People Advocacy for HR Professionals: All You Need to Know

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People Advocacy for HR Professionals: All You Need to Know

As the name suggests, Human Resources is about people. And while we often hear that HR needs to be more business-oriented, data-driven, and digitally dexterous, we shouldn’t forget that being a people advocate is an essential part of being a competent HR professional. Why is this so important, and how can you become a true people advocate at your organization?

What is people advocacy in HR?
Why is people advocacy an essential competency for HR professionals and businesses?
Behaviors of HR professionals with strong people advocacy skills
How HR professionals can develop people advocacy skills

What is people advocacy in HR?

Since the H in HR stands for Human, it seems obvious that HR professionals should be the people experts. However, they shouldn’t just be just that–they should be the people advocates. People advocacy is about creating a strong internal culture that helps get the best out of people. People advocates act as trusted people champions and communications experts. This isn’t an idealized view of work–it’s the reality that happy employees are more productive, more engaged, and less likely to leave (reducing costly turnover).

People advocacy is one of the core HR competencies, along with business acumen, data literacy, and digital proficiency. A successful HR team not only understands all these competencies and how they make for a better company, but actively utilizes them to create business value. There are four dimensions of people advocacy: culture building, people practices, workplace champion, and communication expert. We will break down each one.

Culture building

A people advocate works continuously to build a desired organizational culture. If you do nothing and let culture just “happen”, chances are, it will not contribute to your organization’s success, or worse, will be completely toxic.

A good culture takes work and planning. A competent HR practitioner is able to see what the current state of the organizational culture is, where they want it to be, and they can figure out what steps they need to take to ensure a successful cultural transformation.

Your approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) falls under the company culture. If and how you recruit, retrain, and train people from all walks of life and all backgrounds says a lot about your culture. People advocates ensure inclusive hiring practices within their organization and strive to build an inclusive work environment for all employees.

You can see from this little example how important culture is and how good people advocacy makes a difference. There are a million little things–from calling the CEO Mr. or Ms. and everyone else by their first name to pizza on Fridays to how managers coach employees. All this needs to be part of deliberate company culture building.

Culture building is a key skill for HR, and without it, your business will likely descend into toxicity.

People practices

Do you operate based on gut feelings alone? Good gut feelings come from years of experience, but if they don’t match up with the best people and HR practices, you need to check your biases and try again. A people practices expert works effectively and with efficiency. You cannot do that if you don’t have a solid background and understanding of best practices.

People practices mean understanding how to achieve the best with your employees. You need to be:

  • Informed and up to date. Even if you’ve got 20 years of experience, you need to keep updated on everything from local laws to cultural changes. When the company implements a new HR system, you need to learn it.
  • Using evidence-based HR practices. Management research isn’t a “nice-to-know” for a people advocate; it’s “need-to-know” information. Knowing what works in the real world impacts your people’s success. You need to ensure that you and your HR department are continuously learning how to make decisions based on data and evidence and applying this approach in your work.
  • A strategic practitioner. There are two kinds of HR: strategic and reactionary. There is almost always enough reactionary work to keep HR busy all day (and, unfortunately, late into the evening). But, reacting to problems doesn’t shape the organization. If you aren’t strategic, you can’t build a good culture, plan for the future, and be a true business partner. Plus, it turns out that good planning can cut down on the needed reactionary work as well.
  • Constantly improving. Do you welcome feedback? Are you willing to make changes based on feedback? Do you set your own goals and work to achieve them? This is what constant improvement looks like in HR. You can’t be a strategic people-oriented leader if you aren’t working to improve yourself.
  • Creating value. When was the last time you reached out to your stakeholders–all of them–to determine if what you do creates value for the organization? People practices aren’t just about front-line employees or senior managers; it’s about creating value for the entire organization. You need to work with all stakeholders to develop great programs.

Workplace champion

If you ever watched the Olympics, you saw champion after champion stand on a platform and accept a medal. But you also saw videos of coaches, families, and friends cheering these people on. An HR workplace champion is the coach and the family and the crowd, rather than the person on the podium. (Not that HR doesn’t deserve rewards–they do.)

People advocacy means you’re working to make your workplace the best it can be and to help others stand out and stand up. A workplace champion is a credible, trusted, and ethical figurehead who advocates for the overlooked.

This means you need to know and comply with all labor laws–nationwide and local. You can’t advocate for people if your employees don’t receive proper overtime pay and proper pension contributions. 

A lot of HR is compliance-based. A workplace champion understands those laws and understands the importance of dotting Is and crossing Ts. It may be a pain, and senior leadership may not know why you need to do so, but avoiding an audit or a lawsuit benefits everyone in the company.

There is also an elementary of DEI in workplace champion work. You can’t advocate for one group and not another and be a true workplace champion. You need to make sure your business is a safe and legal environment for everyone.

Communication expert

None of the above skills matter if you can’t communicate the information to other people. People advocacy means getting others to understand what has to happen. This is why HR must be communications experts. A communication expert:

  • Is able to improvise structured arguments, present them with impact, and convince and inspire.
  • Is prepared to deliver well-organized, impactful presentations that inspire and lead to action.
  • Actively facilitates the transfer of knowledge to create impact for both HR and the organization.
  • Provides open, honest, and appropriate feedback to their peers, subordinates, and superiors to help them improve; capitalizes on opportunities to build a culture of continuous feedback and improvement.
  • Actively resolves communication difficulties within the organization and connects unconnected others who may benefit from the introduction to enable innovation.
  • Shows interest, is inquisitive, and seeks to understand diverse roles, thereby visibly amplifying their impact.

People advocacy is generally a highly developed skill among HR professionals. Traditionally, people choose HR as a career because they are naturally good at communication, strategy, and advocacy

Just because these things are natural strengths does not mean that you can ignore the need to continue developing these skills. Culture building takes effort every day. Keeping up with the current research requires regular work. Accepting feedback, acting like a champion, and legal compliance are never-ending jobs. 

Why is people advocacy an essential competency for HR professionals and businesses?

Most businesses spend more on their people than on anything else. With many employees working from home, some companies no longer have any money invested in real estate. It’s computers and people. HR looks out for literally the most important asset the company has.

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Let’s recap other reasons why people advocacy is so important.

Behaviors of HR professionals with strong people advocacy skills

How do you know if you and your team have strong people advocacy skills? The four core competencies of people advocacy (culture building, people practices, workplace champion, and communication expert) guide you on needed skills, but here are some outward signs of strong people advocacy competence.

  • Having a deep understanding of organizational culture and values. Can you explain your current company culture and discuss your plans for changing it for the better? Those are critical characteristics of a people advocate. A good HR leader doesn’t need to look up what the official organizational values are–they know them and live them.
  • Managing intercultural differences and inter-organizational subcultures. We live in a global society. You will have employees from different backgrounds and with varying structures of belief. This is a good thing! But it’s also complicated. A good people advocate can leverage these differences to employees’ and the organization’s advantage.
  • Welcoming and seeking feedback and acting on it. If you can’t take criticism and make changes, it’s time to find another profession. Good ideas and valuable feedback can come from peers, subordinates, and superiors.
  • Actively resolving communication difficulties within the organization. You can do this through coaching people one on one or developing and delivering training programs that help build communication. This can be a daunting task in remote workplaces where so much communication is done electronically. It’s a real challenge for all HR professionals.
  • Supporting the leadership and the employees – People advocates implement up-to-date HR practices to empower the leadership and the employees to perform at their best.

You can see other behaviors of HR practitioners with strong people advocacy skills in AIHR’s HR Competency Framework.

How HR professionals can develop people advocacy skills

While natural talent in this area probably led you to a career in HR, there are many things you can do to increase your people advocacy skills. For example:

1. Develop your communication skills

HR needs to communicate with all stakeholders, from CEOS and investors to entry-level employees. If your company crosses international borders, your job just got more complicated. How do cultures vary within the company? How about externally with your customers? The plans that work well in the US may fall flat in Korea. Practice active listening and focus on other people’s communication preferences to improve how you communicate at work.

Also, develop your electronic communication skills. We rely on body language, but as many companies went remote, we miss a lot of that. Make sure your skills with Slack, Instant Messenger, and Zoom meetings are polished.

2. Learn how to give and receive feedback

HR spends so much time giving feedback that we often forget how to receive it. You need to know how people perceive you and make changes and work on yourself to embody the company culture and values even better. Make sure you practice giving constructive feedback as well.

3. Understand different roles within your organization

Do you know what it’s like to stand on a factory floor for eight hours? Have you ever been on a sales call? By getting to know what people at your organization do, you can amplify their impact. Talk with team leads, but also shadow some individual contributors. They do the actual work.

4. Create opportunities to speak with employees

If everyone works remotely, schedule a time on Slack and respond as soon as possible–like your open door time. If you’re in the office, walk the floor from time to time. Use Q&A sessions, suggestion boxes, and engagement surveys (but only if you conduct a thorough survey analysis and will act on what you learn).

5. Take time to learn about organizational culture and inclusion

In your role, actively look for opportunities to align your culture with organizational goals and empower employees to feel heard, respected, and productive. You can do this through the above-mentioned engagement surveys, but also by organizing employee focus groups, conducting stay interviews and exit interviews.

For instance, let’s say that you find out that your employees often fail to give two weeks’ notice when they resign, even though it would make your life much easier. You may think that isn’t a company culture thing–just a general culture, but ghosting, no-calls-no-shows and job abandonment, and saying, “today is my last day” are common in many organizations.

Look for reasons why this happens. Maybe people don’t feel appreciated or they have seen managers retaliate against employees in their notice period. Once you take your time to find out the cause, you can start remedying it in small steps. You need to instill respect into everything you do as an organization to make sure that your employees thrive until their last day with you. Here’s what you could start with:

  • Create a policy that explains why you want people to give notice when they resign.
  • Ensure that managers respect employees in their last two weeks of work.
  • Provide support and positive communications with employees in their last two weeks.
  • If the employee is leaving for a competitor and you don’t want them working, a policy to pay them for their offered notice period.

You don’t want:

  • To demand employees turn over their laptops and other equipment as soon as they give notice.
  • Angry managers who give the worst assignments to employees on their last few days.
  • A no-rehire policy. (Why should employees care if they burn a bridge with your company if you’ve already said you’ll never rehire them?

6. Attend conferences and webinars and get certified

HR needs to be up to date to be a true people advocate, and that takes time and effort. Look for opportunities to learn new things. There are plenty of virtual conferences and webinars that you can attend for free to hear from industry leaders. Identify areas in which you would like to develop your skills to better represent your employees and enroll in a dedicated HR certification program.

If you’re a team lead, make sure there is a training budget for HR.

7. Gain project management skills

Strategy is all about planning for the future–just as project management is. Do you know who is where and what needs to happen? It’s a critical part of coaching and development and being able to be a trusted partner to your employees.

Over to you

Building an inclusive, thriving organizational culture, managing relationships, and conflict resolution are some of the critical responsibilities of HR professionals. Developing the people advocacy competency will help you become a trusted partner to the leadership, employees, and the organization.

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