The Employee Experience: HR Must Learn to Let Go

This week I happen to be in Nashville, Tenn., to attend HR software vendor isolved’s annual user conference, isolved Connect. Wednesday morning’s keynote from Chief Marketing Officer James Norwood touched on how organizations top-to-bottom must meet employees where they are today. Mentally, where those employees are today is a very different place than pre-pandemic. Because of this shift, employers must fundamentally rethink the employment value proposition. It’s solid advice.

In listening to James and viewing the slides displaying stats backing up his assertions, it occurred to me: along with this recalculation of the employer–employee relationship is a basic truth. It’s always been there. But cultural attitudes and the state of the art of software have only recently brought us to a place and point where HR has been in a position to contemplate this basic truth. It’s about HR’s relationship to the employee experience.

Specifically, the prevailing attitude today is that the employee experience matters and that HR plays a central role. And the state of the art of technology today for human capital management enables HR (and anyone else, theoretically) to get pretty deeply involved in the employee experience. Think applications to foster engagement, the software to synthesize data to produce granular real-time analytics, and the artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing to predict the future and even prescribe action to change that future.

The allure for HR to micromanage the employee experience must be tempting. Despite all this technology, however, HR cannot possibly control the many nuances, iterations and instances of the employee experience that play out day to day everywhere employees engage in activity categorizable as work. HR sets itself up for strategic failure when it fixates on and obsesses over the granularity of the employee experience. Doing so is counterproductive. HR is in a unique position to set the direction and tone of the employee experience and then to lead and curate it. But that’s it.

Setting the Employee Experience Free

Here’s the reality that micromanagers can’t stand and rarely admit: Something may well be under control even if they’re unaware of it or not a part of it. In fact, its being under control may well be less likely in direct relation to the control they insist on exerting over it. This is because the majority of people have a distaste for being watched over too closely, and line managers dealing with an overzealous HR department flailing away to drive the employee experience are no different.

And, yet, at some point, all managers, even the micro-managers, need to know something under their purview is under control. And, of course, they need to have influence over whatever it is.

Although the nature of the micro-management described here is indirect in a way, it’s worth noting that “low employee morale, high staff turnover, reduction of productivity” and more are the costly results of micromanagement and antithetical to the goals of any HR department intent on supporting a positive employee experience.

Think of an effective leader. Here’s a good article. Here’s another. Do effective leaders fixate on the details? No, they ask to be apprised of them on a cadence that complements, and does not interrupt, the flow of work. Do leaders limit their own vision of what they and their people can ultimately be? No, they set an aspirational, exciting vision and strive for their people to become essential to the organization. Whoever the leaders are, they understand the role they and their people play is important even as they can’t and shouldn’t try to control everything or be all things to everyone.

These attitudes and behaviors of the effective leader typify how HR should approach the employee experience, in my opinion. And such is the challenge for HR leaders and HR departments when it comes to stepping into their essential, natural role among the many moving parts of the employee experience. A robust, strong employee experience, a major expression of a positive employer culture, all but demands everyone’s participation. It calls for alignment and coordination between various stakeholders — for example, between marketing and the chief human resource officer or chief people officer, as Lina Tonk, senior vice president of marketing for isolved, pointed out during a recent episode of #HRTechChat. Lina and Amy Mosher, isolved’s chief people officer, strategize daily over the employee experience and its intertwinement with marketing and isolved’s employer brand.

HR can do it. HR can resist the temptation to micromanage the employee experience and, instead, recognize the mosaic of the employee experience and learn to embrace the hands-off approach of mentorship, of trusted advisor, to lead from behind. It’s the only way HR can hope to exert influence over this crucial metric of organizational health. And it’s the only way HR can assume ultimate responsibility for the employee experience — which it must do (another nugget of wisdom from our video podcast with Lina).

The Powerful Psychology of Concrete HR

To understand HR’s propensities, its reflexes and instincts vis-à-vis the employee experience, let’s go back to where HR has been for a very long time (and, in many cases, still is). The administrative work in HR, now there’s something HR could manage all day long, every day. Taking care of a heavy administrative load demands an approach that would be considered micromanagement in other contexts. All that stuff that’s earned HR its moniker as a cost center takes inordinate time and attention to complete. It has a way of imbuing HR people with a negative outlook they don’t deserve. I sensed it during the Q&A of my presentation right here, in Nashville. It’s all too easy for HR people to suffer from Stockholm syndrome, to see themselves as ultimately nothing more indeed than a cost center. There’s a powerful psychology to it.

HR can and must be much more. HR can and must minimize labor expenditure on concrete administration even as the department maximizes its abstract impact: on employer culture, on employee sentiment, on employee engagement and the like. HR can and must take the reins, assume the crux of responsibility, in evolving the management of the employment of people into the strategic activity it can be to the organization.

HR Emerging from the Administrative Cave

Imagine emerging from an administrative cave. You wouldn’t have the slightest ability to fathom and embrace the new you, with all its potential. A small world is all you’ve known. No HR department suddenly freed from the tedium of heavy administration by computer automation, no HR department empowered with the deep analytics the best of today’s HCM software delivers, is in any shape to make the most of these modern technological wonders without first learning to let go of entrenched attitudes and the need to control.

HR as Mentor and Trusted Advisor Responsible for the Employee Experience

To temper its newfound initiative and aspiration, HR should manage its expectations and put its propensities in check as it abandons the only world it’s ever known and pivots to lead the employee experience. HR needs to let go. It is this piece. The complete transformation of HR’s view of itself and its role within the organization is indispensable to HR’s ability to set an example for the employee experience. Only then can HR resist the impulse to try to micromanage the employee experience, a futile endeavor anyway that would reflect any HR department’s fundamental misunderstanding of its relationship to the employee experience. HR can, should and must, instead, become a mentor, a trusted advisor, to anyone in the organization who wants to make the most of their time there, in the moment and over the long term.

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