Why an HR career is not for “nice” people

Brian Walker


written on November 29, 2017

Sure, it’s good to be nice. But that won’t help you when there are tough decisions to be made.

Over the years, I’ve often had young talent ask me to mentor them because they want to work in HR. I love to mentor, but I like to do it for the right reasons. I usually ask them why they want to work in HR, and more often than not, the answer goes something like this: “I love working with people, developing them and helping them”. In response I usually say: “If that’s what you want to do then you should work in operations or general management, not HR”. People are often shocked by this honest response. The misperception that HR is a “nice” profession because we work with people is pervasive, and often leads to the wrong kind of talent in the function.

To be fair, being nice is usually an expectation and requirement of the job. But I think this is where some people get confused. They think the role is all about helping people, and mistakenly assume that being a nice person is qualification enough for the function. However, “nice” is only a starting point – it’s not nearly enough.

Fair, not nice

When discussing this with a former colleague, he pointed out that in HR, “We aren’t in the nice business, we’re in the fair business”.

Let’s consider a few HR roles as examples:


Whenever there’s an organisational restructure, there are winners and losers. Dealing with the people that land on their feet is easy. But in any restructure there are those that lose their job, face demotions, or sometimes end up in a role they don’t like. These people deserve a respectful and fair process. Nice is just not enough.

During my HR career I’ve been involved in a lot of restructuring projects. I remember one person in particular; a colleague that I knew and liked, but who didn’t have the right experience or capabilities for the revised structure. When I informed him there was no job for him, he took the paper I tried to give him with key data, crumpled it up, and threw it in my face. It was emotionally very painful, for both of us.

I ran into him about a year later while shopping in a local store. He saw me and called my name. I braced myself for what might come, but he was as friendly as could be. He told me he had a great job, and thanked me for making it possible for him to be in a position to get it. This is a rare and gratifying experience, as usually we never get the backstory. Sometimes they don’t turn out that well. But whatever the case, we must take satisfaction in treating professionals with fairness and dignity.


There are few things as enjoyable as telling somebody they got the job they were really hoping for. Unfortunately, for everybody that gets the job, there are many people who don’t. It’s not so fun to make those calls.

Compensation is about paying people what the job is worth, not what they want. This often causes disagreement and friction. HR professionals must learn to explain facts and reality, not only to employees at all levels, but also often to their managers who feel they should be able to pay more.

Talent management is about differentiating top talent and investing in them disproportionately. Delivering that news to the selected individuals can certainly be enjoyable. But for every top talent there are many who are not at the same level, and we often must explain why we have rewarded others disproportionately.

It’s hard being fair

Learning and development should be about giving people the training they need, not what they want. Employee relations is about ensuring we have a consistent and fair work environment, not to make everybody happy with their circumstances.

Culture is about creating a great and effective working environment, not necessarily a nice environment. Great and nice aren’t synonyms.

Empathy is the key

I believe what HR professionals really need is not niceness, but empathy. We must do the work, sometimes tough work, that our organisations need. As a function, we are often expected to give difficult news and feedback, or to help other leaders give such feedback. It’s always better to give it in an empathic way.


As HR professionals we have to keep it all balanced if we want to maintain sanity. It’s important to take a breath sometimes and keep it all in perspective. I love my job, not because it’s “nice”, but because I find fulfilment in helping the organisation achieve its objectives through human capital. Helping and watching people grow is great. But helping and watching the company grow through it’s people is even more important and fulfilling.

So, if you want to work in HR, please take note of what’s really required for success and make sure you’re pursuing this career for the right reasons.

If you already work in HR, keep perspective and focus on what’s most important. Have empathy, but do the right thing and don’t be afraid to deliver the tough messages.

If you’re neither of these, please go give your HR partner a hug and show appreciation for what they do.

This is an edited version of an article originally posted on LinkedIn. Brian Walker is global HR executive at Unifrax, New York.

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11 thoughts on “Why an HR career is not for “nice” people

  1. Absolutely – HR often gets bad press because too often the profession does what is easy and comfortable and doesn’t have the difficult conversation or do the uncomfortable work. Far easier to talk to the successful candidate and text or auto email the unsuccessful – under the guise of “candidate care”.

  2. This article really resonated with my experience. As an HR ‘generalist’ I deal with a broad range of issues including redundancies, performance management, workcover and RTW, staff development, policy development, EBA negotiations, etc… the list goes on. One of the difficulties is the perception by staff, that HR is the facilitator of social functions, birthday celebrations and gift giving and while these form a small part of the Staff Wellbeing program, it is most certainly not the focus. We simply dont have the time. Working in a stand alone, NFP, medium sized employer, in a marketplace full of large corporate organisations, it has been particularly difficult to encourage and develop a strategic, contemporary approach in a very insular and ‘village’ environment. Most interactions I have with staff are difficult and sometimes quite confronting. Fulfillment for me comes from successfully negotiating the legal minefields HR faces and mitigating risk for the organisation, providing meaningful advice and support to managers and staff generally, so that the organisation can succeed in fulfilling it’s charter.

  3. Brian is spot on and reflects my 20 years in HR. Great article which should be part of any introductory HR course….or advance HR or management course on ethics in business.

  4. This article says a lot of correct things about HR but also shows it limitations. HR gets bad press because it can be stuck in the reactive, the process and the operational – all necessary, but not the complete picture.

    HR needs to be more proactive and strategic:
    – preparing for the restructure and the disappearing roles through communication, providing visibility and transparency around changing work roles and how people can prepare themselves for them by upskilling, L&D programs and job rotation and sometimes new careers elsewhere;
    – giving feedback to unsuccessful candidates and assisting internal candidates to identify clear, actionable paths to new positions;
    – working with senior management about performance and development of staff as routine not part of a biannual “process”.

    Then you don’t have to worry about being “nice” or just “fair” you can be creative, supportive and very useful to ALL the constituencies you serve.

  5. By it’s very nature, the message of this article is to do what is “right”, that which treats people with dignity but delivers the sustainability of a business, not just the people. As co-dependent eco-systems we (HR) need to constantly remind people that the business doesn’t exist for them, but also for the business that it cannot exist without the people (talent).

    Within this lies the responsibility to say “no”, to push back accountability to where it belongs and for HR to stand firm in the work that matters. Anyone can organise a Christmas party or year-end celebration – it doesn’t need to be HR. Unless you want to be “nice”, unless you want to show that we do administration and subservient tasks. The value add we offer is diminished by the non-HR crap we allow ourselves to be burdened with.

    The work and contribution that we advocate defines our profession.

  6. Great article and I agree with Linda that this perspective should be honestly presented to anyone aspiring to the HR profession. I work with a lot of students at the stage when they are about to choose their career path and I’m always very transparent about the tough parts of the job.

  7. I just love this, thank you so much, a great read and I plan on sharing with my executive team. I love this because so often I have found myself I’m a not in a business to chat about a staff members individual issue, and I constantly wait for the shock that occurs when I say ‘you need to speak directly with your manager’ I’m here to help drive performance across the business. I just enjoyed this article so much. Thank you!

  8. Loved the article. I am often correcting people when they say that they think HR is as cushy job (nice, easy). Will definitely be sharing this with our team.

  9. How enlightened we are when the HR shoe is on the other foot. I recently applied for a HR role with a Commonwealth agency. I received a proforma letter advising me that I was unsuccessful. I was hoping to get some feedback. When I tried to phone the sole contact person I was told they were on two weeks holiday.

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