What HR really thinks


At first blush, Laurie Ruettimann is a former corporate human resources director who uses her brassy blog (LaurieRuettimann.com) to upbraid the women (yes, they are still predominantly women) who continue to fight the HR fight in cubicles around the world. First impressions aren’t all wrong. But Ruettimann has some lessons to impart on managers as well, starting with the fact that HR isn’t here to clean up their messes.

SMM: Even though we don’t write a lot about human resources, we’ve been a fan of your blog for years. But what do you do to make money?

Ruettimann: I have three streams of revenue: writing both on my blog and I have a book out now, plus I do content for other vendors and websites. I keynote at conferences all over the world, speaking to people who are leaders in the world of work. I’ve been to six countries this year and over 20 states. I talk about the world of work as it relates to money, power and politics. And my third bucket of income comes from HR consulting. I do quite a bit of coaching and executive leadership for HR professionals.

SMM: What is your HR background?

Ruettimann: I worked for 12 years in corporate America in progressively more complicated HR leadership roles. I ended my formal HR career in 2007 at Pfizer Pharmaceutical Company. I worked on 42nd Street and reported to the chief human resources officer. I was 32 years old and realized that I hated it. I was on a plane all of the time. I would swoop into a beautiful city like Rome or London and I would never see the city. At the time, Pfizer was going from 110,000 employees down to 60,000 employees. My job was global transformation. I was laying people off and helping with business process outsourcing.

SMM: You were Clooney’s character in “Up In The Air.”

Ruettimann: I say that to people and they laugh, but that was exactly my job, except that I was an internal HR employee. The one thing that was really in my favor during my career is that I’m little and I’m blonde. Nobody gets mad at the little blonde HR lady. The part that I hated was working with my fellow HR colleagues. I did not know at the time how to have a relationship with these women. I’m Gen X and all the women in HR were baby boomers and at the time there were no millennials in the work force. They wanted me to listen to Sheryl Crow and drink White Zinfandel. I had tattoos and had to take out my piercings in my face to go to work. I left in 2007 when my husband had to move to North Carolina for work. It was a great opportunity for me to exit out and reboot my life.

SMM: You’re from the HR world, but you speak at all kinds of conferences?

Ruettimann: I often say that HR only exists because leaders are lazy. HR is a luxury that most startups don’t have. It starts to come into play when businesses get busy and they like their people but they just don’t have time anymore because there is so much nonsense in the world – from compliance to paperwork, to management of people-related issues and personalities, to this fake thing we call the “culture of a company.” All of these initiatives that are nice to have are really just luxuries. If you can make payroll, treat your people differently and keep your records in order, you don’t really need HR. In fact, a lot of the companies that I work with find themselves working more with third-party HR providers.

SMM: What should managers outside of HR know about that world?

Ruettimann: When I deal with sales and marketing and operations professionals, one of the first things they want HR to do is make a problem go away. Problems don’t just disappear. If you want to make a problem go away, don’t make it a problem in the first place. You made the hiring decision, and now you’re coming to me and saying this person is not performing. Part of the burden is on you as the manager to get involved in the recruiting and the selection process to make sure that we get the right candidates, and then not to just hire that person, but to stay with them throughout their whole career.

SMM: Your blog posts are awfully critical of today’s HR professionals, some might even say condescending.

Ruettimann: The trend out there is to really dog on your local HR lady, and I’ve contributed to that. I’ve made money making fun of the average HR lady. But this year I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time going around the world defending human resources. She doesn’t exist in your department with the sensible sweater for no reason. She’s there talking about bullying and sexism and sexual harassment because throughout the history of humanity work has been an unfair and inequitable environment. If only leaders would stop talking about themselves and their leadership philosophies and actually lead, your HR lady wouldn’t need to be there. If you don’t want some woman lecturing you on sexual harassment, then get your shit together.

On the other hand, if you’re going to work in human resources, don’t organize the 5K, right? Don’t organize the holiday party. Make sure you’re a credible activist for change. Step into the business when it matters and step out of the business and let other people lead when they have a chance.

SMM: Does your average HR person feel they have that authority?

Ruettimann: They don’t. But how come someone in marketing has courage and someone in HR doesn’t? I can’t answer that question. All I can do is inspire someone to be a little bit braver and have a spine, because they have a spine in sales; they have a spine in operations. When somebody is not safe on the shop floor, the plant manager wants to know and expects all of the people who report to him to say something. Why wouldn’t human resources feel that same burden when someone’s financial wherewithal is in jeopardy?

SMM: Today’s HR professionals would ask if you did that when you were in their shoes.

Ruettimann: That’s a fair question. I failed the test more than I passed it, which is why I am sympathetic. When I did voice my concern and say, ‘Hey, I don’t think these employees are being treated in a fair manner,’ one of the biggest accusations against me was that I was being an employee advocate. That’s a toxic thing to hear when you work in human resources because that’s only one step away from burning your bra and organizing a union.

There’s also something going on in human resources in that 70 percent of the people who do the job are women. When you’re a young woman or a middle-aged woman and you’re standing in a room of men who have gone through executive MBA programs – who have been schooled up and who have the world of work as their backgrounds – it’s a very intimidating thing. We’re often victims of the institutional sexism that we in HR are supposed to be fighting.

SMM: Why is that?

Ruettimann: Up until a few years ago, it was not uncommon to have an HR director who only had a high school diploma. Maybe she went back to school to get her bachelor’s degree at the University of Phoenix. There were a lot of softer assumptions about what it took to be successful in human resources that lent itself to hiring a woman. A lot of bad stereotypes have been applied to human resources that have created a candidate pool that doesn’t necessarily accurately reflect what skills are needed for tomorrow’s human resources department.

SMM: You have blogged about the overwrought chatter in HR circles about “Workforce 2020.” Explain that.

Ruettimann: Well, Workforce 2020 isn’t that far away. If you’re worried about what’s coming up in the next five years, you’ve missed the boat. Most companies ought to be thinking about what’s happening in 2030 and beyond. We ought to be thinking about Generation Z, the kids who are in high school and going into college now. I don’t believe in a lot of this generational garbage, but I do think we have a crop of kids who have grown up in economic uncertainty and who have grown up in an era of relentless budget cuts to the educational programs. They have been taking tests for years, but who knows how much they know? There is a lot of talk about adult illiteracy in that generation because they have learned differently – they are not reading in the same way. I think the issues in 2020 probably look like the issues in 2015, but the issues in 2030 might be completely different.

SMM: What are your thoughts on companies’ efforts in terms of workplace recognition?

Ruettimann: One of the things that is happening in the reward and recognition space is that technology is tied into talent management and performance management software. Now, if you’re recognized within your organization, that follows your employment file through the entire life cycle. When you have an annual review, it comes up that not only were you given a gift card, but the words around what you’ve done to earn it are there and part of your permanent employee record.

SMM: Anything we haven’t asked you about that’s on your mind?

Ruettimann: One of the things that bothers me is there is a disconnect where everybody talks about wanting their employees to bring their “whole selves” to work – “Be yourself. Be authentic.” But then we often penalize people for bringing themselves to work. We don’t like their politics; we don’t like their religion; we don’t like the politically incorrect things they say. Well guess what? That’s humanity, right? If you really want your employees to bring their authentic selves to work, there is going to be some disruption on a daily basis. I think if we had a more honest conversation between leaders and employees, work would actually be a little better and a little bit less disruptive.