By Ian Gee
As part of our research into the relationship between HR and entrepreneurs, Dee Ortner and I have just completed the analysis of our survey of HR professionals about their experiences of working in the entrepreneurial/startup space. One of our survey respondents said, ‘When entrepreneurs realise they have a need for HR, they tend to seek out a perky admin assistant and give them the job.’ This made me stop and think. It wasn’t the fact that an HR person might come to the profession via an administrative role that caught my eye, as many of us have trodden that path in the early stages of our HR careers. It was more the word ‘perky’ that stopped me in my tracks. I wondered, would an entrepreneur seek out a ‘perky lawyer’ or ‘perky accountant’ when the need for those types of services arose?
I decided to look up definitions of the word perky. Wiktionary defines perky as being ‘lively and enthusiastic’ and gives this example ‘She answered with a perky smile and bounced off’. In my searching of the web I came across something called ‘The Baby Name Guesser’. This provided the following information about Perky:
“It’s a Girl! – Based on popular usage it is 2.226 times more common for Perky to be a girl’s name. The popularity of Perky is 5.054 – where 0 is extremely rare and 6 is supper popular!”
I think that we can take our survey respondents use of the word ‘perky’ to be a stereotype for a certain kind of young woman as opposed to young man. I am sure perky young men exist in the workplace and HR; I have met a few in my time as no doubt so have you! I also make no judgment at all about whether perkiness is good or bad. Perky people are certainly more fun to be around than their opposite numbers; people who are depressed or gloomy. I am sure we have all met far too many people in organisations, male or female like that! What I am interested in is the implications of perkiness as an active stereotype of HR professionals.
I define a stereotype as an oversimplified way of thinking about individuals, behaviours or ways of doing things. Stereotypes are not always accurate but they do have the power to influence the way we respond or react to people and situations. Once they are active in the world they tend to spread and get a life of their own. They are very hard to challenge and can prove to be a huge hindrance to adult-to-adult dialogue, derailing the possibility of true engagement and development. We all of us hold stereotypes and I am sure we can think of countless examples of when they have got in the way of our doing good work and making good decisions. It’s hard to challenge them within ourselves and within others. However unless we can test and challenge them it’s all but impossible meet reality face on and deal with what is real authentic and true.
I believe that the stereotype of the perky HR person has big implications for the practice of HR and also how seriously HR is taken by businesses. If we accept that the stereotype of perkiness is female then it is not too much of a leap to say that HR is heard by business leaders as having a woman’s voice, regardless of the gender of the speaker. As we all know women’s voices, in the world of business, despite many years of diversity training, education and in some countries positive action, are still not accorded the status they deserve. HR professionals have spent many years striving to be at the ‘top table’ as equals and not just to serve the tea! I am sure many of us have been to workshops, read books and articles about HR’s journey towards business partnership and the struggle this entails. What I have never read anything about is the notion of HR having a women’s voice, regardless of the gender of the speaker and this being part of the reason why HR so often struggles to gets its voice heard and be taken seriously by business leaders. I don’t believe that being perky is a credible attribute in the world of business, when tough decisions need to be made.
If this is the case then the critical question is what does HR need to do to challenge and break the stereotype? Dee and I will be exploring this, in relation to the entrepreneurial space, in a series of articles to be published later this year. But in the meantime it would be great to know what you think. Does HR speak with a women’s voice and if so what are the implications of this? Please join in the discussion.
Our research into the relationship between HR and entrepreneurs/startups continues. We are now conducting a survey with Entrepreneurs/startups as to their views of HR. The purpose of the survey is to better understand their needs and their understanding and use of HR. It would be great if you could share the survey with any entrepreneurs/startups you know and encourage them to complete it. The survey (https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/3SXCYY6) of 11 questions takes no more than 4-5 minutes.
My friend Tim Gorree has offered an innovative bit of help with our research. He is launching a ‘Mission’ on Empire Avenue (http://empireavenue.com) on Tuesday 11th June to see how many entrepreneurs he can get to complete the survey. We will be using a different URL for this survey as it will be interesting to see both how many we get and if the responses differ markedly from the more traditional ways we are using to get the survey out. I will keep you posted.
Again many thanks in advance for both your comments and support.