Humans of HR is a bi-monthly blog series in which we feature human resources thought leaders who are committed to making work more human.
Sabrina Baker spent 11 years in corporate HR environments, working for large businesses ranging in size from 5,000 to 125,000 employees. In 2010, while on maternity leave, she was laid off. She found herself sitting at home with a 3-month-old and a desire to work, so she decided to take her big-business knowledge and dial it down for startups and small businesses.
In 2011, Sabrina launched Acacia HR Solutions, an HR consultancy. She and her team help small businesses not only with day-to-day HR tasks such as legal compliance, but also coach them in HR strategy around culture and employee engagement. We spoke with Sabrina about intentional leadership, trust and autonomy, and being mindful at work.
Workhuman: What does working human mean to you?
Sabrina: Working human is about realizing that there's this whole other part to the employee you see. It’s realizing that you're dealing with a whole person and being very intentional about providing them the ability to balance what they need professionally with what they need personally. We talk a lot about how small businesses can provide more autonomy to let employees manage their lives and their schedules, which helps them be more productive.
Workhuman: Why is that autonomy so important?
Sabrina: People wear many hats. They need the ability to manage their workload as they see fit. Let's trust them to get the work done, and not necessarily on this rigid 8-5, come-into-the-office schedule. Let's trust them to open their life up and figure out how they're going to fit it all in.
Workhuman: Trust is the key there, right? If you don't trust them to get the work done, then why would you hire them in the first place?
Sabrina: Exactly. For small business owners, that's tough. I'm speaking from experience – as I start to outsource or hire employees, it's hard to for me to delegate, to let go of the things I've always done. I built this business. You have to have a process on the front end that enables you to hire people you can trust to do the job, and then you have to let go.
Workhuman: Is there anything you encourage your clients to look for in a prospective candidate that indicates they will be able to trust them?
Sabrina: I encourage them to ask questions around the amount of autonomy they've had in the past. You want people who say, ‘I love it when my boss gives me a task and then lets me go figure out how to do it. I thrive in that kind of place.’ When you're moving so fast and you're just trying to build something, you need people who you can give very quick direction to, and then they just run it.
Workhuman: In what other ways do you help your clients work more human?
Sabrina: We do a lot of leadership development training – not just how to be a good leader, but how to be intentional about leadership. Leaders need to think about how they’re treating employees – what their people have going on in their lives and how they can help them manage through that to the extent that's appropriate.
Workhuman: Are there any common areas in which leaders need development?
Sabrina: Communication is hands-down the number one request. How can leaders know what types of communication employees need? How often do they need it? How do they have difficult conversations when they have to tell an employee they're not performing or that their behavior is disruptive? I'm constantly requested to do training on communicating in a way that's very honest, especially when the feedback has to be constructive.
Workhuman: Can you tell me a story about a challenge someone you've worked with has faced and how you helped them overcome it?
Sabrina: I work with a CEO from a country where being direct is frowned upon. In his culture, it’s common to skirt around the issue. And as the CEO of a company that is growing rapidly, that is not going to work. We worked directly with him and ran scenarios: ‘When this comes up, what are you going to say? How are you going to address it?’ It took a lot of one-on-one coaching sessions, but he says he’s able to talk to people and not feel like that he's offending them, and have honest conversations that are helpful for the relationships he's building.
Workhuman: It's hard when you're afraid of offending somebody!
Sabrina: You have to step back and think, what are the right words? How can I approach this person so they hear what I have to say? It doesn't mean they're not going to get angry, but you have at least said it in a respectful way. In time, they'll digest it and realize you were doing it for their best interest.
Workhuman: What do you feel is currently the greatest need in terms of making work a better place?
Sabrina: Slowing down. Everybody is moving a million miles a minute and we're so focused on the product or the end result for the consumer. But what is the best for employees? How are they doing? Are they stressed? Overworked? Micro-managed? Being more mindful and intentional and looking at the picture internally instead of always being focused externally.
Workhuman: How do you coach businesses to do that and still meet their business needs?
Sabrina: If leaders do performance reviews or business reviews, part of it has to be from an employee standpoint. Look at employee metrics – engagement surveys, data from a rewards and recognition program, turnover rates. Metrics that tell you how you are doing internally have to be looked at as much as financials and external-facing metrics. Leaders often incorrectly assume that if they’re making money and doing what the customer wants, then everything internally must be fine.
Workhuman: Do you have any hopes or predictions for the future of HR?
Sabrina: My hope is that small business HR takes a more active role in leadership. HR has been more administrative and tactical, and there's so much value they can add around working human. They wait for permission that nobody is ever going to give them; they're just going to have to do it.
Workhuman: Do you have advice for HR leaders who want to do that but aren't sure how?
Sabrina: There are some businesses that want a transactional HR person, so first make sure you look at your environment and ask whether they would be open to having somebody who can help them focus on employee issues. And then start offering more guidance and advice when things pop up. Be vocal about how you can make sure your workforce is as healthy as your consumer brand. HR people are often waiting for somebody to see them as business partners instead of seeing themselves that way and acting accordingly.
Workhuman: What value do you get from the annual Workhuman conference?
Sabrina: I love Workhuman. This year will be my third one. It's my favorite conference of the year – the speakers, the vibe, the environment, the energy are fantastic. I tell everybody I know that they need to add it to their schedule.
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