Do you remember your first hire, the one that marked your entry into the glamorous world of HR? It’s a big rush to offer someone a job, and it makes you feel pretty important. How about remembering your first termination? Probably a different feeling. I make fun of bad HR often, but whenever I take myself too seriously as an HR pro (which happens more often than I care to admit), I think about those moments and Freddie Thompson.
I had been recruiting for about 2 weeks, ready to change the world, when Freddie, my first hire, came across my desk. He was a “picker packer,” a guy who would go through a warehouse and grab pieces of orders and then pack them into a larger customer’s order. The client wanted to hire a contractor for a six month gig, so I set up an interview with Freddie for the next day.
To get ready, my partners coached me on proper interview technique, and I worked hard to get it right. Thinking back on it, I think I asked Freddie 72 behavioral interview questions and checked nine references—I’ll admit to some overkill. Some, maybe.
When I finally made the offer to Freddie, he hugged me, gushed about how proud of him his girlfriend would be, and how he was glad he had worn his lucky shoes that day. It hit me then that this recruiting job held some power – not power where people called me Mr. Morris or the power to get a good table, but the power to impact a person’s life. I was as pumped as Freddie, and I started to think HR was sorta awesome.
Then, six weeks later, Freddie became my first termination. Not awesome at all. The client thought another project would follow this one, but it fell through, and it was time to lay Freddie off. When I hired Freddie, my partners had all sorts of advice, but I got little from them on the best way to let him go. I felt unprepared, scared and horribly powerful and powerless at the same time. I visited Freddie at the warehouse as his shift ended to break the news, his girlfriend and lucky shoes running through my mind much more than changing the HR world.
I got through the conversation, and Freddie made it feel worse by being a class act. I went home that night and wondered how people did this for a living. Not in a grand, philosophical, “Is HR the right career for me” way, but more along the lines of, “Wow, this job hits people’s lives at their highest and lowest moments.”
So why share Freddie’s sad tale? I typically write about the need for HR pros to step their game up, influence strategy, solve business problems, be credible leaders and to stop being administrative transactional clerks. Every bit of that is true, but when I think about Freddie, he reminds me that true power comes when you have a role in the really big moments in employees’ lives. If we build HR teams that impact those moments positively and don’t take ourselves too seriously, there’s a chance HR will be fine. Not glamorous, but fine.