05/08/2012 03:27 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2012

How to Terrify an HR Person

I got a call from my friend Tara, an HR Director. "I'm taking some finance classes," she said. "That's cool," I said. "What's got you interested in finance these days?"

"Oh, I want to build my credibility with the businesspeople," said Tara. "Geez Louise, girl," I said, "you call your peers 'the businesspeople' like you're not a businessperson, yourself?"

"That's a bad habit," she said. "My CFO calls the department directors 'the businesspeople' and I've fallen into that habit too, I guess."

"If you want to take a finance class, do it," I said, "but Tara, don't take a class in order to feel more legitimate with the so-called Business People. You are legitimate now. You're a student of human behavior, for Pete's sakes. You're the only person on that team who has the emotional intelligence to look after the people side of the business. You're Mother Teresa in that joint, and you think you need legitimacy?"

"It's strange, I know it," said Tara. "I have such a different point of view on practically every issue that comes up, I start to doubt myself sometimes. I tend to be one person in our staff meetings who brings up subjects that aren't always easy to address, like the way we manage people. I feel like a lot of my ideas get attacked, so I want to beef up my knowledge of finance and strategy. I want to be on the same plane with my colleagues in the sense of traditional business stuff -- finance being a part of it."

"The sad truth is that no one is going to value your perspective until you do, Tara. You're coming from a different place than your quant types are, and if no one sees the value of that lens on the business, that's a huge red flag. That being said, as long as you have the job you may as well take it as an opportunity to build your truth-telling muscles."

"You're not going to gain juice in the company by taking a finance class. You're going to do it by speaking your truth, and saying the thing that needs to be said when no one else is saying it. You're going to point out the albatross on the table when someone needs to, and your credibility and mojo will go through the roof. When you say 'Okay, I'll take a finance class, so that you left-brained guys will see me as a Serious Business Person,' you're going in exactly the wrong direction."

"My God, Liz, I felt like that when I was signing up for the first finance class online," Tara said. "I love to learn new things, but I had a pang in my stomach that said 'Are you pandering, Tara?' and I haven't really been able to shake it."

"Lookit," I said, "there are a lot of fearful people around. Some of them are managers. Some of them are VPs, and some of them are CEOs, sad to say. There are a lot of scared weenies running around with big budgets and staffs, and their number one favorite thing to do is to try to neutralize the mojofied people around them, like you. How do you neutralize someone who might be too good at telling the truth? You push the big button and tell them 'Well, you're not a serious business person, anyway.' People who are fearful themselves are experts at terrifying other people, particularly HR types."

"How did you know?" asked Tara. "Oh my gosh girl, I lived that," I said. "I had one boss who wanted the whole team, six managers, to fly from Chicago to Boston for an all-day meeting on December 23rd, two days before Christmas. He got the idea for this all-day, out-of-town meeting the previous day -- the 22nd, and he was all keyed up and manic about it. He wanted me to call everyone and tell them to get on a plane, that same day, the 22nd, and fly to Boston for an all-day meeting two days before Christmas.

Meanwhile, the snow had been so bad that flights had been cancelled almost every day for a week. There was an excellent chance that if we'd gone to Boston for that goofy meeting, we would have spent Christmas there. It was total insanity. The airfares would have cost gazillions, and we didn't even need to have the meeting in the first place. It was sheer panic, anxiety on my boss's part, and I had to tell him that. I told him we could do the meeting by phone, or leave it until after the holiday."

"How did he react?" Tara wanted to know. "Oh, he was furious," I said. "He left me a voicemail at home at midnight and said 'Fine, you don't think we need a meeting? You don't have to come, then. I'll just invite the businesspeople."

"That's always the dig, isn't it?" Tara laughed.

"But of course," I said, "and it's so transparent. I called my boss back and said 'Seriously, is that the best you've got? I've been in HR forever. You think I didn't get called a less-than-serious businessperson every time someone wanted to throw me off my game? Please."

"So did you guys have the meeting?" asked Tara. "The whole thing came to nothing, of course," I said. "We had a one-hour phone call the next day, no travel. That boss was okay when he wasn't in mortal fear mode. We're friends again now. People go crazy when they're fearful."

"So how should I react when I get that condescension, that whole 'HR doesn't understand business' routine?" asked Tara. "You smile and say 'Yes, of course' and carry on with your life," I said. "When you have energy for the task, you can dig into that fear and start to move your managers to a more trusting place, or you can decide the mission isn't exciting enough to justify the arrows in your back, and move to a place where they already have adults in charge rather than terrified weenies."

"It's easy to see that fear-based junk when you're not in the middle of it," said Tara. "Now as we talk about it, I can see that the people who don't want to talk about culture and empowerment are the first ones to attack my business credentials."

"Once you get the joke, you can stop worrying about those amoebas and just do your job, making the environment a place where trust rules and where the industry's best people want to be."

"Sing it," said Tara. "Once you know the joke, people can't scare you with that 'HR isn't a business function' crap," I said. "We need a support group," said Tara. "I like it," I said. "Our motto could be Seriously, Is That the Best You Got?"