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A human resource for HR workers

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KAI RYSSDAL: Lori Smith fires people. It's not all she does. She's the Vice President for Human Resources at a marketing company in St. Paul, Minn. But over the past year layoffs have taken a good chunk of her time. Lori's company has cut a quarter of its employees.

Lori Smith: I don't do well when I see other people cry. That's not a good thing for me and I know that about myself.

Sean Cole: It makes you cry.

Smith: It makes me cry.

How do you cope when part of your job is telling other people they've lost theirs? For Lori, and dozens of other HR professionals in Minnesota, there's a company called HR Connection, where human resource workers can commiserate and try to cope.

Marketplace's Sean Cole has the story.


Sean Cole: HR Connection holds these small confidential group meetings for human resource workers. Kind of a cross between a business breakfast and group therapy. There are 20 groups in all, 15 people or so per group. Each meets once a month before work. Membership is about $2,000 a year. Usually, the member's company pays for it. They only let me sit in on part of a meeting. A guest speaker sat at the head of the table and gave a PowerPoint presentation about how HR can help workers stay healthy and happy.

Guest speaker at an HR Connection meeting: Like what if you had the question of the week or the question of the month that was, "What would it look like for you to find a little peace and balance despite the chaos in your life this week?"

Of course, nobody ever bothers to ask HR workers that question.

Claudia Rardin: Sometimes working in HR can feel kind of lonely.

Claudia Rardin is a member of this particular group. She's a VP of human resources at a senior care non-profit. And she's living proof of the first fact I learned about HR people. There are two kinds: The emotionless kind for whom laying people off is just part of the job and the feelers.

Rardin: I'm a feeler.

She welled up with tears while telling me about having to fire more than two dozen people at a previous job 20 years ago. More recently, her nonprofit has had to cut a few positions and reduce people's hours. She remembers bringing that news into group.

Rardin: As we went around the table, each person just kinda says what's new in their area and that was one of the things that I shared. And what you get is a nodding of the head, a connection.

Cole: They understand.

Rardin: To say, "Yeah. I understand. I've been there," or, "Man I'm glad that's not me there today."

Now I know what you're thinking: to hell with those guys. They're the ones laying us off. We're the ones you should be thinking about.

Sue Bergstrom: Well, I think we need to be thinking about both.

Sue Bergstrom is the president of HR Connection. She says there are various ways that people in the group help each other with the layoff process. They'll say to each other, "This is what we're facing. Should we reduce hours across the board or just cut jobs? And what's the best way to break the news to folks? And how do we motivate the workers that we keep?"

Bergstrom: And then I would say the final way is just supporting each other, because in many cases then the question gets asked, "How are you doing in the midst of this? So you've just had to tell 200 people that they no longer have jobs. How are you doing?" Every once in a while, there might even be a tear that's shed inside a small group, because it's a safe place.

Kevin Larabee: Who else are you going to talk to about that?

Kevin Larabee is director of human resources for an HR company called First American. He's in one of the other groups.

Larabee: As an HR person you can't necessarily talk about it with your coworkers, 'cause to a certain extent, it's going to be top secret or you're already doing it and the last thing they wanna hear about is your problems, they've got their own problems, right?

I don't think I ever fully appreciated that HR workers are often the first to know when a layoff is coming. And they have to walk around with that knowledge for weeks sometimes, chatting with the very people they will soon fire.

Lori Smith who you met at the beginning of the story says she doesn't sleep much during weeks like that. But the group helps.

Lori Smith: You know, I can remember as recently as last month going into a meeting and just saying "I'm tired. You know, I'm just tired."

And it wasn't just all the layoffs. She says her marketing company is recovering more slowly than some of the other companies represented in her group.

Smith: And so I really needed to just kind of vent about "Look. you guys are talking about merit increases. You guys are talking about bonus programs. That's not even on my radar screen right now. I'm trying to figure out how we can minimize our loss and I'm gettin' burned out with that." And that's not something that I can just walk to the office next door here at work and do with someone.

And you're not exactly one of the gang when you're in HR. You're the bad guy. You certainly have to bear the bad news sometimes. And everyone in this story told me that occasionally, very occasionally, when you lay somebody off, that person isn't just stunned or sad, that person is mad and might turn on you.

Kevin Larabee:

Larabee: I was in a construction trailer. And the guy started stomping around and started throwin' stuff. And at that point, I realized that actually he was between us and the exit, so that was a little bit spooky.

Claudia Rardin:

Rardin: There was one time in my career I did leave for the day after a difficult HR day and somebody had taken a bat or something, and my rear window in my car was all crumbled down.

This isn't just a potentially depressing job, this can be a dangerous job. But any job is a blessing in this economy. And these folks realize that. In fact almost all of them have been laid off at one time or another. So they're not asking for your empathy. They've got each other for that.

Smith: Sometimes you just need to let it out.

Lori Smith:

Smith: And sometimes you just need those people to listen. So often times when we get to the end of a meeting we all kind of look around the room and say, "You know what? You're doing a great job. Keep up the good work. Your organization needs you. You're doing the right things." And sometimes that's all you need."

The only other alternative is to callous over. But all of the folks in this story said if you do, you shouldn't be in HR anymore.

I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace.

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