Q&A with Suzanne Lucas

May 9, 2019 at 8:00 am

Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne Lucas is the writer behind the Evil HR Lady blog, where she offers up an insightfully irreverent analysis of the latest HR news and trends. Suzanne also delivers lectures, leads workshops, and works directly with companies to improve HR. This condensed and edited interview explores her ideas about everything from HR technology to widespread talent shortages.

To start, can you tell us a little about your current role and how you ended up there?

I spent ten years in corporate HR. Then my husband got a job offer in Switzerland, and we decided what the heck, let’s do it. I quit my corporate job, and the family moved, but with the cultural differences in Switzerland, we didn’t want to just plop our young kids in daycare. So I stayed home for a bit, and during that time I started writing about HR and have never looked back. That was a decade ago, and though I’ve never gone back to HR, it’s the topic on which all of my writing and speaking is focused.

You often take a snarky approach that highlights some of the more frustrating aspects of HR. Why do you think dealing with HR can be so difficult?

There’s a lot of reasons. Part of it is just because people don’t really understand the role of HR. There are tons of documents that come from federal and state governments that HR is tasked with managing. No one likes filling them out, but HR has to be the face of the process even if they have no control over it.

There’s also a lot HR has done that’s frankly embarrassing to the profession. For instance, there’s been a huge problem for years with recruiting and with recruiters who ghost candidates. Now that the economy has improved, candidates are starting to ghost recruiters, which I find slightly hilarious because the tables have turned. The ‘Me Too’ movement is another example. HR is never the final decision maker, but why have so many HR people stood by and let sexual harassment continue? Things like that overshadow all the good work that HR does.

You mentioned the challenges of recruiting. Do you have any advice for companies trying to find qualified candidates in a tight labor market?

I have a couple of ideas. One, you have to look for potential instead of perfection. A lot of companies want people to be perfect from day one, so when companies talk about a skills or talent shortage, they’re really only saying they haven’t found the perfect candidate yet. Instead of looking for that person, they should search for candidates who have most of the necessary skills (who are readily available) and train them on the rest.

Assessment tools can help with this process, but only if the tools actually assess what you need to know. There’s a lot of things that aren’t really necessary to a job that employers still place a lot of emphasis on. Job interviews are the classic example because even though they don’t actually reveal much about candidates, they determine a lot of hiring decisions. Assessment tools help identify qualified candidates as long as the questions relate to the core competencies for the job.

Much of your writing takes an ambivalent view of HR technologies. Can you elaborate on that? What’s the role of technology in the future of HR?

I do feel ambivalent about it. I’ve recently written about a computer algorithm that Amazon is using to fire warehouse workers, which on the surface seems horrible. But I also know it’s going to be a lot fairer than having managers assess the performance of each individual because they bring bias to the table. In a setting like a warehouse where performance is very quantifiable, I think this technology has a place. But there is a risk when you eliminate the human element entirely, by using AI to handle hiring, for instance. I wonder who would want to work for a company that used a computer to conduct the job interview — what kind of message does that send? We also have to acknowledge that technology is only as good as its coders, and it often falls short in unexpected ways. So there is certainly a place for HR technology, but only as something that helps supplement human decision making.

Throughout your career, you’ve worked with companies that have small or even non-existent HR departments. Do you think companies can excel at HR even with minimal resources?

Good HR is about good people, and you don’t need a ton of money or a ton of computers to have a quality department. But you do need to support the people who are there with the necessary resources because good HR will lower your turnover and turnover is exceedingly expensive. So if you’re trying to save money on systems or training, you’re really not saving money in the long run. I would say HR needs to be awesome, not fancy.

What do people most often get wrong about HR?

Employees often think HR exists to be like a union rep when it’s actually there to protect the interests of the company. That means keeping people happy and engaged, but it also means at some point they’re going to fire people. On the other side of the equation, managers sometimes think HR is there to sign off on everything, including their myriad misbehaviors. The mistake people make at all levels of the company is thinking HR exists to be their advocate. Good HR stands up for the interests of the company above all.