Keeping the ‘human’ in human resources: An interview with the Evil HR Lady
The Evil HR Lady is actually very polite.
I contacted Suzanne Lucas, also known as the Evil HR Lady, and asked if I could interview her about the topic of technology in the HR world. She agreed, and during the very first question, I mentioned that I didn’t know if she’d have an opinion on this matter. “I have opinions on everything,” she assured me, and I knew it was off to a good start.
HR technology is an area in which she is fairly comfortable. Six months into her career, she ended up in an HRIS department, and she stayed connected to that segment for a very long time. She even ended up becoming a trainer for integrating SAP systems. Now, she spends her time writing about the HR and recruitment industry, and she was happy to answer plenty of our questions.
Connect With Suzanne: She has a decade of experience in corporate human resources, and she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers while she was there. Follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, read her blog, or send her an email.
When you hear the phrase HR Technology, what comes to your mind? Is this topic a buzzword that will disappear in a few years, or is it something that we better get used to talking about?
“Whatever we call it, it’s definitely here to stay. We’re not going to go backward and we’re not going to go back to the time where we kept everyone’s salary on index cards in a shoebox. Which, actually, in the very first HR job I ever had, that’s how they kept all of their employee records. This was in 1999, I’m not that old! One of the problems that I know they had was that sometimes the salary that was written on that little notecard didn’t match the salary that payroll had, and which one is correct? Because there’s no communication between shoeboxes. So, that’s one of the advantages of a system: if I give someone a raise, I put it into the system and it automatically feeds to payroll and there are no mistakes going on between them.
It allows other things, as well, to be on the same page. For instance, with SAP and many other systems, there’s an employee relations module. So, if I’m investigating a case, I can type it all up in the system, and if I quit, my new coworker who takes over all of my files has all of my notes. In the past, all of that would’ve been on paper, and it would’ve been there, but it was a lot more difficult to access. On the other hand, easier to access means sometimes more difficult to control privacy. If I need to know A, B, and C about all the employees, but I don’t need to know D, you need to make sure you set up the security so I can see all of this information, but not that information. It’s not necessarily a technological error, but human error doesn’t go away just because we have technology.”
Our Key Takeaways: Technology is increasing in all areas of business, and HR is no exception. While it is possible to run a business without HR tech, it just doesn’t make sense in modern day. However, be careful to make sure it’s not causing your business as many problems as it’s solving.
Do you predict that technological advances will cause the personnel size of HR departments to shrink, grow, or remain the same?
“Well, technology is one thing, but the other thing is government regulation. If I’m the recruiter, I enter your information in once, I click the hire button, and it automatically transfers all that information I’ve typed in on the applicant on to you as the new employee, and that triggers payroll and all these other things. All that is done at one time with one data entry person, so you don’t have to have all these different data entry clerks. But, when you have government requirements for something like Affirmative Action filings, they are now easier to do because you can press a button and run the report, but then the government says they know it’s easier, so they need more reports and more of this and that.
The other thing is, have you ever met anyone who has said, “My biggest hope is to shrink my level of power.”? No! So, what head of HR is going to be asking how they can cut their staff? But, one thing you’ve seen (and you will see more of) is the outsourcing of HR, and that is directly related to technology. Nowadays, a person with knowledge can create a computer program, and someone right out of high school with a part-time job can click on their screen to answer a question about your benefits. So, that can be done by outsourcing to someone for a lower paying job than with someone who has obtained a high level of knowledge over the years.”
Our Key Takeaways: First, technology reduces the number of people required for data entry and report creation, but that spurs increased detail required by government agencies, and therefore more employees are needed to manage that. Second, HR directors don’t want to decrease size and lose power, but technology is allowing for the outsourcing of HR positions.
Throughout your time in the HR and recruitment industry, what are the biggest, most influential technological changes that you’ve seen?
“I saw the shoebox system in 1999, and 6 months later I landed my first exempt-level, professional HR job. My job title was “HR Metrics Specialist,” and that meant I was doing the data analysis on the HR data. They hired me because I could do statistics and had six months of HR temp experience. But, that was so new, that I with a year of HR experience and six months of HR data experience was presenting at the state society for human resources management convention on HR metrics. My session was packed because nobody was doing this – it was all brand new. I was showing them how to do graphs, and they had never seen this, and this was only 15 years ago. And now, everybody is doing that, but I was literally an expert with six months of experience. It was largely because, until you implemented an HRIS, you didn’t have any of that data without going through tons of paperwork and checking it off. Who has time for that? No one. So, as we’ve increased our technology into HR, the reporting capabilities have just exploded, and then you see the advent of the applicant tracking systems which has completely changed how we hire.”
Our Key Takeaway: HR tech has come such a long way in a few years that you can reasonably expect it to continue to disrupt how we manage our employees.
Should companies embrace HR technology and move towards it as much as possible, or should it only be used when there is a critical need for it?
“I’m a big fan of technology, and I’m a big fan of data, but you need to keep that “human” in human resources. As soon as you start trying to replace everything with technology, you forget that the people are the company’s greatest asset.”
Our Key Takeaway: Moving towards technology is a good thing, but remember that the purpose of HR is to deal with humans – not robots.
What are the biggest mistakes you’ve seen that companies make with regards to HR technology?
“The biggest mistake I’ve seen comes with the applicant tracking systems. It’s unfortunate that they were developed and became popular at the same time we were in a recession because that meant there were a lot of applicants for every job. Suddenly, instead of having a stack of resumes on your desk, it was all in a computer and you did things by keywords. While pulling out people who fit those keywords might seem like a really great idea, it also gave us this idea that we should be able to find perfection. Before that, you had 20 resumes on your desk, and you’d better hire one of them. And now, you reject someone who only has 14 of your 15 keywords. You can end up in a situation where you literally have 10,000 applicants, and your system says none of those fit. So, instead of thinking that we could pull 10,000 people out of the phonebook and several of them could do this job, we tend to trust the computer. When you apply for a job, you feel like you’re putting your resume into a black hole (you really are), and if you don’t have every “I” dotted and “T” crossed, you’re going to be rejected by the system. That’s where I see a huge downfall in the adoption of HR technology – we’ve replaced our brains with the computer’s brain.”
Our Key Takeaways: Don’t let your hiring be limited to checklists by computers. Make sure you set up your recruiting in such a way that actual humans can make some decisions, or you might miss out on the best employees.
Do you often see companies that are hesitant to invest in new technologies for their HR department? If so, do you have any helpful suggestions for those HR managers to get the larger budgets they’d like?
“I think so because the financial decisions are made by the CEO, the finance person, etc. HR doesn’t bring in any money. We are a cost center. Why should I take money that I could be spending on my sales force (who bring in money), and spend it on an HR system? It is an expense, and if you can’t see the return on your investment, it’s going to be hard to convince your people with the checkbooks (does anybody have a checkbook anymore?). One of the main things you need to be able to emphasize is how this will benefit the business. For one thing, when talking about government regulation, the government’s not going to exclude you from reporting requirements because you don’t have a system that’s good enough to handle that. Also, for lawsuits, you have your data all at hand if you have your system set up properly. Use things like that to make a business case.”
Our Key Takeaway: The financial decision makers may not realize the importance of HR, so it’s your responsibility as an HR manager to figure out how to convince them.
Should HR professionals (especially recruiters) use mobile apps to be connected around the clock?
“There are lots of arguments both ways on this. When you go back to talking about the human side of human resources, if your employees never get any time off, or feel like they have to be available all of the time, that’s not an environment that’s conducive to employee happiness. Without employee happiness, you’re going to have a hard time having good, long-term productivity.”
Our Key Takeaway: Having clear boundaries for your employees may inspire them to do a better job.
Should HR professionals use outside technological systems (such as LinkedIn) to communicate with employees and candidates, or should all correspondence be done through official company channels?
“One of the big things that I say all the time is that companies need to allow their employees to have their own lives. When you start using outside systems like LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and start getting involved with your employees that way, you take over their entire lives. You end up with situations where people feel like they’re being monitored all of the time. LinkedIn is business focused, and if you’re going to interview me for a job, I’m probably going to send you an invitation anyway, and we’ll already be connected when you hire me. I’ve had questions from bosses who noticed employees were updating their LinkedIn profiles, and they wanted to know if they should fire them now. I can see a boss being concerned because if they’re going to quit, they need to be replaced, but a lot of bosses take things so personally. But, the other employees will see how that one is treated and don’t think they’ll be treated any better.
On the other hand, tools like LinkedIn and Facebook are excellent for hiring. I wrote an article a while back about Hard Rock Café in Venice, Italy. They opened a new store, and they did 100% of their hiring through Facebook. That worked extremely well for them, even though Facebook isn’t a traditional hiring platform.”
Our Key Takeaway: While using social media and other external tech platforms to communicate with employees and candidates can be useful, you must be extraordinarily careful that you aren’t imposing on their private lives.
Do you know any examples of resistance/hesitance to change where companies ended up being much more successful because they went through with it?
“I don’t have any good, specific examples, but as a general rule, change is really hard for everybody. Even if you technically know that this system will be better than what we had before, the new system is different and it’s hard. You have to learn new things, and people say they like to learn new things, but they really don’t like to.”
Our Key Takeaway: Even when new systems will be better, there will be difficulty and some level of resistance because of the time and effort necessary to learn everything. Be prepared for this.
Will robots replace people to handle HR issues, and will you change your blog to become the Evil HR Robot?
“What makes you think I’m human? I don’t think we’re in any danger of robots taking over. But, in all seriousness, there are some places where the human should be taken out of it. HR people, like all people, are fallible and have petty grievances. The computer won’t be offended by things that humans are offended by, and computers don’t pick favorites.”
Our Key Takeaways: We’re safe from an HR robot invasion, but computerizing certain aspects can lead to a less biased environment.