When you are managing people in a highly-charged workplace, it is inevitable that you are first and foremost managing their emotions. This is possible to regulate through policies, cultural norms, and peer interactions, but all too often HR professionals have to deal with these raw emotions face to face.
They have a duty to remain professional and shepherd the situation in the right direction, but the choice of whether to achieve this through emotional detachment or emotional engagement is not always an easy one. I wanted to call this blog “Are Emotions Acceptable in HR?” but that seems to be such a silly question. Of course, they are acceptable, they are to be expected, the real question is how the HR professional deals with them.
If you accept that emotions are inevitable, the first step has to be to get behind the façade. You might see a few tears, but are they tears of anger, frustration, sadness, humiliation, disappointment, etc? Before reacting to the emotion, you have to take a minute to understand it. Hugging someone who is angry might fuel their inner fire even more.
Much as you might want to respond immediately, the HR professional needs to be leading someone through the situation rather than responding to it. The simple act of asking a few well-meaning questions will show that you care – and thinking about it will take the individual away from the raw emotion and into a place of rational thought.
The natural response, when faced with a certain emotion, is to respond with an emotion, but this isn’t always the best solution. When you need a resolution to a given emotion, just comforting someone isn’t enough. Although, of course, when someone understands that the comforting is coming after the questioning, they will be happier to open up to you.
This willingness to coax people into opening up lies at the heart of what a great HR person does. People don’t mind explaining things if they realise that you want to understand and not judge them. They will be able to step away from the situation if they see your office as a confidential refuge, and they will trust you to give impartial advice if they feel that you understand them. If HR people handle emotions well, they become trusted confident(e)s. If they handle emotions badly, they will be the last to know when conflict erupts.
The constant exposure to emotions makes HR one of the hardest jobs in the office. Sales people moan about “death by spreadsheet, ” but at least the numbers don’t talk back. Operational people are constantly wrestling with new procedures, but if they get something wrong, it won’t hold it against them (or gossip to the rest of the office). Marketing people’s campaigns are scrutinised by many thousands, but those thousands don’t sit at the same table at lunch.
Nope, HR has to deal with the emotions of their colleagues, and then live with the consequences of their actions. Every hour of every day. I salute them, each and every one of them. It is a rewarding job, but it sure isn’t easy.