How to Fix the Perception of HR

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How to Fix the Perception of HR

Welcome to another exciting episode of All About HR! This is the series for HR Professionals and business leaders who want to future-proof their organization and learn about the latest trends & insights from industry experts, CHROs, and thought leaders. 

What can HR do to change how the organization perceives them? In this episode of All About HR season 2, we discuss with Steve Browne — Chief People Officer @ LaRosa’s — what HR can do to build a positive image in the eyes of the employees and leaders.

Steve is an experienced HR leader who is passionate about helping HR become a true business partner to the organization.

In this episode, we’ll discuss: 

  • How HR’s self-defeatist attitude impacts its image 
  • The difference between self-awareness and self-assurance 
  • 2 steps to change the way HR is viewed 

Watch the full episode to discover how to shift HR’s perception in the organization and convince your leaders and employees to join in as well!


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Steve Browne: One of the things I’ve talked about in some of my presentations is this: if HR people were to remember they’re humans first – personally, if I bring myself as a human to work, I will do great HR. If I come in as an HR title or an HR professional, I’ll never do great HR. They need to hear the human side of who we are – legitimate, authentic, and genuine. Then over time, people will have a better experience with us. And those things will turn into smiles.

Neelie Verlinden: Hi, everyone, and welcome to a brand new episode of All About HR. My name is Neelie. I’m your host. And for today’s episode, I got to sit down with Steve Brown. Steve is the Chief People Officer at LaRosa’s. And we had a super interesting conversation that I can’t wait to share with you. But before we get to that, you know by now, if you haven’t subscribed to the channel, we would really appreciate it if you could do that, like the video as well, and hit the notification button. 

Neelie Verlinden: Welcome to another episode All About HR. 

Neelie Verlinden: Now, let me welcome you, Steve. Welcome to the podcast. How are you?

Steve Browne: I’m doing great, Neelie. How are you?

Neelie Verlinden: I’m very well, too. Thank you. It is a little bit warm today here in the Netherlands because I think this week, we’re going to have a bit of a heatwave, which is very unusual for us. But other than that I’m good.

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Steve Browne: It’s very warm here too. And humid. Not very nice to be outside.

Neelie Verlinden:  So it’s a good thing actually that we’re having this conversation done, Steve. 

Steve Browne: Yes, absolutely. 

Neelie Verlinden: Okay, so perhaps before we really get to today’s topic, would you mind telling our listeners a little bit more about yourself and about LaRosa’s and the work that you’re doing?

Steve Browne: Sure. I am the Chief People Officer. So I am over all things people at LaRosa’s and everything from compensation, hiring employee relations, you name it, strategy on HR. LaRosa’s has been around for 68 years. We’re a pizzeria, we serve great food. You’d love it here. It’s so good. And it’s a family environment. So people come in and really enjoy what we do. We’re kind of an iconic brand when it comes to that. So it’s a really great place to work and do good HR.

Neelie Verlinden: Nice. And so if, you know, one day I get to be in one of your restaurants, what pizza what you recommend?

Steve Browne: It depends on your taste, honestly. So we have quite a variety. You can do more traditional things, American style, but you know, are you a spicy person? We have a Roma focaccia, which is incredible. It’s capicola, ham, and banana peppers and a Foccacia sauce, which is one of my favourites.

Neelie Verlinden: Nice, so I’ll keep that in mind. So Steve, also, I mean, I had a look, of course at your LinkedIn, and you have, I think, a very refreshing approach to HR. So maybe you can tell a little bit about that? 

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Steve Browne: I’m not your traditional HR person at all, never have been. I am much more people-oriented and systems second instead of systems first. So understanding people for who they are and the wonderful things that they bring to the workplace. I like to say people are wonderful and messy. So that’s okay. If you just swim in that and take people for who they are, where they are, you can do amazing things. The other difference is I believe in collective HR, like everything for everybody. Like, here’s a policy that goes: if it’s something that affects just you, and then we make it enforced for everybody, it’s never going to work. So I take care of Neelie for Neelie, Paulo for Paulo, Steve for Steve, and then the whole thing works. Instead, most HR people do the other way around – large overarching systems. And then they have to fight all the time inside it. Isn’t it taking care of each person for who they are and what needs they have? And in the end, the whole thing works.

Neelie Verlinden: The reason that I was asking this question is actually also linked to something I would like to talk with you about today. And that’s linked to an article that you recently shared on LinkedIn. And so, as a side note for our listeners, Steve really writes beautiful articles with, in my opinion, a very refreshing view on HR. And yeah, they really touched me when I read them. So check them out if you have the opportunity on his LinkedIn. And this is not me doing any kind of advertising, but I’m serious. They’re really beautiful articles. Anyhow, long story short, he recently shared an article, and it’s called “Time for a change”. And that is actually what sparked the idea for today’s conversation with me because the article talks about the way that people view HR, and then there was this really, I think, interesting way of starting the article, which was actually by, I think, the eight smiley’s. Well, no ,emojis, I should say, the eight emojis that pop up first when a friend of yours types HR. And let’s say that they were not like happy emojis. Let’s put it that way. I mean, you can check out Steve’s article if you want to see them for yourself. But that was the thing that sparked this conversation idea. Steve, I wanted to start with these sad emojis or these unhappy emojis. Where do you believe that this reputation, this feeling about working with HR, right? Where does it come from?

Steve Browne: That’s a great question. I think many people base their experiences on if something went wrong, and that becomes their framework reference. So if you had a bad interaction with me, and I’m your HR person; therefore, you go, Steve didn’t do this, or HR didn’t do this, or I tried to ask him this. And it fell short. The other part of it, though, is how HR has positioned itself in companies that were not as accessible or not as approachable or not as able to always be there for people on a regular basis. So if you don’t give me your time and attention, I don’t care what role you’re in, but especially in HR, then there’s no surprise that it went negative, or there’s no surprise, and it was darker. When Erik sent me, or he actually posted on LinkedIn, and he said: so when you see these emojis, what do you think? And the first thing I thought of was, is this how people view HR? Or is it how HR views people? Because when you talk to HR people, they tend to talk about the hard stories and the people who are challenging instead of the people who are amazing. So I think it’s earned on both sides of the ledger, how people view us typically because of their experience with us, or where we tend to focus on the negative more than the positive when it comes to people.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, I think that is a very good point that you’re making there. And I would love to, a little bit later on, look at how both sides actually can try to turn these sad emojis into happy ones. But that’s okay. I’ll save that for later. First, Steve, do you feel that this idea about HR is justified?

Steve Browne: Yes. I don’t like that. But yes, the best way to tell this idea is this: go into a company and ask them how they view HR. So there’s a local hospital, very well known here, has a natural reputation here in Cincinnati, and historically, not good views of their HR group. If HR talks about themselves, they get high scores on surveys, and boy, they’re really good. But you talk to the people, and you get a whole different experience. It’s really a shame, there’s a disconnect. I think people in HR have traditionally spent more time keeping people in line and trying to make people conform instead of allowing them to bring their strengths and their diversity to the table every day.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, I spoke to somebody on the podcast not so long ago. And she actually said, uh, yeah, that is traditionally HR people, sometimes we’re no-persons. So they were basically there to defend the interests of the company. And they were basically people who had to say no, all the time. So that’s a little bit in line with what you’re saying, Steve? And to what extent do you believe that? I think in the article, you called it HR’s self-defeatist attitude. To what extent does that play a role in this reputation and this image? 

Steve Browne: I think it’s huge. We’re the only profession, the only one, that just beats itself up constantly. There are articles and books and conferences and, you know, podcasts about the shortcomings of our profession. And we just keep feeding into it because it’s good. It’s juicy. People are like, ah, boy, if HR would do this, you don’t hear that from sales. You don’t hear that from finance or from IT or operations, but we do. We are so introspective, but not in a positive way. So I think I believe in modeling the behavior you expect from others. So if you’re somebody who’s self-defeatist, this is how you’re going to treat others. It just is. And then that’s a really difficult tone for that type of approach to HR. It just dies. I think you can turn that around. And I know we’re gonna get to that. But if that’s how you lead from a self-defeatist standpoint, it’s how you’re going to treat others.

Neelie Verlinden: That’s how it works with every attitude, I think, but where do you believe that this conviction comes from?

Steve Browne: I think there are a couple of things. One, we’ve misaligned who we are in organizations when we say we’re a support function, I’m there if you need me. The rule that I always say is if people say they have to come to HR, that means you’re not inside the organization, whether you are or not. So the only time I come to you is when there’s something on fire or some problem, they said to say I rely on HR, they’re a partner with me, they’re integrated throughout the organization. So if you position yourself as I only use when I need it, there’s a gap. The second thing is we haven’t challenged enough senior leadership to say what do you want HR to be. How do you want it to look? How does that need to function in organizations? And then hear what they have to say, since most people aren’t in what we do, there are misconceptions of what HR sets at the table. And I know many peers who have said, Boy, I’d love to have positive aspects on HR, but that’s not how my senior leadership views it. I think it’s a terrible excuse. It’s a terrible way to succumb to it to say, oh, gosh, you know, just because they’re gonna treat me bad. I guess I’ll just have to go with it instead of challenging it and turning that around.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, I think that’s a good point that you’re making there. And I’m really hoping that we can, you know, even with this short episode of a podcast that we can hopefully inspire people to start changing that. So let’s move on to that, Steve, because yeah, so this is how things, unfortunately, are being viewed oftentimes. Now let’s look at how we can turn those not-so-happy smileys into happy ones. And for that, I would like to start with HR itself. So how do you see HR’s role in changing this existing perspective on their profession and on what they are doing and on their role in the organization? Does it start with HR? Maybe that’s a better first question. It starts with HR, I guess, no?

Steve Browne: I agree with you. I think it has to, I can’t change things unless I understand where I’m coming from personally. So how do I approach what I do? How does my team approach what it does? How do you make it frame so that it’s constructive, so that it’s positive? When I do need to say no, how do I say that in a way so that people have context and understand why what’s going on? It’s not no, because it’s no. It’s no, because hey, here’s this, if somebody was doing something unsafe, instead of jumping to a policy and a procedure, have a conversation around, hey, if you did this, then this will happen. You’re doing the same thing. We tend to cite chapter and verse as a shield instead of saying, I’m going to have a relationship with you to help you do your work better. The second part is where it starts with HR. If we focused more on performance instead of compliance, we’d be lightyears ahead. Compliance has to happen. It doesn’t mean you get rid of it, we do this either-or thing. I focus on performance or compliance. My thing is, if you teach me to perform, if you equip me to perform, if you help me lead my people, if I lead others, as a people manager, the company performs. We do well. That’s such a different way to do HR, instead of saying, what’s the dress code policy? What’s the attendance policy? Did we get up performance reviews done? Is our cost of living raising? Those are functions of systems instead of, say, what’s the behavior I want to show every day in order for my team members to do well.

Neelie Verlinden: From what you were talking about a little bit earlier as well, I also get the feeling here that when we talk about, you know, how can HR start making a change here, that it seems as if there’s also something like almost a collective and collective as, in the HR profession, there is a collective need for, I don’t know, if it’s not necessarily self-confidence? Or maybe it is, but a kind of, yeah, a different way of thinking about their own role actually, in the company, you know, maybe it is self-confidence, or I don’t know how you would say it. Do you see, do you understand what I wanted, what I was trying to say? Almost as like a crash course in being proud of what you’re doing. And you know, being able to sell yourself in a good way, like salespeople could do that? Do you know what I’m getting?

Steve Browne: Yeah, I know what you’re saying. I think there’s a difference between self-awareness and self-assurance, like confidance in what I do. And I’m talented in what I do, just like others, not, again, versus. It’s because this is what I do at an organization, what I bring to the table, there’s value to that. It’s not a less than. It’s not a problem solving only. Actually, it should be very proactive and strategic and reactionary when needed. We tend to be reactionary first. So I think if it’s more proactive in front of people, always connected, and integrated throughout the organization. Yeah, you own it. The challenge is, too many people try to do HR on their own. So they don’t do things like having somebody from the Netherlands reach out and have a podcast. They don’t talk to people seriously. They don’t talk to people even outside their four walls. It’s impossible to have that empowerment, that passion. And that ownership, if you try to do it on your own, HR people need a community probably more than any other profession, because a lot of what we do, we can’t talk about internally. Yes, you gotta have people you can go to. If you have that community, then it helped build that confidence over time.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, we also on the podcast, we’ve talked about the beauty and also the power that lies in community as well. We spoke with Julie Turney before. She actually also talked about you. But yeah, we spoke about the HR community and the importance of that, because yes, you can encourage each other, but you can also learn from each other, and you really understand better than anybody else what the other person is going through because you’re in the same boat, really. So yeah, I’m glad that you mentioned that again because I think it’s important. So if anybody’s listening and they’re not part of an HR community yet, please seek out an HR community, whether it’s online or in person, but seek one out and please join because it’s so helpful. I’m feeling a little bit like I’m doing all these advertisements in today’s episode, but anyhow, I was wondering if we could make it even a little bit more practical, Steve. So how can professionals get started straight away? Maybe there are some examples that are relatively easy to get started with. Does anything come to mind?

Steve Browne: Several things. 

Neelie Verlinden: Fantastic.

Steve Browne: The first thing is I understand that people are more important than your desk. So wherever your workspace is, whether you’re in person, remote, or hybrid, people are far more important. So they should be worth your time. They should be worth your effort. People are more important than your desk. They just are. The second thing is what are you doing to move people forward? So a lot of HR happens outside of HR. And we’ve lost sight of that. Most of HR happens when others are leading others. So if I can equip people managers to do better, I’m doing more significant tangible things inside the company by helping them lead their people. So how do they view others? We do an exercise like this. We put a flip chart up, the old fashioned flip chart, a big piece of paper, they put the top of the word at top of the sheet – employees – and like describe employees, and oh my gosh, it just goes negative, lazy. Because they have nowhere to get it out. And it’s not they’re bad people, or they feel poorly about people, but that’s their lens. So if you let them get out, you know, okay, cool. So people are lazy, dumb, stupid, and unreliable. All guys out there are like yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, who in the room was an employee? There we go. Well, that’s not cool. See – how you view others is how you will treat others. So help me, let me help you as an HR person to view your people better. For those that are challenging, how do we help them? Not that they aren’t, and not that you aren’t. You might be a challenging person too. So to me, it’s much more proactive in person, whether it’s virtual all the time, not only when there are challenges, it just drains you too much. If all you’re doing is putting out fires, who are dying? So time to turn that around. And you can do that on a daily basis?

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, I think it’s very important that you act that you actually try to do this on a daily basis because then it becomes a habit, but a good one. So I think that’s actually an important element of it. Now, I was already thinking about this earlier when you briefly touched on it, but like, let’s look at the organization’s leadership as well because I feel that they also have a really important role to play in helping change the way that HR is being recorded. What are your thoughts on that?

Steve Browne: Again, I think you’re right on point. I’ll give you a great example. My CEO, and I talk every day. Now we are a smaller company. And I understand other people, when you say this, I’ll never get to talk to my CEO, whatever the next senior person is, or two levels up or three levels up, you need to be connected to them intimately. So every day we talk but what’s interesting is he comes to my office. I don’t go to his. We’ve established this over time and several years. So I check in with him every day. And we talk about things like how’s your family? How are you feeling today? What’s the big pressure that you’re facing? Is there anybody here that can help you, whether I can be that person or not? But HR should be tied to senior leadership intentionally to see how they’re doing. Once people get to the senior level, we just ignore them, we just expect them to lead instead of checking the human side of who they are. It’s interesting, we talk about well-being but we talked about the frontline or the midpoint. They said well-being something for every employee. We talk about balance and how we make sure people are integrating their work into their life and moving back and forth, in and out, but we don’t do it at senior level. We just expect more and more and more from them to drive numbers and to hit revenue goals. Instead of saying, if I take care of you as a person, you’ll hit those things. So it’s turning it around. If that happens, they will have a more positive view of what HR can do for their company.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, absolutely. And I could also imagine that there is a part of it would also be not just sharing a new policy that came from HR, you know, but also sharing the positive things that HR has been working on that perhaps are being overlooked, you know, they are being taken for granted, but talking about that as well so that it becomes also more clear to people all of the things that HR is working on or that HR is involved in other projects that they are initiating for the good of the people working in the organization. I think there’s there’s also probably a still a lot to gain in that area.

Steve Browne: I agree. One of the things that we’re doing here, we started something radical, old fashioned, called, it’s an internal newsletter. It’s not an intranet, it’s not slack, it’s just an old-fashioned summary of what’s going on. And we call it In The Know. And the reason we did that was because we want you to be in the know. And just taking everything and putting it down where people can reach it, instead of making it all convoluted and big and bureaucratic. Put it on that bottom shelf and go: I just want you to know this. If people go, Oh, cool. So  think you’re right; transparency should show what the organization’s doing moving forward in a positive light, and it should be honest about the challenges it faces. But it shouldn’t say here’s where we’re not doing well, expecting it to go better. Those other two components will drive it much farther. And HR can own that message.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, absolutely. And then there was actually one other group of people in a company that I wanted to explore their role in this actually. So I spoke to somebody on the podcast not long ago as well. And what she said was like: HR is co-responsible for every single person in the company. And I kind of liked that thought. And so I was thinking if we view it like that, how would you think that every single employee can then contribute to this changing perspective on HR?

Steve Browne: I really liked that. I think that’s fresh, and see, my thing is this: if you tell me to bring my home whole self to work, whichever everybody says, in theory, let it happen. When people do that, they contribute in ways they’ve never done before. So when you allow the latitude and the permission to be who they are, oh my gosh, it’s crazy. You can see here in my office, I have a bunch of toys all over, I have a bunch of colorful things. It’s just who I am. I don’t expect that from anybody else. But a lot of companies that go: llook this way, be this way, fit in this box, instead of saying, I want to bring the natural diversity and talent that everybody has in order to move the company forward. It’s really interesting. We talked about talent, like hiring, instead of saying the talent I bring every day that improves HR. I can’t just be talented to come in. I should be talented all the time. And we are. But I like your idea of having that co-responsibility, because that is not a function or a department. It’s a reality and part of the culture. Great HR is a reality and a part of the culture that’s woven in throughout the center of the department that sits outside.

Neelie Verlinden: Yes, I mean, it’s something that is affecting each and every one of us in the company on a daily basis, we might not always be aware of it, but it really is. So yeah, I also very much like that thought. And it was also linked to what you mentioned, as well, earlier. It’s about HR partnering with every single person in the company as well. And I also thought that that was a nice one. So Steve, so we know that the current perception of HR is not great. So we have looked at some ways that we can hopefully very fast improve that. So what would you say? What’s your hope for let’s say next year, at the same time, we’re going to be having a conversation again, and how would you like to see these emojis for HR,

Steve Browne: I think there are two parts to it. One, we have to own where we are, and just say, Hey, this is where we are. Once you know where you are, then you can move forward, instead of saying, this is where we are, we’re never gonna get out of this, this is where it’s always gonna be. And for decades, it hasn’t changed. I mean, before the internet, if they had done a search, those same pictures would have come up. So my thing is, don’t tolerate it anymore. Just don’t tolerate it personally or professionally. I don’t want to be viewed that way for doing the work that I do. I don’t think my peers do either. So first is assess and audit. The second thing is making intentional steps every day to change the narrative. Intentional. Understand, that you’re going to hit a lot of obstacles, and you’re gonna get some resistance. But in the end, one of the things I’ve talked about in some of my presentations is this: if HR people were to remember they’re humans first – personally, if I bring myself as a human to work, I will do great HR. If I come in as an HR title or an HR professional, I’ll never do great HR. They need to hear the human side of who we are – legitimate, authentic, and genuine. Then over time, people will have a better experience with us. And those things will turn into smiles.

Neelie Verlinden: Yes, one emoji at a time. We will change this. I like that, Steve. What I always like to do also in the podcast is ask my guests about what they believe is the biggest cliche that exists about HR.

Steve Browne: Just one? 

Neelie Verlinden: I know there’s. I’ve heard plenty. But yeah, we just want one for now. 

Steve Browne: The biggest one I’ve heard is that HR people don’t care, which is not true. It just isn’t the majority of my peers. And I talked to many of them around the globe, they genuinely care about people, but they’ve put themselves in a system or a structure. So that’s pulled out of it, instead of it being the center of it, we have a thing that works, I’ll show it to you real quick here that we just put forth. But right here, if I do more, two people versus four people are not successful. If I do more than four people versus two people, I am successful. So we need to teach people that we do care and that we’re doing things for them in HR, instead of to them, the majority of people think that we do it to them, and therefore we don’t care.

Neelie Verlinden: I hadn’t heard that one yet. So thank you very much for that. And then another thing that I always like to ask is to share an epic win and an epic fail. So we’ve heard professional ones. We’ve heard personal ones before. We’ve heard combinations of them. But just like anything that you’re comfortable sharing with will go with.

Steve Browne: Epic fail first. The first epic fail was when I challenged senior management. I was at a company for about a month, and I was out on the floor of a manufacturing plant. And the President came in and said, why are you out on the floor wired to your desk. HR people are supposed to be there to ask, and I said, I think I need to be where the people are because that’s what HR is all about. And we got into it. And so here I am a month in, challenging the president and the founder of the company at the end. He said, this is awesome. I like this. However, where the failed case was, he went to my boss, who was the CFO. The CFO said, why do you think you should go around me? Is that a good idea? Because if that’s how you’re going to be here, you’re not going to have a long time here. So here’s the CFO who felt more personally offended than seeing the good side of changing HR for people-first type of stuff. This was before people-first was even thought of or popular. I was no longer there. Because in the end, he wasn’t going to ever change. His way it was going to be far more important than where it needed to go. So it was the first time I had gone around my boss, and I didn’t know it. And he smacked me pretty hard. 

Neelie Verlinden: Okay, but it was an epic fail, but it was like, You were honestly not aware of it. You know? Yeah, exactly. Okay. And do you also have an epic win? This is gonna

Steve Browne: This is gonna sounds cliche, but every day is an epic win. Because I’m now in a position as the chief people officer to make HR tangible, relevant, and needed in an organization. So every day, the meeting I had just before coming on the podcast, we’re talking about the future of the company. And I’m helping leading those discussions. In the past, HR wasn’t even in the room talking about that. So to be able to really be fully integrated and move an entire organization forward, this is the type of things that HR people dream up, and I get to do it every day.

Neelie Verlinden: Wow, Steve, that was a really beautiful one. Thank you so much for sharing that. And also, thank you very much for this beautiful conversation because we are already actually at the end of it. So very happy that you had the time to join us. And thank you so much.

Steve Browne: Thanks for having me. It was great. When we first wanted to connect, I’m like, Oh my gosh, yes, absolutely. I love what you’re doing. I love that you’re trying to shine a positive light on what we do. 

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, thank you for that. That’s very nice. That’s nice. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. So very happy to help a little bit. Let me also thank everybody for tuning in again to today’s episode. I hope that you enjoyed it. Don’t forget if you haven’t done so yet, you will make us really happy if you subscribe to the channel, if you like this video, and share it with a colleague, a family member, or friends. And then I’ll see you very soon again for a new episode. Bye!

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