Seema Desai earned her master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, setting her on a path to becoming a therapist. To pay down her student loans, she needed to get a solid job right after graduation. She was offered an HR Assistant position at Flextronics (since rebranded to Flex), which was a turning point for Desai. The role introduced her to the possibility of Human Resources as a career. She says, “I ended up loving the job so much that I actually decided not to pursue my license as a therapist and just stuck it out with HR.” Human resources tapped into her experience in psychology and coaching, combined with her passion for problem-solving.
During the time Desai was working as HR Assistant at Flextronics, they grew from 400 employees to 13,000 in two years. She says, “Flextronics was amazing, probably the best foundation in human resources I could have asked for. Because I was part of the original HR team, I touched on everything from hiring and onboarding to layoffs and employee relations issues. It set the bar for me on what a good, really well-functioning HR team looks like. The leadership team there were role models.”
The knowledge Desai gained at Flextronics prepared her for a career working in Human Resources. In this interview, Desai provides insight on why effective HR teams are proactive, not reactive. She also shares what it means to be a good leader in HR and how to confront gender bias in the workplace.
Proactive HR should be the objective
In early 2000, Desai switched from an HR generalist to a specialist, transitioning to a role in employee relations and development and training. She hoped that the role would draw upon her strengths in psychology, allowing her to solve problems in work relationships and communications. However, she found that the role didn’t allow her to be proactive. She says, “I felt like not being a generalist and not being that partner to the managers, I couldn't get ahead of the problem. I couldn't see what was going on in the organization, in the team, with management and communication styles, and in hiring decisions.” It’s Desai’s desire to solve a wide variety of problems that keep her motivated to be in HR, so she knew that a more proactive approach was needed.
However, being proactive takes more time and resources, something HR practitioners don’t always have enough of. As Desai explains, “This was before the time of business partners, so this was when generalists did all their hiring, their file making, and their data entry. It was a lot of work.”
Over the years the way we think about HR has been changing, HR teams are being empowered to play the employee and leadership coach as well as shape company culture, champion learning, and foster inclusivity at work. For Desai, this is where the true value of human resources lies. She says, "This is really what HR should be."
Proactive HR needs a strong leader
In order for HR teams to be proactive rather than reactive, they need a strong leader. Desai believes that a truly effective HR leader is most often someone within the company with high emotional intelligence. These people are self-aware and able to self-manage (among other traits discussed in Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence). Leaders who apply that awareness to understanding and improving relationships are most successful.
Desai also believes that good leaders are authentic and trustworthy, play the role of a coach and lead with a vision. Here is the advice she has to offer to leaders:
"Be a leader who is authentic and genuinely cares about employees' well-being and careers. If employees sense that you're not being genuine and really authentic, the connection won't be there. That true connection that keeps employees loyal to you as a leader."
"Trust, like authenticity, is one of those foundations of leadership. If you don't have trust, and mutual trust, you can’t build a relationship. You need to hire the right people, trust them to do their job, and then get out of their way. Be there to support them if they do make a mistake or just to help them grow. They need to trust that you're going to watch out for them and have their back, so they aren't afraid of taking risks and making mistakes."
Playing the coach
"As a leader, your job is not simply to delegate tasks. You have someone's career in your hands, and it’s your job to take that seriously and encourage their growth. Part of playing the coach is giving and taking feedback regularly, so there are no surprises. I always tell managers, that if you give an employee a performance review, and they're shocked by what you're telling them, you haven't been giving them enough feedback throughout the year. Employees shouldn't be shocked by what is on their performance review."
Have a vision
"When a team has a clear vision, they feel like the day-to-day work is leading to a greater good. With so much administration, I think it's easy to get lost in the transactional world of Human Resources. You've got to put things in context to show that today's efforts are building something bigger."
Confronting gender bias in human resources
While Desai has found success as an HR leader, there have been rough spots along her path. Specifically, Desai has been confronted by gender bias and discrimination in her field. Bias can be apparent not only in action but in the language we use when speaking about others. Desai has heard female HR leaders referred to as "mother hens" and "corporate cheerleaders."
She says, “I doubt if they had been speaking with my male counterpart they would have used these words.” Words like supportive, compassionate, approachable, motivating, or inspiring are more gender-neutral and effective to describe an effective leader. As Desai says, “I've frankly never been much of the cheerleader type, but I am highly effective in my job.”
There's an expectation of female employees, especially in HR, to be nurturing and to be likable. Otherwise, they’re deemed to be unapproachable or aloof. “Years ago I had a very senior leader tell me that if every single employee in the company doesn't like me then I am an ineffective HR leader. Not only was that an unreasonable and impossible task, but it's also not my job as a leader of the company to be liked by everyone. Of course, I need to be approachable and unbiased, and being a good listener helps in my job, but being liked? That shouldn’t be the message.” From experiences like these, Desai gains determination to mitigate unconscious gender bias and bring awareness to finding solutions.
The first step is often simply an awareness of what unconscious bias is. Desai says, “There are steps we can take in our hiring and employment practices to be more aware of our unconscious biases and to drive diversity in the workplace, but this is something we're all still struggling with. The best thing companies can do to help drive awareness about unconscious biases in hiring and employment practices is to train employees, not just managers, on unconscious biases and how they impact our decision making in the workplace.”