HR and Taking Risks—Unlikely Bedfellows?

By Barbara Mitchell
HR Expert and Co-Author
The Essential HR Handbook

HR people, on the whole, don’t tend to be risk-takers. I observe this all the time as I interact with HR professionals in different situations.

Yet, while many HR people would prefer their work worlds to be defined, no matter how hard we try, the people we support constantly push us out of our comfort zone.

I, for one, think that is a good thing. Why? Because when HR professionals—or any business person for that matter—get too settled, they risk becoming complacent.

HR supports the organization and its people, and we work to maximize the success of employees so that the organization can grow to new and exciting levels. And to do that, you have to take risks.

That said, I know how hard it can be to get comfortable with risk. Until the mid-point of my career, I would never have said I was a risk taker. I had worked for Fortune 100 companies for my business career and had loved nearly every minute of it. Then, I was offered an opportunity to join a start-up company! I thought long and hard about whether or not to take the opportunity.

What was I giving up? What if the start-up failed? Did I trust my abilities to take on this challenge? Ultimately, I took the risk—and it was one of the best decisions I ever made in my professional life. I quickly realized that I had become complacent in my old job. I had a wonderful support system around me, and all I had to do was what I had been doing for year—I didn’t have to think much because I had done it before, or I had someone I could go to for help if I hadn’t already mastered the task.

At my start-up, I was totally on my own. I had to create the HR function from scratch, and that meant I needed to call on skills and experiences from way back in my past. It was exciting and so much fun.

I realized that I knew a lot more than I thought I did, and that it was a lot more challenging to create something than implement the decisions of others—which is what happens when you are in middle management in huge corporations!

I liked it so much that three years later, I did it again in a new company in a new industry. That was even more challenging, because in a start-up, everything you do has your stamp on it.

The only negative was that I had no one to talk to in the company to bounce ideas off of. So we created an industry group that met monthly to share ideas and to help each other through the daily challenges of a start-up. Many of these people are still part of my professional network many years later.

I realized that taking professional risks had paid off for me, so I took an even bigger risk in 1998 when, with a colleague, we started our own consulting practice. There is no way I would ever have done this if I hadn’t already taken risks and learned from them.

We spent nine months discussing our vision for the new practice and how we would work together—all this before we made the final decision to actually do it! Then, we worked out the legal issues and everything else that goes into starting a business. It was a risk, but one I had every confidence would pay off and it did. We were highly successful for a decade, and ultimately sold the business in 2008.

The bottom Line: Take a Risk!

  • You don’t have to start a business or even make a job change to take a risk. Rather, all HR professionals should pride themselves on taking risks in their jobs and in their organizations.
  • Start by speaking up in a management meeting. Surely you have some great ideas. Share them.
  • Be bold and encourage company leaders to make ethical decisions.
  • Expand hiring sources to include people who might not otherwise have been included in a typical search.
  • Make recommendations, come up with and discuss big ideas, and gently push leadership to take some risks themselves.

No, not everyone is comfortable taking risks—but I highly recommend it. Just get as creative and courageous as you can, and starting thinking of exciting places you can help take your organization.


About Barbara Mitchell

Mitchell is a human resources and organization development consultant who is widely known in the areas of recruitment and retention. She has experience in both for-profit and nonprofit sectors and has consulted for a variety of organizations around the world.

She served in senior human-resources leadership positions with Marriott International and several technology firms in the Washington, DC, area before co-founding the Millennium Group International, which she sold in 2008.

Her books include The Essential HR Handbook, and The Big Book of HR. Click here to buy the book.