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A beautiful Friday night. The best pizza in town. Live music.

We sat down to eat just as an amazing singer was finishing her first set—ready for a break. She was a great musician, both vocals and instrumental. We were looking forward to her returning for another set, which she finally did... just as we were finishing our pizza.

We were done with dinner, but wanted to hear more, so we hung around. Everyone else enjoyed her music, too—she was receiving a nice applause for a pizza place. But she didn't acknowledge the audience, and she didn't say thank you. She flipped through her music between songs, trying to find something she wanted to sing. She took a while. We left.

What does this have to do with HR and organizational practices? Well, hang on and let me explain.

The Customer Comes First (in Any Industry)

Even the very best singer in the world has customers, and without the support of their customers, they don't have an audience to showcase their talent.

It is no different for HR. The profession of human resources has customers—and lots of them. Executive leadership looks to HR for coaching on employee issues—as well as on their own leadership development. Employees look to HR for consistent feedback and a meaningful work experience.

How often do we think about our "customers" in this way? My sense is that we don't look at it this way enough. HR is too often an overhead department, a cost center and a necessary evil to keep the organization out of legal trouble.

But what if instead of focusing on risk avoidance, HR focused on providing tools, resources and processes that propel performance and productivity? Wouldn't this proactive approach also minimize risk, as employees would be more engaged, committed and productive?

The Key to HR is Not Compliance

The harsh reality is that executive leadership doesn't have to do anything: They don't have to treat their employees fairly, complete performance appraisals or even use behavioral interview questions. These decisions must be theirs—not orders from HR—otherwise, they don't own the decision and have no skin in the game.

But if HR focuses on customer needs instead of compliance, the conversation with leadership becomes collaborative, not didactic.

For example, say an HR manager recognizes that the business is facing a more stringent regulatory environment because of recent legislation. He makes a point to talk with the CEO, his "customer", about the possible impact of this legislation on their current business processes. They have a two-way dialogue about the implications for the employees, building a relationship. The CEO indicates a need for employee training on process changes.

The HR manager asks the CEO how important it is for her to know whether or not the training actually reduces risk. The CEO replies that it is very important. And here is the opening for HR.

We (in HR) know “training" isn't the answer, but the customer has given us a desired result—minimized risk. Now, we can offer education about process improvement, accountability and leadership's role in the process. We are invited to propose products and solutions for the executive leadership to embrace.

Redefining the "Necessary Evil" of HR

While executive leaders ultimately make the decisions, they can only make an informed decision when HR has provided solutions and clearly documented the possible implications of each path. In a customer-first approach, HR professionals don't tell executives what they must do—instead, they explain the implications of various alternatives, and let leadership decide.

Just as the singer in the pizza place will probably not develop a loyal following, an HR team that mandates compliance as their north pole is doomed to be the necessary evil. HR pros can turn it around by asking about customer needs, providing solutions and facilitating good decision-making.

Photo: Creative Commons