HR: You Should Be More Than Just a Fire Extinguisher…

A fire extinguisher is an active fire protection device used to extinguish or control small fires, often in emergency situations. [Source: Wikipedia]

OK, so where am I going with this? Well, we should all be familiar with the purpose and importance of having a functioning fire extinguisher in our homes and in our workplaces. What we know about them include:

  • We usually know where they are if we need them.
  • They are available if needed for an emergency.
  • While we all need to have them in the vicinity, most hope to never use them.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, in some organizations Human Resources (HR), either by their own choice or developed over time as part of the workplace landscape, is treated like or operates like a fire extinguisher…just hanging around and accessed only if needed in an emergency. HR…it doesn’t have to and shouldn’t be this way!

While a fire extinguisher may be an effective tool in putting out a small fire, it has its limitations. It can’t anticipate and prevent a fire. It can’t leave its’ location without assistance. Rather, it is accessed and used in a reactive rather than proactive way.

To illustrate how I believe that HR professionals can and should be more than just a “fire extinguisher”, I would like to compare and contrast five characteristics of a fire extinguisher versus an effective HR professional.

Visible – Most fire extinguishers, particularly in businesses and workplaces are very visible. There may be regulations and legal ordinances requiring clearly marked signs to indicate where fire extinguishers are located. This is critical as the time when they are typically needed is in an urgent emergency. What about Human Resources?  Sure, you may have a sign on your door or on your nameplate that says “HR”. Other than that, are you visible?

In most of my HR roles, I have made it a point to get up from my desk, get out of my office, and make myself visible to as many staff members as possible. This could be as simple as walking into the workplace through a different entrance each day to greet employees, get the lay of the land, and just be visible. This helps employees to know who you are, and doesn’t require them to seek you out if they have an immediate issue when you see them. Some of my best HR work has been accomplished by just “running into” employee in their work areas to provide assistance to them that they might not otherwise have sought.

Accessible – In addition to being visible, a fire extinguisher must be accessible. If you need to access it, and it is blocked or otherwise inaccessible, it is of no use to you at the time. The same can be said for the HR professional that is not accessible. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be reachable 24/7/365 (although I’ve been in that place at many times in my HR career), but at least allow for the easy access by employees to HR and the  information that they may need in a timely manner. Some accessibility for employees may be self-service tools such as kiosks and other online resources. Ideally, if an employee needs assistance, being able to access HR should be easy and accommodated in a way that provides a timely response. Much like a fire extinguisher, with the many complex issues that make their way to HR, timeliness can often make all the difference in the world.

Reliable – So you have the need to use a fire extinguisher due to a fire? My guess is that “reliability” is going to be at the top of your list when pressing down on the handle and aiming the hose at the base of the fire. If the unit is not reliable, it is of no use to the user and the fire will not be extinguished. The same can be said for an HR professional that is not reliable when carrying out the duties of their position.

There are so many issues, often urgent, that employees depend upon an HR professional for answers and assistance. Being reliable means being consistent, trusted, and dependable. Remember, it doesn’t necessarily mean infallible or omnipotent, but at a minimum, performing in a manner where employees can feel confident that when they reach out to HR, then can expect reliable service.

Purposeful – Most fire extinguishers have a label or tag that indicates the type of extinguisher it is and the types of fires that they should be used for. For example, some fire extinguishers may be designed for specific types of fires (wood, flammable liquids, etc.). Also, it is important to also know how and when to use a fire extinguisher. Generally, it is used after anyone in the area is alerted to the fire, when the fire is small enough to be safely extinguished, and per the instructions. Knowing when to call the fire department can also be a critical decision in these instances.

HR professionals should also be purposeful in their actions. Too often, HR can be looked upon as the “department to fix everything!” Sure, most of the contacts that HR receives involve some sort of problem resolution, but this doesn’t mean that HR should be expected to be the solution to all problems. In many instances, other individuals and resources, other than HR may provide the best solutions to certain problems. Whether it is a front-line supervisor addressing issues with their direct reports, an Employee Assistance Counselor providing support and professional resources, or an attorney offering legal advice, it is important for HR professionals to respond in a purposeful way, and also know it makes sense to defer to others, when needed.

RechargeableAll fire extinguishers must be maintained and recharged to remain effective. It would be unfortunate to have a fire occur, grab the nearest fire extinguisher to put out a fire, and find that it is ineffective. Most fire extinguishers have a pressure gauge that indicates the current state of the device, and if it needs to be recharged for optimal use. Unfortunately, HR professionals don’t have a visible gauge that indicates their current state however like a fire extinguisher, without periodic recharges, they too can be less effective.

Many HR professionals experience stress in the workplace due to the nature of their job and their many responsibilities. Most employees contacting HR are not calling to just say ‘hi” but usually have a problem or issue that they need assistance with, often being issues of a critical nature. Compound any workplace stress with individual challenges outside of workplace, and an HR professional can often find themselves badly in need of a recharge.

Self-care has been at the forefront for many, particularly during the pandemic, with added stresses overlapping at both work and home, which for some remote workers, existed in the same location for the first time! Each HR professional needs to identify ways to care for themselves and as needed, seek assistance from their friends, colleagues, Employee Assistance, or health care professionals to find creative and effective ways to reduce stress.

Since HR professionals are often focused on helping others rather than their own self-care, it can become easily neglected. Like the fire extinguisher, you must find ways to recharge yourself to be effective.

As I conducted my research for this post, I found that I learned a great deal more about the fire extinguisher than I ever wanted to know. They are one of those devices that we can often take for granted, walk past every day in our workplaces without giving a second thought, but can turn out to be a lifesaver when they are needed most.

This also reminded me about how the human resources function can too be taken for granted in our workplaces with our offices passed by without employees giving HR a second thought. However, we must remember that in all of work that we do, we have the power and responsibility to impact the lives of our employees, often when our expertise is needed most. We should also keep in mind that through our work, we can be more much more, visible, accessible and reliable than a static, stationary, human-operated safety device like a fire extinguisher. As an HR professional, embrace the responsibility, and take a lesson from the simple words of an icon related to preventing fires and remember…” Only You.”

This image is a work of the Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.

As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

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