Faces of HR

How to Use Data When You Don’t Have a Data Background

As HR becomes a more strategic role in the workplace, professionals in the field have found they need to be data experts, even if they have no such background. In this issue of “Faces of HR,” we learn how one professional carefully developed a comfort with data and how she uses them today.

Meet Debra Hreczuck, Head of People at CultureIQ. Over her 20-year career in HR, she has worked hard to stay abreast of the constantly changing field.

How did you get started in HR?                          

I actually went to college for film and communication, so I was thinking I was going to pursue a more creative career path, and I moved to New York City in 1996. I started a temporary job while I was looking for full-time employment at a staffing agency, and it ended up having a full-time opening for a recruiter. I found the work interesting and exciting. Through my 4 years of experience working with my clients, who are all HR professionals, I developed relationships with them.

I asked a lot of questions about what they did because it seemed so diverse and multifaceted. I decided I wanted to move away from recruiting and work in a more generalist capacity to get that experience working in HR. To me, that was compelling and an exciting thing I decided to pursue. Over time, I also realized that some of my strengths were well suited to that career field, too.

Such as what?

My ability to stay calm in a lot of different types of situations and not be reactive, which comes in handy when you’re in HR. I tend to be very analytical, so being able to look at data and understand those findings and be able to turn them into action has been very useful, too. My general interest in psychology and how people work and organizational behavior blend together to make it a good fit for me.

Can you tell me a little about what kinds of data you look at and how you make decisions based on them?

What I do here relates a lot to what I’ve done throughout my career. At CultureIQ, we basically partner with our clients to collect data in the form of employee feedback. That includes indicators of how well any organization is doing in terms of hiring the right people, like turnover rates and how quickly somebody decides to move on or how long employees decide to stay. That’s one key piece of data I always like to look at in full.

Then we look at compensation data all year. That means looking at our current alignment of compensation internally and then looking externally to see what the market looks like so when we hire people, we know what we want to pay them—then also internally making sure we have alignment from a compensation perspective for the people in our role so we can continue to keep them engaged and incentivize them to want to stay with our company.

We also look at performance data. When we do talent reviews, we pull in all kinds of data about people’s performance—whether they have potential to move on within the organization in different roles and higher-level roles—and then take those data and figure out how to create development paths for them so they want to continue to work with the organization; that way, we can ensure we have people getting the right skills they need to take the next step in their role.

How did you learn the skill of knowing what data to look at and what to do with them?

I’ve been doing this for a little over 20 years. It definitely has been an evolution from what an HR professional did over 20 years ago versus what an HR professional does today. I would say even when I did recruiting, they looked at data quite frequently, but the true place where I learned the value of them and what to look at was when I started to work as an HR business partner. I had to partner with the different department heads and leaders in the different areas as a business to understand ultimately how they could be successful and help work toward the company’s strategies and achieve them.

I’ve had the ability to work with people who have expertise in compensation and in forecasting and have partnered very closely with finance departments in the different companies I’ve worked at. Those people tend to focus on data, so it’s taking their perspective of looking at hard data, dollar amount, and that type of information and then putting the human spin on it.

You can have all the data in the world, but if you don’t know how to make the right decisions for your organization and the people within your organization, it’s not going to give you any advantage. My advantage comes from taking the background I have in Human Resources in terms of working with the employees, understanding what motivates them, understanding the key indicators of how we keep people on board, and then using that to take the data and take the next step.

If I don’t have data to take to the leader of the organization or a board of directors, then it’s very hard for me to tell a compelling story about why we’re doing different things and where they need to make investments in HR to be able to do them. The importance can’t be understated.

Yeah, that’s what I hear. Something I think about is small companies that don’t have a lot of resources to gather data—that’d be a challenge for their HR person. You also mentioned you have a cool head, which is important. I’ve found a strong instinct in people to act on anecdotes. For example, a single complaint might elicit a huge, and possibly unnecessary, response. Is that something you have encountered?

Even at a small company, there are opportunities to collect data, and that comes in making sure you have your feet on the ground and you’re available for people, as well as proactively reaching out to people. I feel strongly—and this is something a small company definitely would have the resources to do in 60 days—that 90 days into a person’s working with your company, you should schedule a half hour with him or her. Sit down with the person, and ask him or her a bunch of questions. Do that for several people. Then, you collect enough data to understand if a trend is going to emerge. That becomes pretty clear very quickly.

Most companies, especially even if they’re small—if they’re scaling up and they’re hiring a lot—touch bases with people when they first come on board to understand the things they did well in their first 3 months and the things that didn’t go as well, which can be a big indicator of what you need to focus on. It helps you understand when there is that one-off thing that didn’t go right for that person.

There are other things you realize that are organizational challenges around onboarding and getting somebody up to speed that you haven’t executed well and that you need improve. It also helps to sit down with people who are exiting the organization to have a detailed conversation about the things they liked and didn’t like, as well. People are usually happy to talk about those experiences because they’re happy that somebody wants to listen to them, and they’re happy there’s an opportunity for them to have an impact on other people who come on board after them.

Those are easy things for somebody to do.

My job now is a dream job. We gather all those data, and we have an opportunity for people to partner with our team here, which has deep expertise in telling you when something’s a one-off incident that you want to react to, or when it’s an indicator of a bigger problem where you need to take larger action.

To your point about unnecessary responses, if somebody had a concern, my strategy would be to collect all the information I could to verify the concern. Let’s have a quick 5-, 10-minute conversation with all the participants to see if anybody else felt the same way. Then, we can see if there’s a serious trend and then take action on it. Of course, it can depend on the severity of the concern; sometimes, you have to act quickly. But the general guidance I give when people give me one piece of data is, “Well, let’s get all the information we need. It could be significant or maybe it’s a case of miscommunication.” That all aligns with not being so reactive all the time and understanding that you may have to have more than one data point before you make an important decision. Otherwise, you certainly can spend time spinning your wheels to resolve a situation that might not actually be a situation at all.