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HR Bureaucrats, Bleeding Hearts and Nerds

HR Bureaucrats, Bleeding Hearts and Nerds

Human Resources professionals come in all shapes and sizes; we wear different hats and often experience conflicting priorities. Over my own career I have found that success working in HR is a balancing act and comes from knowing your own biases, strengths and motivation. The particular blend we each favor often leads us into different specialty areas – from employee benefits to OD work, for example.  When too far out of balance on each of the three realms described in this article, we risk becoming stereotypic – I call these types Bureaucrats, Bleeding Hearts and Nerds. This article explores these three different types and makes the case that greater balance and understanding of the importance of wearing all three “hats” can make us more successful in our field.

The BIG 3

Consider these three decision-making questions that occur every day for those of us who work in Human Resources:

  1. Does it make business sense? (serve the interests of the organization)
  2. Is it right? (respectful of individuals, or employees)
  3. Is it theoretically sound? (related to what we know about our field?)

Each of these realms – the business, employees, and our field are described in more detail below.

The Business

When we make business-based decisions in HR we are primarily serving the business itself – protecting the organization from litigation, improving efficiency or otherwise contributing to increased profitability, and/or doing what we are told to do by our management (in their wisdom). Thus, we might be filling jobs, filling out forms, processing paperwork, writing reports, fulfilling filing requirements, etc. Business leaders tell us what to do and we do these things which are often very complex and require expertise. We might consider ourselves to be quite indispensable and “smart” because we know how to do these business-supportive things well, even though we do them primarily in service of our organizational leadership.

Indeed, our business leaders often undervalue the other two hats we wear (or should wear, in my view) – caring for people and respect for the depth and rich content of our field (i.e. I/O Psychology, or Business Psychology). Why? Sometimes it is because they themselves are out of balance in terms of honoring what is important in life – profits vs. respect for individuals. Sometimes it is because we, as professionals, have failed to educate them about what our field has to offer in terms of best-practice and better options for the age-old problems of people and work priorities colliding.  In essence, we might be afraid that our business leaders see us as Bleeding Hearts or Nerds, so we play Bureaucrat in an effort to gain their respect.

Some of the priorities that make up this realm could include:

  • Generating HR metrics (cost-per-time, time-to-hire, employee satisfaction, turnover rate, turnover cost, etc.)
  • Risk analysis, or reduction (policing, systematizing, creating policies, handbooks, confidentiality, investigations)
  • Administration (payroll, benefits, insurance, workers comp, HRIS, new hire processing and orientation)
  • Enhanced efficiency and/or profitability
  • Hiring/staffing/placement


Many of us went into the HR field because we “like people.” That is, we value human beings perhaps more than the average person and would like our working life to be devoted to serving others or bettering their lives in some way.  We may be fascinated by different personalities, ways of contributing and we generally have strong compassion. In essence, we feel that treating others right is a moral responsibility. The “others” in our lives are generally employees in our places of work and our care for them becomes part of our mission and raison d’etre. These are some of the core values that caring for employees encompass:

  • Employees should be treated with honesty and respect. In the workplace, people should treat each other the way they would like to be treated themselves. Our workplaces should be free of verbal abuse, threats, sabotage, and bullying. As much as possible, jobs should maximize the fulfillment and development of the people doing them and should minimize drudgery and stagnation. Employers that make promises to their employees about pay, benefits, promotions, and responsibilities should honor those promises.
  • Workplaces should be free of discrimination and favoritism. All employees should be evaluated based on how they do their jobs-without bias, prejudice, or stereotyping.
  • Employees should be able to leave a job with dignity. Not every employee and every job are a perfect match — terminations are a fact of life. When firings or layoffs are justified, they should be carried out with as much notice, dignity, and support as possible.
  • Every workplace should be as safe as possible. Employees should be provided with protective equipment and training required to minimize their chances of getting hurt or sick on the job.
  • There is more to life than work. Employers should respect the privacy and autonomy of their employees and support work/life balance.
  • Employees should be able to stand up for their rights. Employees need fair and accessible means to pursue justice when their rights are violated.

These are just some of the many core values around caring for employees, of course.

Our Field

There are many names for the science of human behavior in the workplace. I like Business Psychology which is the study and practice of improving working life combining an understanding of the science of human behavior with experience of the world of work to attain effective and sustainable performance for both individuals and organizations. Some of the core principles, theories and important work on our field include:

  • Methods to conduct organizational research (study designs such as surveys and observational studies)
  • Quantitative methods – descriptive statistics and inferential statistics (e.g., correlation, multiple regression, and analysis of variance) and psychometrics
  • Qualitative methods include content analysis, focus groups, interviews, case studies, and other observational techniques
  • Triangulation — an approach looking for converging information from different sources
  • Constructing behaviorally-anchored rating scales (BARS)
  • Research on individual differences; motivational theories; leadership models
  • Assessment for employee selection and development
  • Prediction of work performance
  • Leadership development

Most commonly, a Masters’ degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, Organizational Behavior, Human Resources and related disciplines are where we obtain this kind of conceptual knowledge. Certification through SHRM or other professional bodies can also help us learn about these foundations. It is generally difficult to gain enough mastery through a BA alone but it can be done if additional study is undertaken.

Out-of-balance scenarios

These three key concerns – business, employees and our field – vie for our attention every day and with almost every professional decision we make. Ignore one at your peril – you will be out of balance. Consider these unbalanced scenarios:

  • Primary concern is the business – give management what they want even if employees are disrespected and your actions fly in the face of best-practice in our field and you become a
  • Primary concern is the employee – make exceptions for people because you feel sorry for them, can’t deal with interpersonal conflict or get on your “high horse” and you become a bleeding heart.
  • Primary concern is for your field – get lost in theory, entertain yourself with research, writing and plans that are not likely to get approval or go anywhere and you become a

Remember, whatever our own bias, we will tend to value, or more likely, over-value, that perspective to the exclusion of the others. Be aware of any emotion you experience when reacting to the supposition that you may be out-of-balance and under-valuing the other two perspectives. Be open to the inherent value of all three HR hats and try to play devil’s advocate for the two less-used ones. 

Re-gaining Balance

What can we do as HR leaders to develop and mentor the next generation? Here are some ideas:

  1. Be aware of your own biases and try to achieve greater appreciation for the value of all 3 hats;
  2. Determine how your organizational culture reinforces action and behavior within HR – awareness is key;
  3. Develop your own and your staffs’ skills and knowledge in all areas;
  4. Stay current in the field to keep on-top of new developments, from new legislation to new management theories;
  5. Don’t be afraid to call-out behavior that is unacceptable including snobbery and disrespect;
  6. Be a role model for balance – others will respect your healthy perspective if it is balanced and strong.

Summing up …

Finding meaning in your work and making a difference to the world around you can be challenging in organizations that change frequently, particularly when new leadership comes in and dumps programs that take us, as HR professionals, years and years to develop and implement. It can be discouraging to see your contribution discarded, or abandoned virtually overnight. Maybe the main satisfaction we can glean from our work is internal – knowing that we continue to wear and balance all 3 hats with integrity, by engaging our curiosity through continuous learning and interacting positively with trusted peers. Maybe the best revenge is obtained through mentoring and passing on our wisdom to the next generation of HR leaders. What do you think? I’d love to hear …

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About Anne Sandberg

With a degree in Experimental Psychology and a masters in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, Anne Sandberg has 25+ years of experience in the human resources, training and management consulting arenas. Anne is President of ReadyToManage, Inc. and can be contacted at

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Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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