Deb Reuterman, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, Sr. Director of Human Resources at University of Phoenix, has spent her career in human resources across myriad industries including manufacturing, law, healthcare, and higher education. We recently connected with Reuterman to discuss how she got her start in the industry, her best mistake, as well as the value of making employees feel safe. According to her, safety is the cornerstone of employee engagement.
“I like that word – safe,” Reuterman shared with HR Daily Advisor. “People who feel safe to bring their whole selves to work can engage in the tough conversations that are important to moving an organization forward. So many leaders get nervous about tough conversations and either avoid them all together or rush through them leaving an employee feeling side swiped. The reality is – any conversation can be had if there is enough psychological safety. Imagine your leader asking permission to give you tough feedback. Assuming the relationship is otherwise healthy – you are unlikely to say no, and you are mentally ready to hear something that could be critical. Just that small act of asking can open the door to a more robust conversation that can help you grow and see things differently.”
In our latest Faces of HR, meet Deb Reuterman.
How did you get your start in the field?
I graduated college with a degree in Spanish and International Politics. This is a degree that has very little applicability outside of Washington, D.C. Spanish became my transferable skill that got me a foot in the door. I found myself working for a company that had a Spanish speaking workforce. They valued my Spanish over a more traditional HR background – they offered to teach me HR by sending me to the University of Phoenix for a 9-month certificate program in HR. Even with my bachelor’s degree from a private east coast college, that certificate gave me the credibility I needed to pursue my early career HR roles. It was another 20 years before I ended up working at the University doing exactly what they taught me to do so long ago.
Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?
So many people have influenced me along the way. Early in my career I was told that the best HR people get out of the business of HR for a while. HR is overhead. We don’t bring in profit, and so it is up to us every day to deliver value. I’ve never forgotten that. I left HR for a while, working in the profit center of an organization. Doing that helped me gain perspective on the problems leaders face. When you have walked a mile in a leader’s shoes, you gain a different appreciation for finding solutions to problems that satisfy not just the letter of the law or the policy you are responsible for, but also solutions that enable the business. If our clients are paying for our services, we have an obligation to think like a business owner as well.
What’s your best mistake and what did you learn from it?
Years ago, I was tasked with leading an effort to build a complex business process for tracking and measuring work. There was no clear solution and a lot of obstacles, but I worked collaboratively with a team of SMEs to develop a solution. In the middle of this project there was a change in leadership, and I was asked to update a new HR leader on the project and our progress. I spent a good hour giving her all the details on how it would work and why it was a robust solution. I’d tested it with end users and was certain we needed to deploy the solution. I’ll never forget her question – “Sounds good, what does the COO think?”
I’d been so focused on the solution for the business need that I hadn’t taken the COO on the journey with us. The truth was they hadn’t seen any of the work we’d done along the way and therefore was not bought into our (REALLY GREAT) solution. Through this experience I learned the importance of taking people on the journey with you. If you are asked to deliver a project – no one wants to be in the dark until you have the solution baked and ready to deploy. I learned to gain executive leader buy in at every stage of the project. Ask for their feedback and demonstrate that you heard them in later iterations. The more they know along the way, the easier the implementation will be.
What’s your favorite part about working in the industry? What’s your least favorite part, and how would you change it?
HR has definitely evolved over the years. When I started, we were in “Personnel” and the focus was on forms, compliance, and ensuring well maintained files. While these are all still very important parts of HR today, the industry has evolved tremendously. There is more widespread recognition that organizations are successful (or not) based on the skills and the synergy of their employees. More and more work is thought based and the discretionary effort that employees bring to their jobs is critical to success. HR is that strategic partner that helps organizations engage their employees differently. That is the piece I enjoy the most – helping leaders who understand the importance of engaged employees find out of the box ways to develop business solutions that help their teams thrive.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’m frequently frustrated when states pass well intentioned laws to protect employees in the workplace that are not carefully thought through or easily actioned. Increasingly, I find myself having to tell employees “no” to requests – not because the business won’t support them, but because the state they live in has enacted legislation that hinders our ability to support the request.
How can company leaders make HR a value within their organization?
I don’t know that it is incumbent on leaders to make HR a value within their organization. It is on us to demonstrate the value we bring. You’ll have savvy leaders who already understand that they need a good HR person in their inner circle to talk through their ideas in a safe space with someone who understands the conversation and can help them clarify their thinking. Not every leader gets that immediately. That means it is on us as HR Professionals to ask the right questions, build solid relationships, and look for ways to help leaders understand that we are here to help you win. Sometimes we get in our own way by allowing the organization to see us as the enforcers. Jokes like “watch out, HR is here” reinforce that misperception. The best compliment is when someone puts 30 minutes on your calendar to talk through an idea. When your advice is sought out, you know that company leaders make HR a value within your organization.
Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Or are you seeing any current trends?
With the baby boomer generation retiring, and future generations having fewer children, there is a natural tightening of the labor market. Combine that with the increase in thought workers needed, and companies are really going to have to think outside of the box in terms of attracting and retaining talent. The pandemic also put work life balance on the table in a way it never has been before. For HR professionals, this means we must help our organizations think strategically about how to balance employee desires to work anywhere, anytime and employer needs to create collaboration and community. Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, talked a lot about creating collisions with his employees. He saw himself as an architect whose responsibilities included bringing his employees together seemingly randomly to build and nurture creative ideas. The question we are going to be challenged with is “How do we bring everyone together, remotely? What does collaboration look like now? How do we create collisions?”
What are you most proud of?
Early in my career I had an employee lose a child in a tragic accident that no one should have to live through. He was working in an industry not known for having an empathetic approach to employees. On top of that, his role was highly detailed, very regulated, and mistakes could quite literally cause planes to crash. He believed he could and should work through this life event. I worked closely with his leader, our benefits providers, and our EAP to help him get the resources he needed to make good choices about what he could do during this incredibly emotional time. His leader and I worked on backup plans to ensure the work was covered and operations ran smoothly regardless of when he was in (or not in) the office.
Through the trusting relationships I had built in my tenure there, I was able to influence the situation to give the employee grace to make decisions on his own about what he needed to. No planes crashed as a result of this tragedy. The business was successful, and they built a strong relationship with a valued employee by treating him with respect during his darkest days. Years later, I’d moved on to my next role and he called to thank me. The court case had settled, the driver had been found guilty in his daughter’s death. He was thinking through everything that had transpired over the intervening years and he wanted me to know how much what we did for him at the time meant to his family.
Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?
Don’t go into HR because you are a people person. You will struggle trying to make everyone happy. There are tough decisions that have to be made that don’t always feel good. HR is about the intersection of business and humanity. Good times are easy. But how do you help businesses navigate tough times in a way that treats people with respect and dignity? The stakes are higher every day as the war for talent intensifies. More roles are thought roles, and you need the hearts and minds of your employees fully supporting the direction of your business. Go into HR because you enjoy navigating tough business problems, both strategically and empathetically. I’d do it all over again if I could.