HR on Purpose by Steve Browne Book Summary

HR on Purpose, Developing Deliberate People Passion by Steve Browne


Those familiar with the viral Fast Company article “Why I Hate HR” will find its passionate rebuttal here. Author Steve Browne loves HR, and wants to shout it from the hilltops. Most HR executives, he believes, hide behind the administrative aspects of the job to avoid people and all the messiness that comes with them. In describing his own decades-long career in the field, he reveals the true value of the profession: understanding people, caring for them and building a positive work culture. He issues a clarion call: If you don’t have a heart for people, find another profession.


  • HR work is difficult, but a positive, people-centered approach can transform your experience.
  • If working with people isn’t your passion, leave the profession.
  • Use policies and procedures as guidelines, not handcuffs.
  • Find your purpose. It’ll raise the bar for you and your employees.
  • As an HR professional, you are best positioned to shape company culture. 
  • Stop throwing out acronyms and buzzwords that create barriers to improved outcomes.
  • Build strategic relationships and networks to weave HR into the fabric of your organization.
  • Break through outdated notions of what HR people should do.
  • Adapt with the times. Embrace technology, data, social media, and new ideas and practices.
  • Ask yourself the hard questions: What elements of the job do you like – or dread?
HR On Purpose Book Cover

HR on Purpose Book Summary

HR work is difficult, but a positive, people-centered approach can transform your experience.

The HR profession suffers from a poor reputation. The work is exceptionally difficult: It requires a vast range of knowledge, and demands you tackle a seemingly endless list of employee complaints and frustrations. Countless factors – most outside your control – influence employees’ day-to-day moods, attitudes and engagement. You can write procedures and manuals until your fingers seize up, but many employees will never conform. This means the majority of effective HR work involves amateur psychology.

“Working with people is tough. It’s much more challenging than working with processes or procedures because things don’t talk back.”

Gain perspective by acknowledging that you’re human too – complaining and difficult at times. Treat every person and their grievances with respect, even people you don’t like. Stay focused on the people behind the complaints and problems. At the same time, however, gravitate towards positive people and away from whiny ones. Make a list of the positive and negative things about your work. View the negatives as boulders you have to remove in order to focus on the positives. Stay positive, both in your attitude and how you address and interact with others. 

If working with people isn’t your passion, leave the profession.

You spend most of your waking hours at work. If you don’t feel passion for what you do, find something else. If you begin to resent people, you will, inevitably, retreat to your office and use compliance, rules, policies and all the other things people hate about HR to wall yourself off from others. Rules and policy matter, but for HR especially, people matter most.

Consider author Steve Browne’s second job in HR, as a solo HR generalist. On his first day, the CEO asked him why he thought he got the job. Browne said something about running HR. The CEO said no, he hired him to care for the workforce. Then he gave Browne exactly 30 days to get to know each of the firm’s 225 employees, distributed across four locations in two states. Failure meant the CEO would fire him.

Browne hit the road and the phones. After 30 days, he met again with the CEO who grilled him for two hours: ‘Who are Ken, Carl, Ron and Sam?’ Browne knew more than what they did at work, he’d learned their hobbies and quirks as well. At the end of the meeting, the CEO reiterated the point of the exercise: “You are here for my people. If you EVER forget that, I don’t need you.”

Use policies and procedures as guidelines, not handcuffs.

You almost always face shades of gray rather than absolutes in HR. Nevertheless, HR buries itself in procedures, manuals, rules and regulations, as though they can eliminate the vast differences that exist within a workforce.

“We can’t expect everyone to be the same and open to unique individuality of performance and thought at the same time.”

Rules and procedures rarely work to impose unwavering structure anyway. People will ignore absolute rules, and double standards often develop: You or your organization may bend the rules for people you like and weaponize them against those you don’t. Rather than aiming for some universal standard, choose people over process. Make decisions on an individual basis, in the context of the situation and circumstances. Consider employees’ feelings and motivations before logic and reason.

Find your purposeIt’ll raise the bar for you and your employees.

Ask yourself why you chose HR (or stumbled into it). Do you like it? How do workers and executives perceive you? You need to find your why. Without purpose, you can’t do a good job, or expect others to do so. With a purpose, you can transform your experience and impact as an HR professional and a person.

“Print out this sentence and put it on your wall as a reminder, and don’t ever waver from it – ever: MODEL THE BEHAVIOR YOU EXPECT IN OTHERS!!”

When filled with purpose, you naturally exhibit the sense of engagement, commitment and enthusiasm you want to see in others. Y0u’ll also feel more positive and energized. Set the example, and see the effect it has on your people, including senior executives.

As an HR professional, you are best positioned to shape company culture. 

Culture consists of people; therefore, HR owns culture. Others, including executives, play a vital role too, but only in influencing culture. Resist the HR stereotypes – don’t jump to company picnics or silly motivational posters when trying to shape an organization’s culture. First, study the current culture, and the firm’s values and mission.

Recognize that even though employees may say they quit an organization because of their bad manager or lousy pay, these issues stem from a culture that allowed it in the first place. Many subcultures exist within organizations. Don’t try to eradicate or assimilate them, leverage them instead. HR has a culture too. Start there, by switching your focus from rules, compliance and administration, to people.

“If employees leave because you have an awful manager/supervisor, it’s because your company’s culture allows that person to be awful.”

Every single person is unique and brings his or her own mix of skills, strengths and attributes to the job and the company. Don’t attempt to copy another culture, not even from a famous firm like Google or Starbucks. Make your own culture, tailored to your people.

Stop throwing out acronyms and buzzwords that create barriers to improved outcomes.

HR people like to go to meetings and block good ideas by listing all the reasons those ideas might expose the firm to risk. They use acronyms from employment law or jargon from the Department of Labor. Just stop. People might feel pressure to listen politely – and this might make you feel validated or important – but they will just conduct the real business outside the meeting, excluding you. Make yourself and HR useful by taking measured chances and risks and using your skills and knowledge to help people get things done, rather than codifying all the reasons they can’t in ridiculous handbooks, memos and policy documents.

“The more we strive to make things uniform and homogenous, the more we eliminate innovation, performance and creativity from our environment.”

For example, unless employees need certain clothing for safety reasons, tear up dress codes in favor of guidelines. Get rid of policies that hamper employee performance. If you need procedures, write them in plain language, and favor principles over mandates. Take the time to understand why a difficult employee behaves as he or she does. Don’t try to coerce them to conform. Differences, after all, breed innovation and creativity. Break up cliques and tribes at work; bring diverse people and ideas together.

Build strategic relationships and networks to weave HR into the fabric of your organization.

As an HR professional, you will deal with problems every single day. But you can’t break free of administration and transactional work if you find yourself constantly reacting to issues and putting out fires. To contribute at a strategic level, you have to get out front, see the bigger picture and consider HR’s impact across business lines. Think of yourself as a business person first and an HR professional second. Know the business in which your firm competes.

You won’t succeed in weaving HR and people considerations throughout the organization, into strategy and all big decisions, unless you forge strong relationships with your boss, the CEO and other leaders. Likewise, strive to promote supervisors and managers who believe in the need to connect with their team members, care for them and appreciate them. Think of your work as a game of chess rather than checkers. Your colleagues, bosses and managers have key roles and special skills – like chess pieces. Leverage them accordingly.

Leave your office, talk to employees and to the leaders across your firm. Then, build bridges across your departments and teams to utilize people and their talents strategically. You will still have to address problems as they arise. When you get out of your bubble, though, you signal a strategic posture – and people will notice. Even if you operate as the solo HR person in your firm, put yourself in the stream of the business, make connections and build networks. 

“When you take the steps to be out among the people, you can’t help but be strategic.”

You’ll never master the entire field of HR on your own, much less go deep into other aspects of the business through personal experience alone. Join HR associations and groups. You need other people with whom you can share knowledge, advice and experiences, and who can offer emotional support. Build close relationships. Your network should contain as many friends as associates. Every HR person should have and be a mentor.

Break through outdated notions of what HR people should do.

Don’t let others’ notions of what you should do in HR influence you. People might want to see you at your desk looking busy. They might act surprised when you tell them you’re out walking among the plant employees, talking at the water cooler with a manager or simply sitting quietly, thinking about the workforce. They might think you’re wasting time or distracting others from their work. But talking to people and getting to know them helps you understand their challenges and how HR can help them.

“If your senior leadership team thinks that spending time with employees ‘just because’ is a waste of your time, then leave that company.”

If your boss refuses to accept this methodology, quit. You won’t ever change a culture where leaders insist on treating people like nuisances. By seeing whole people and noticing them, you validate them. Many, if not most, workers feel invisible; HR should champion them.

Adapt with the times. Embrace technology, data, social media, and new ideas and practices.

You may have joined HR because you dislike numbers, but that no longer flies. If you ignore trends in data, AI and other technologies, you’ll lose relevance, credibility and effectiveness. Use what your people use, including social media, to communicate. Adapt old-school training to new world modes. Make it as experiential and tactile as possible. When you communicate, put yourself in the shoes of the receiver. Do you have to send that email? Is it succinct? Keep everything you do as simple and clear as you can. 

“You need to know that if you choose to step away from HR technology, social media, artificial intelligence, and the like – others won’t.”

Learn constantly to improve your knowledge of HR and other aspects of the business – from marketing and sales, to operations and finance. Read hungrily, watch videos, listen to podcasts, and attend HR conferences and association events. Failing to keep up with what’s going on in your field, and in your company, puts you on the fast track to irrelevance. It limits your usefulness and guarantees your contributions will remain reactionary and tactical at best.

Ask yourself the hard questions: What elements of the job do you like – or dread?

Engagement matters. It drives higher performance and retention. Resist the hype that makes it feel more complex than it is, though. Avoid off-the-shelf solutions that claim to work in any organization. Think about the way you engage your workforce. Don’t overcomplicate it. Much of the job boils down to simple acknowledgment of employees as people and appreciation of their work. Visiting employees at their desk, and simply thanking them works wonders. Where merited, a thank-you note from the CEO proves very powerful.

Be engaged yourself. You can’t expect others to engage if you mope around the office complaining. Which things make you engaged and passionate about the work, and which don’t? Do employee issues and complexities spark your energy or diminish it? Knowing the answers to such questions, you can work on reducing or even removing the elements of your job that drain you. You might even feel prompted to change your career.

“It’s time for us to change our approach. If you’re not passionate about HR, get out. Change careers. Seriously. Not a joke.”

Most employees want to show up and perform at their best. Let them. Make the workplace safe for feelings, emotions and different perspectives. Encourage everyone to bring everything to work – not just the comfortable, conforming bits, but their challenging ideas and issues too. 

About the Author

Steve Browne

Thirty-year HR veteran Steve Browne serves on the board of directors for the Society for Human Resource Management. He works as the executive director of human resources for a restaurant chain in Ohio.

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