Up Close and Personnel

Do I need to be a “People Person” to work in HR?

Ask me my least favourite phrase from the world of work, and it’s a tough one. You’d have to be a considerably more tolerant person than I am not to grit your teeth when a classic such as “low hanging fruit”, “let’s take a deep dive”, or “I’m going to reach out to them” is trotted out.

However, coming in at Number 1, without a shadow of a doubt, is that all time perennial favourite: “I’m just such a People Person.”

If I had a pound for every person who has told me at interview that they are a “People Person”, I would be a very wealthy individual indeed. The only trouble is… I don’t actually understand what a “People Person” is.

By virtue of the fact that we’re all human beings, and all interact with people in the course of our everyday roles… could we not all be said to be a “People Person”?

A help or a hindrance?

To an extent, I’m being facetious. I understand that, when individuals describe themselves as being a “People Person”, they’re doing so to put across the fact that they enjoy being surrounded by people, enjoy working closely with them and seeking to understand them, enjoy taking on a role where the primary focus is one of people.

But, if you work in HR… is being a “People Person” actually a help, or a hindrance?

To understand the answer to this, one needs to look at how the HR function has evolved over the years. Head back to the days of “Personnel”, and the onus was very much on the caring nature of the profession. HR professionals were more likely to be found brandishing tea and tissues than they were to be manipulating data and monitoring KPIs.

A very human resource

Head into the early twenty-first century, and it was all change. The Department Formally Known As Personnel was being rebranded as Human Resources, with tea and tissues being replaced by timesheets and turnover metrics. Having cottoned on to the magnitude of the human workforce within an organisation – and the difference it therefore had the potential to make to productivity, profitability and overall business success – all of a sudden, the emphasis was very much on how we could get the best out of this very human “resource”.

Fast forward to the last few years though, and against a whole host of backlash about people being treated as ‘resources’, we’ve seen HR rebrand once again, as the People, Employee Experience or even the Happiness team.

As an HR professional, you could be forgiven for being somewhat confused about precisely what skillset you were left expected to have as a result!

Finding the balance

The answer, as is so often the case, is about finding balance. It would be disingenuous to suggest that individuals seeking a career in HR should not have at least some innate interest in people: how they work, what makes them tick, what gets the best out of them. There is however an important line in the sand to be drawn. Our role as HR professionals is to help the people who work in our organisation give of their best. We are not, however – and nor should we be perceived as – counsellors, carers or therapists. These are all valid career paths in their own right; those wishing to pursue them should not make the mistake of thinking that HR is the same thing.

I would argue therefore that to deliver as an HR professional, it is less about being a self-proclaimed “People Person”, and far more about having an obsession with both results and the means used to get there. Great HR people aren’t spending all of their times in meeting rooms with individual employees; they are out there in the heart of their business, understanding the challenges which are preventing their people from delivering and taking the lead when it comes to removing the blockers and maximising the overall employee experience.

So, do you need to be a “People Person” to deliver in HR? If by “People Person” you mean the above… then yes, absolutely. Alternatively, if when you talk about being a “People Person”, you mean that you want to spend your time making tea and handing out tissues… then it might be time for something of a career rethink.


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  1. Spot on. And in the new world order, where gone are the days of a job for life – it’s about finding the people with the right attitude who can quickly get off the mark, rather than someone who will be ok in five years time when they’ve learned the ropes, and worked with Nanny. Finding those invested candidates in our one-click to apply job board world requires different skills – a ‘finding the right people person’.

    • Kathryn Kendall

      Thanks James for taking the time to comment – I completely agree!

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