Meet Deborah Hartung, HR Thought Leader, Author & Keynote Speaker

Deborah Hartung
July 19, 2021

This article is part of our new State of Employee Feedback Series which will interview a diverse mix of HR experts and thought leaders with a goal of better understanding their perspectives on the current state of and future of HR.

The following is an interview we recently had with Deborah Hartung, HR Thought Leader, Author & Keynote Speaker.

What is the state of the human resources industry today?

If I had to simplify as much as possible, I would say “in transition”. On the one hand, HR is embracing technology and automation to free itself up to become the advisor, coach and guide that I believe it was always meant to be. On the other hand, HR is still grappling with historical issues of being too transactional and focusing too much on compliance and checklists. Which side of the transition HR is on, in my experience, depends very much on individual HR leaders and the executive teams they form a part of. If you don’t want to be a transactional, administrative support function as HR, you need to get out there and influence hearts and minds and you need to make some changes to the way you work, the type of work that you do and your entire outlook on the role of HR and the human experience at work. 

What are the most common challenges you face when managing employee feedback and reporting?

Feedback, of course, is a two-way street. We get feedback from employees, but we are also meant to be giving regular feedback as managers and leaders. 

HR is stuck in the middle of this minefield as well, because there is a common misconception that this is HR’s job – mainly because, historically, HR would coordinate feedback from an administrative perspective and often collate feedback and report to senior leadership. In the new world of work, feedback is everyone’s job!

In my experience, the challenges in any organization I have worked with – no matter where in the world it’s been – are really five specific issues which are common across the board:

Time: most line managers complain that they don’t have the time to be giving regular feedback because they’re too busy “doing their actual job”. 

Similarly, when feedback is invited from employees, they have the exact same complaint! They don’t have time to complete lengthy employee surveys. 

And of course if these things are only done once or twice a year, it’s going to be an arduous task and nobody is going to want to do it. 

Trust: This one is huge and it is more prevalent amongst employees when they’re asked to provide us with feedback. They don’t trust that their identities are protected. They don’t trust the process. They don’t trust that there won’t be any repercussions for their honesty. They don’t trust that the company will actually do anything about the results of the feedback… The list goes on and on and we can’t blame employees for having these very real trust issues. Historically, corporate track records in general, haven’t been great, and that’s on all of us. 

Frequency: This relates to the “time” challenge I mentioned earlier. The less regularly we invite feedback or give our employees feedback on their performance and career development, the worse it is and the harder it is to make any positive changes happen. 

Capacity: This is often more a challenge I see on the line manager side. They simply don’t know how to give regular, honest and meaningful feedback to individuals on their teams. It’s a major gap in the leadership development journey and something HR should be all over. 

Employees also battle with giving feedback when faced with broad categories or unclear instructions. Add to that their general trust issues and fear of possible repercussions, and the data is corrupted before we have even started to gather it. 

This brings me to the fifth challenge I see all the time, which is “quality”.

Quality: because managers aren’t competent and confident in giving regular, honest and meaningful feedback, the content of the actual conversations when they do happen, is also poor. So the results are poor because employees don’t come away from a feedback session with actionable items to improve or any kind of guidance or tools on what to do or how to do it. 

Similarly, long-winded employee surveys with lots of open-ended questions or space for free text answers; or those questions that require responses that range between “strongly agree” and “strongly disagree” – those surveys really aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, if you know what I mean. 

We need actionable data and we don’t get it from those surveys. 

What are 3-5 pieces of advice for organizations in your industry looking to improve their employee feedback culture?

I would say to look at the five areas I’ve highlighted and address each one of them. 

So, firstly, make two way feedback a part of the workplace culture by moving away from the annual performance appraisal and replacing it instead, with a regular (at least monthly) check-in conversation. Make it a part of everyday life to ask employees how they’re doing and if they need any support or assistance. Just be human and have authentic conversations instead of these old-fashioned, structured, one hour performance reviews or feedback sessions. Grab coffee together. Walk and talk. Have a weekly 15 minute check-in with each member of your team and talk about everything BUT their job performance. 

There’s honestly so many ways to make feedback a part of the very fabric of the organization. It’s going to take some effort to make the change, initially, but it’s so, so worth it. 

Secondly, teach everyone throughout the entire organization, from the interns to the CEO, how to give and receive meaningful feedback. 

Equip everyone with basic skills and competence in using the GROW coaching model. This will drastically improve the quality of conversations and the actionable outputs from these interactions.

Dealing with the trust issues is going to require a lot of work to be done at a leadership level and it’s going to require some tough calls to be made. If someone is toxic – even if you think they’re your top performer – they have to change or they have to go, it’s really as simple as that. You cannot build trust and psychological safety in your organization if you don’t act on employee feedback and you keep promoting toxic people. 

Invest in the right tech and tools to support a culture of ongoing feedback and recognition. I have my personal favorites and I’m quite vocal on socials about the tech partners I work with, but there are so many amazing tools out there that allow you to rate culture or performance in as little as 5 minutes, or encourage real-time public recognition which can feed into a rewards Program. 

Modern tech tools in this space are all geared toward collecting quality, actionable data per team or division or geographical location. 

Of course, the data means nothing if you don’t do anything about it, so this brings me back to the previous point around some tough calls that often need to be made and showing employees what the results of their feedback has been and what leadership is doing about it. 

What’s the future of HR?

Back in 2017, I did a DisruptHR talk called “HR is dead, it’s all People and Culture”. I stand by that today still. The future of HR is to actively participate in shaping employer brand, workplace culture and overall employee experience from hire to retire. With the tech we have at our disposal nowadays, it’s time for HR to stop hiding behind compliance and checklists and payroll and paperwork. Be the guide. Be the coach. Be the expert. Be the change-maker. 

How do I see my role evolving over the next 3 to 5 years?

I’ve never been the “traditional HR manager” type of person – not even back in 2006 when I was first promoted into an HR manager role. For me, personally, I’m a change-maker. I’m a bit of a rebel, a misfit and a maverick and although those terms have so many negative connotations for people, I wear those labels with pride. I have always challenged the status quo and seen possibility and potential. I love the times we live in now where there’s this collective awakening and all these changes happening at every level of society. Suddenly, people like me are considered “thought leaders” and “influencers” or “futurists” and I take those labels very seriously in the sense that I feel a responsibility to continue learning and to continue having the conversations and participating in the networks and the movements that shape the dialogue and the thinking that shapes the future of work. My role is to spark ideas and influence positive change. And honestly, I would say that is the future of HR too. In fact, it’s how all of our roles in leadership have to evolve. We have to keep asking ourselves the difficult questions. We have to keep on challenging the status quo. We have to keep learning and sharing and growing. It’s how we change the world.

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