programs and big community service events during the busy season, you just look like you literally have no idea what’s going on.

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