Will It Play in Peoria? Common Sense HR

In the first few years of my career as an HR Consultant, I worked on a lot of projects with employers in small-town Ontario.  

During one of my projects, for entertainment, I was taken to the local landfill to see the black bears eat garbage and I actually brought a disposable camera to record this event. This is the view from the car at a dump in northern Ontario.

Back in the 1990s, I attributed my continual receipt of such as assignments to be result of being the low man on the totem pole. For some, travel on business is a perk, but it loses some of the glamour when your destination is only accessible by a lumber road or a plane with propellers. I was sure the senior partners in my office said , “Kapuskasing, hmmn, let’s give that one to Titgemeyer.”

As I’ve come to understand later, the reasons why I got those assignments was because I enjoyed them and I sought them and I was good at them. 

You see, I’m a Midwesterner. I come from a small town in the northern Chicago boonies, Woodstock, IL. Back then, we were close enough that we could pick up the Chicago television stations via antenna but far enough away that no one ever just drove into the city without planning several weeks in advance.

When I was growing up, Woodstock was a one employer town and both my father and my uncle worked for that employer. My father was in management and my uncle was in the union. You can imagine the discussions that were had around the dinner table at holidays, and you can imagine the lessons I learned that I have applied to human resources management.

There’s a strange phenomenon, and if you don’t know already, you should know – textbook perfect HR best practices don’t work so well in some situations, particularly in small towns and entrepreneurial or owner-managed companies. 

HR in a Small Town

There’s little respect for the mumbo jumbo/formality of some HR practices in small-town America (or Canada). Case in point, I think you have to approach employee relations differently when everyone on the team has known each other since kindergarten. I’m not saying workarounds are healthy or advocated, but it is far more normal for employers in small towns to change a department structure to address the fact that Betty and Kathy won’t speak to one another than for the company to invest in a performance management structure or create team building exercises that will force the issue. 

If you’re in small town HR, you have your work cut out for you. Part of the challenge in these environments is that the problems have been allowed to continue for so long that they are no longer recognized as the source of workplace problems.

HR in Entrepreneurial Companies

There is so much written in textbook HR about establishing the job and then finding the right candidate. The problem is that in entrepreneurial or owner-managed companies, you already have the people (some great, some flawed), and often you have to figure out how to make the best out of what you have. In these environments, house cleaning exercises are few and far between. After all, Harry will have a difficult time explaining to his sister why her son should be sent out into the world to find a real job. Discussions will have to be carefully planned and scripted and both the tactics you use and choices you make have to contemplate these unique circumstances.

If you are in an owner-managed company, you have your work cut out for you. It is easier to use some problem solving tools when people’s connection to each other doesn’t extend much beyond the workplace. 

HR Approaches

Over the years, I’ve tried to think about what it is, really, that is different about being an HR professional in these types of environments. This isn’t a definitive or absolute list, but here are a few things that I believe are key to successful HR practices in these environments:

  • Policies have to be people-centric and accurate; they can be neither long nor inflexible. 
  • Practices have to be relevant; you lose big points for irrelevancy. 
  • Roll outs must come from within the leadership; they have to be less formal and more personal. 

Don’t dress up HR to be something bigger or more important than the operations. You can refer to compliance, but compliance can’t be the centre.

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I picked the title “Will it Play in Peoria” for this blog to illustrate a point. Advertisers, politicians and musicians have long used the city of Peoria, IL as a market for testing the acceptability of their message in Mainstream America. I think as HR folks, we have to use a similar litmus test for the type of HR we practice, whatever our “Peoria” might be.

Ultimately, a one-size fits all approach to HR is rarely going to be successful.

About the Author

Bonni Titgemeyer

Bonni Titgemeyer is the Managing Director of The Employers’ Choice Inc. She has been in human resources for 20+ years and works in the international HR arena. She is the recipient of the 2012 Toronto Star HR Professional of the Year Award. You can connect with Bonni on Twitter as @BonniToronto, often at the hashtag #TEPHR.

3 Comments

Debbie Brown

Bravo Bonnie, very well said. One size does not fit all, and how things get communicated and received does matter-

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Leona Wilson

So very true that the environment shapes how HR is practiced. We all have to figure out really quickly how to gain support in the challenging situations noted or we lose the respect of our management team. The “how” is everything! Beautifully stated! Textbook update anyone?

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