Running An HR Department Is A Lot Like Flying An Airplane: Hear Me Out.
Updated: Mar 2
We pulled my kids out of school a couple of days early, citing a "once in a lifetime" opportunity, forgetting that we also pulled them out of school a few days early at the beginning of last summer for a different "once in a lifetime" opportunity. Oops.
As I was sitting on the plane contemplating how much I was damaging my kids' education, I watched how efficiently the pilot and crew got ready for departure. It was like a choreographed dance performance where the audience got to interrupt the performers to ask for favors like mailing a letter that they forgot to post or holding a diaper for "just a second."
It occurred to me that there are a lot of similarities between flying an airplane and running an HR department (that's how much I nerd out on employment/HR issues). Human resources departments, in my opinion, often get a bad rap, but I think that's unfair. HR faces many of the same challenges as other more "operational" (read: revenue-generating) areas, like....an international flight.
Rules and Regulations
In HR, just like in flying an airplane, there are rules and regulations that need to be followed in order to keep everyone safe and happy. While the pilots and flight crew spend hours and hours training on these rules and regulations, the flight won’t go smoothly if the passengers don’t also act appropriately.
HR employees go through a lot of professional development, but also rely on the employees themselves to follow the rules to ensure a smooth working experience. That's a big reason that good HR departments make sure to host lots of trainings for employees, so the employees are constantly reminded of their role in maintaining a successful working environment.
Have you noticed how the pre-flight safety briefings have gotten a lot more interesting these days? HR departments should really take a hint when it comes to employee trainings!
At many companies there are employees, just like with passengers on an airplane, who will try to push the boundaries. These are the employees that try to find every loophole and take advantage of every situation, even when it disadvantages their colleagues. In the aviation industry, these people are called "problem passengers." They're the ones who try to sneak extra luggage on board, refuse to follow the seatbelt sign, or get up to use the restroom when the plane is preparing for takeoff.
I don't advise using the term "problem employees." But while most employees are don't cause problems, there are often a few who try to ruin the experience for everyone else. And, just like problem passengers, such employees need to be dealt with in a fair but firm manner. Just like an unruly passenger on an airplane, an employee causing unnecessary issues can create all sorts of problems for everyone else if they're not dealt with quickly and efficiently. The key for HR is to manage these employees before they have a chance to negatively impact the rest of the team.
When you are flying on an airplane, there are a lot of different people who have to work together in order to make sure that the plane takes off and lands safely. The pilots have to know how to operate the controls, the flight attendants have to keep everyone calm and comfortable, and the ground crew has to make sure that the plane is ready for takeoff. In order for all of these people to do their jobs, they need to follow what's been put in place by the airline.
HR works with a number of different internal and external clients to make sure a company runs smoothly. From vendors, to hiring managers, to the C-suite, HR is often the glue that holds together many different departments. And like with an airline, if one of these stakeholders does not do their job correctly, it can affect everyone else.
Take recruiting for example. If HR's applicant tracking system vendor isn't responsive in fixing issues that HR raises about how applicants are processed, it could cause issues with the routing of resumes, leaving hiring managers scrambling to fill much-needed open positions. Or, if the Finance department doesn't approve job requisitions quickly enough, that will have an effect on the entire recruitment process. Best practice is to have well-thought-out procedures - just like an airline does - to try to avoid as many mishaps as possible.
Of course, there are times when a flight doesn't go according to plan - runway traffic, weather, emergency landings. This is where having a good team comes in handy. The flight crew needs to be able to work together in order to get the plane safely on the ground at its final destination. Similarly, you want a good HR crew to help navigate issues that arise in a workplace. This means making sure your HR department is well trained, professional, and has the utmost integrity. After all, when things go wrong in a workplace, HR is often the first (and sometimes the only) department that employees turn to for help.
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So, the next time you're at 30,000 feet, take a look around and think about how the experience of flying is a lot like running your HR department. From managing employee issues to working with different stakeholders to troubleshooting when things go wrong, there are plenty of similarities between the two. And who knows? Maybe one day you'll be able to put your HR skills to use on a plane.
I'm off to plan my next "once in a lifetime" trip ... I just hope it's not during the school year!