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HRM should enable people to be successful, whatever that success may be. But to to that we need to evolve towards  “personalized” HR. Personalization stands for adapting certain practices to personal needs and strengths of employees.  I am not talking about ideosyncratic deals about salary but rather on finding ways that help people to have personal success in their careers, their lives, … depending on their own priorities. Personalization means that there is no judgment whatsoever about the goals one should be pursuing. There are no normative expectations about how to fulfill one’s life even though HR might still be inclined to call upon people to “unleash their full potential” and make it available to the company and to society. This missionary man approach is counterproductive because it starts from an external and normative point of view. HR should start at the individual level.
What sort of HR is “personalized HR”? Shall companies have to give in on every wish and desire an individual employee has? Is it the end of collective bargaining? Shall there be no regulations at all? What is the future of an HR that no longer focuses on compliance and control but rather on enabling people to lead their lives and structure their careers in a way that they see fit?


A personalized way of doing HR is in the first place an empathic HR. There are three aspects to empathy. First, it means that you can understand the motives, feelings and desires of another person. Second, it means that you can show that you understand and act upon that understanding.
Imagine that your employee enters the room and you already know what he’s going to ask. More, you’ve prepared your answer and you are able to come up with a solution that is exactly what the employee wants. He did not even have to ask the question and he leaves the conversation with an answer. This is not about telepathy; it’s about knowing what drives your employees, what they need. Imagine an employee that has a loved one that is ill and needs special care. If that is the priority of the day, you should enable him or her to do just that. There are laws in many European countries that allow people to take leave of absence for care taking purposes, but you should not allow someone to take leave of absence because of a law. Imagine that your answer would be “I understand your problem, but anayway, I cannot stop you from taking leave of absence because there is the law”. Or that you’d say : “I’m sorry, but your demand comes at a bad time. I’d rather you’d finish your work”. You would have ruined the day, you would have ruined the relationship. Instead, if you would answer “I’m sorry to hear it and I feel for you. If there’s anything we can do to help you, just say it” you might have given an answer that creates connection.


Now is that so special? Isn’t that the decent thing to say? Yes it is. It is mere kindness. A personalised way of HR is a humane HR. It puts the “H” back into the equation. Is this a new form of paternalism? I don’t think so. Philips and Taylor (2009) have stated in their essay “on kindness” that over the past centuries, human kindness has been banned from society (and also from business) and has been reserved as a feminine trait that is reserved to the mother-child relation. In a masculine and competitive  world kindness did not have its place. Nevertheless, as a person you can feel your impact when you are kind to someone else. It shows that you can make a difference and it even makes you feel good. But you can only be kind if you have empathy.


Personalized HR is not only humane and empathic. It’s also reciprocal. It would be paternalistic to think you know what’s best for the other. You simply don’t. Even if you think the person is taking the wrong decision, you should not judge. Of course you can offer advice or you can create conditions for someone to take the best decision possible, but you cannot decide. And therefore a personalized HR is a mature HR, built on partnership and trust. The reciprocity is also about the contribution you expect from other people. People are working in your company to contribute, perform. That is an essential part of personalized HR.


Help! HR is growing soft? Talking about kindness is not something you do a lot in a business context. So are we losing our business acumen ? Have we gone totally soft? Are we as hrchitects condemned to the periphery if we talk about kindness instead of about costs, process efficiency, KPIs ?
First, it’s not because you base your actions upon your empathic understanding of an individual employee’s situation that you will do literally anything without limits for that person. Second, maturity of the relation means that there is balance and equality. And that balance is constructed around the idea of contribution. Equality means that the contribution of all has the same intrinsic value, everyone plays his or her part. You will provide personalized solutions as long as there is a return, not in order to have a return. Third, even if you are looking for personalized answers, you will do this in a collective context. Because apart from empathy, humanity and reciprocity, there is a fourth more collective element that is still missing. And that element is justice.


Following Rawls’s (1990) Theory of Justice, you can define justice as fairness. Being fair is the cornerstone of a personalized HR. You will not adapt your system of justice to a personal grievance or preference. It’s justice that makes sure that the personalization of HR does not lead to centrifugal forces. If people feel that they are treated fairly, even when treated differently, then people will understand and accept. Why? Because justice reassures, creates predictability (procedural justice) and creates trust.
Justice in itself is value-based. And by providing values you give people guidelines for behavior. It’s not the law that makes you behave, it’s the values behind the laws that are important. So the values express a collective understanding on how someone should behave and what is expected as contribution. And those values are the basis of any culture and any system of justice. And finally, justice is one of the preconditions for engagement.


So there are 4 criteria for a personalized HR : empathy, reciprocity, humanity and justice. If we can integrate these elements in our “H ” approach we can create a company where people really come first. People will feel treated as a person and they will be convinced that they can realize their “mission” within your company.
Would love to hear other ideas on this.
See also these blogs
I-Deals: you deal for I-deals
I-deals a risky deal ?
On Kindness

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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