HR On Purpose – Steve Browne

Steve Browne is the blogger behind Everyday People, and right off the bat, you can tell that this is a book that’s going to jump off the pages at you. Browne has a sense of humor and he’s not afraid to use it to bring his subject to life. In fact, it’s remarkable that he’s able to get so passionate and excited about an industry that he’s been working in for over thirty years.

In this book, HR On PurposeOpens in a new tab., Browne brings together this experience with a range of case studies that are designed to help you to rethink your approach to HR from the ground up. It almost doesn’t matter how much experience you have coming into this book, because you’ll get the best results from it if you forget everything you thought you knew and start again from scratch.

The key is to go into this book with an open mind, so prepare to look at human resources with an entirely fresh pair of eyes. Let’s take a look at what Browne has to teach us.

Developing Deliberate People Passion

Browne kicks off the book with a hard-hitting warning: most people don’t see their job as a career, and in many cases, it’s not even a choice. It’s simply something that they do to make ends meet, a necessary tool for survival but not something that they’re emotionally invested in. Steve has made it his life’s mission to change that, ever since he first got into HR all those years ago.

In Chapter One, the author talks about his love for the MTV Unplugged series and how when he first watched Kurt Cobain sing All Apologies, he was reminded of HR. That’s because people outside of HR often say that human resources specialists are almost apologetic for being in the field. Browne says it’s time for that to stop. “It’s time for you to own who you are as an HR professional,” he says. “Much of what we do hinges on two things: our perspective and our approach.”

Perspective is the key word here, as much of Browne’s advice comes down to changing the way that you look at things. For example, he asks the reader if they know what happens when kids grow up. “When I’ve asked this at conferences and forums,” he says, “people have bombarded me with answers that were unfortunately negative. We often look down on those who are younger than we are. Here’s the answer to the question: They become our employees.”

Ask Me Why

Browne says that when babies first learn to talk, two of the first words that they learn after “mama” and “papa” are “no” and “why.” “Isn’t that great?” he says. “The first word is all about defiance and defining boundaries. Parents get exasperated because ‘no’ is used so often that when ‘why’ comes along, they feel it’s defiant as well. However, when kids ask ‘why,’ they’re trying to learn and seek context.”

According to Browne, the same holds true in the workplace. People want context, and you could argue that they actively need it if they’re to do the best job possible. And yet despite that, too many employers and managers obfuscate the why, whether accidentally or on purpose. HR professionals must lead by example and show that asking the why isn’t an act of insubordination but rather an attempt to find context. By shutting down those why questions, you’re preventing employees from understanding the context they work in, and you’re also creating a culture in which people will become afraid to even ask those questions for fear of repercussions.

This all comes back down to the type of culture that you have at your company. Browne provides three key elements that you need to understand in order to understand culture:

·       Culture is never the same: “Every single person is unique and brings his or her own mix of skills, strengths and attributes to the job,” Browne says. “So if everyone is unique, why do we continue to force conformity or a homogenous workforce?”

·       There are many, many, many cultures in your company: Browne says that we have “an overall company culture as well as microcultures within departments, locations, geographies, etc.”

·       Senior management doesn’t own culture – HR does: This one has caused a little controversy, and Browne admits that it’s true that senior management strongly influences business decisions and the environment in the organization. But he also points out that culture = people, people = HR and that therefore HR = culture.

Bottom Shelf Thinking

HR has always been complex, and it’s only getting worse thanks to the speed of today’s society and the proliferation of new tools that are available to us. Then there are buzzwords and business slang that further confuse meanings and cripple communications. Luckily, Browne says that bottom shelf thinking is the answer.

“Take everything you do and put it on the bottom shelf,” Browne explains. “When you go into a grocery store, you are drawn to the things placed to catch your eye. Companies intentionally pay for better shelf space so that you will look at their brands in the hope that you’re more likely to buy their goods. We have to do this in HR. We have to get in the line of sight of our employees and make our goods attractive and accessible.”

Browne also shares a lesson that he learned from his own personal history when it comes to how HR is presented to the rest of the company. He grew up in a family with a background in farming and a strong work ethic, and he says that he learned that whatever happens, you need to get your work done. At the same time, he’s met other HR professionals who’ve candidly described their main responsibility as “putting out fires.” If you’re constantly putting out fires, people will think of you as a firefighter. Instead, you need to get ahead of the game and be more proactive so that people don’t just turn to HR as a last resort.

All By Myself

“One of the biggest challenges we face as HR professionals is that we have no one to talk to inside our organizations,” Browne says. “It’s just because we deal with situations and information that can’t be shared. The reality of confidentiality is a daily weight.” The good news is that he also offers a solution, which is to find a mentor. There’s no need to be all by yourself, and besides – “You can’t be a mentor to another unless you have a mentor yourself,” Browne says.

There’s no need to be all by yourself if you’re doing HR on purpose. Brown advocates for leaving your desk, spending time going between different departments and actively talking and listening to people. He illustrates this with a story about a manager who aggressively asked employees, “You’re fine, aren’t you?” and then accepted their meek replies as confirmation that they were happy in the workplace. Browne, on the other hand, had taken the time to build rapport with staff and to listen to what they were actually saying. The truth is that they were anything but “fine” and that the manager was a part of the problem.

Working with people isn’t always easy, and Browne says that even the best HR professionals are occasionally drawn to the dark side. Fortunately, he’s also provided a few tips to help to avoid that:

·       Remember that everyone has value: Every single one of us has “stuff” going on in our lives. At the same time, we often talk about employees as if they’re not people. We need to remember that everyone has value and that everyone is different, and to structure our companies accordingly.

·       Surround yourself with positive people: They say that each of us is an amalgam of the people that we spend the most time with. Surrounding yourself with positive people will help you to be more positive yourself.

·       Have an accountability partner: As people, we tend to work better when we have someone or something to hold us accountable. It’s the same concept as having a workout partner at the gym.

·       Be the light in the dark: Ultimately, this all comes down to leading by example. If you set a good example and people look up to you, they’ll follow in your footsteps. “You have the choice as to how you will approach people every single day,” Browne says. “If you think poorly about others, it will show. If people constantly bring a sigh to you and not a smile, then you can see how they view you.”

Removing Boulders

According to Browne, most people are negative. That’s quite the statement, especially when you consider that Browne himself is generally positive and optimistic. “Negativity breeds negativity,” he says. “It never does anything constructive, and it only leads to angst, frustration, and ineffectiveness. It’s astonishing how little negativity needs to occur for the morale of many people to be squelched.” He suggests that the answer to this is to remove boulders: “the things that get in the way of people being productive.”

A big part of this is about being and thinking differently. Browne reminds us that only dead fish go with the flow, adding, “People are naturally diverse, and that makes them amazing! We all come from different cultures, heritages, family structures, education, economic levels, and life experiences. We’re like a giant knot of characteristics that are intertwined and not easily able to be categorized. It would be great to see that our differences make us stronger. This belief needs to be foundational to HR and in our workplaces. Instead of becoming frustrated with differences, we should explore them and allow them to flourish.”

Browne also says that every single company on the planet struggles with two major components: communication and training. He says that we can combat this by following a process known as “show, do, review.” The idea is to combat that fire-fighting mentality by first taking a step back from the business, evaluating how things are going and then deciding on a path that will work. The key to communication is to show what’s going to happen and to explain why it’s necessary, to “do” by making those changes and then to review it afterward to see if the desired results were achieved.


There’s plenty more to Browne’s book, including fantastic chapters on building tribes and networking, but that’s just more of a reason for you to go out and buy a copyOpens in a new tab.. The entire thing is packed with so many valuable lessons that no blog post could ever hope to cover them all, and Browne’s writing is easy to read, and his lessons are easy to put into action.

By now, you should have a pretty good idea of how Browne’s approach to doing HR on purpose can help your business, no matter how big or small it is and no matter what industry it’s in. The next step is for you to put what you’ve learned into practice. Remember that developing deliberate people passion isn’t just a quick fix that you can carry out but rather a way of doing business that will continue to add value for the months and years to come.

Bear in mind that we’re only just touching the surface when it comes to the insights that Browne has to share in this book. After all, it spans the entirety of his impressive career and manages to pack a surprising amount of content within its 150 pages. Browne’s writing is simultaneously approachable and to the point while also covering complex topics and communicating original thinking.

So if you’re responsible for other people in the workplace, consider giving HR On Purpose a try. All of the insights are tried and tested, and on the rare occasions that they’re not easy to go ahead and implement at your own company, it’s because they communicate an ethos or a way of thinking that you can adapt and repurpose as needed. There are few other books like this on the market, so we recommend picking up a copy and giving it a read. You won’t regret it.

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