1992: When I was 4, my sister and I went to a preschool in Palm Desert while our family was on vacation there. Presumably this was to keep us busy and prevent us from spending all of our time at the pool.
I made friends with this girl named Hailey, and we became playmates during recess. Things were going great for about a week.
Then, out of the blue, she came up to me and said, “My mom says I can’t be friends with you.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“My mom says I can be friends with Chloe, because she’s American, and you’re not.”
I kept this event to myself until we got home to Newport later that spring, and cried to my mom about what happened. I remember feeling shame, and not understanding why. Quite an experience for a 4 year-old.
It’s 25 years later and this memory has not left me. Prejudice and stereotypes are still very much alive in our world, and unfortunately are part of what make us human. (Listen to the Inquiring Minds podcast episode – The Science of Prejudice to learn more.) However, we can take active measures to reduce their impact and reconfigure our world into one of respect, dignity and empowerment. It starts with awareness.
I’m so grateful to have been raised by two self-made parents, both incredibly strong and encouraging in their own right, who have done nothing but support the aspirations of their children. One happens to be brown and one happens to be white.
I hope Hailey’s mother understands the implications of her words to her daughter all those years ago, how they perpetuate division and fear.
I challenge you to teach your children there is another way, one of community and inclusion. Because we are all human, and all human beings should feel safe and empowered in pursuit of their dreams.
Who she is
I believe happiness is a choice. I smile often and address people by name as much as I can. “So cute, so fun,” is my personal slogan. I can’t sit at my desk for more than 25 minutes before I physically crave facetime (not the app) with another human. I probably cuss 20 times a day. I thoroughly enjoy puns, especially when it comes to nail polish colors.
I’m also known as “The HR Lady.”
An HR professional for the better part of 5 years, I’ve built my professional brand around my ability to connect with and relate to people. Just south of 30 years old, and therefore a member of the millennial generation, three words my colleagues would use to describe me are happy, fun, and approachable.
*As an aside – The evolution of the HR field is a different topic for a different time, but truth be told the internal tension within the field itself – which advocates both on behalf of the employer and the employee – is a slippery slope in its simplest form and has implications at every level at every company. (Again, for another time.)
The first time one of my colleagues referred to me as The HR Lady I didn’t think anything of it. The more frequent the mention this label became, the more it caused me to spend time exploring its origin – why, I, Sara Salam, had become affiliated with this persona.
What she sees
Obvious answer: I work in “HR” and am, on most days, a hard-working businesswoman. Humans tend to defer to familiar categories, in the form of stereotypes and other frames of reference to make sense of our world as we navigate our everyday lives. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to attempt to process, let alone understand, the now 11 million bits of stimuli (it’s true!) coming our way at any given moment.
This protection mechanism initially developed as a way for early humans to quickly distinguish between friends and enemies. Even with this biological shortcut, we’re still at a disadvantage given the changing landscape brought about by the Information Age. Our grandparents saw as many people in one month as we do in one day. Our innate biology struggles to keep up with this avalanche of data, which is a recent development as of the past 20 years, which is a conservative estimate of time.
The challenge is that oftentimes, in light of our biology, we miss out on the whole story. We neglect what might be crucial pieces of information that could shed light on untouched parts of the narrative, and therefore end up with a completely different story entirely. Each individual has their own filter through which they experience the world, which is both a benefit and a challenge that we will explore shortly.
This unconscious bias is human. What also makes us human are our biological needs – be they physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. A New York Times article, Why We Hate Work, explains:
Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.
While every human has these core needs, every human by nature is unique. Again, we each have our own filter through which we experience the world, colored by our parents, our hometowns, travels, relationships, etc. Everyone has a different story, different strengths, different things that make us great. Nike rolled out a campaign in 2012 called “Find Your Greatness.” It highlights exactly this – that everyone is different, and everyone can be great. It’s about identifying what that greatness is and creating your value around it.
Too often, in the hustle of our corporate day-to-day, we forget it is human beings that are running our companies. As Thomas Stewart describes in Intellectual Capital, “the most essentially human tasks: sensing, judging, creating, and building relationships” are now the most valuable aspects of jobs. It’s therefore the thoughts, feelings, and choices generated by the human mind that determine how valuable a company could be. It’s crucial we as employers understand our people, including what they’re thinking, why they’re thinking it, and the behaviors we see as a result. Only then can we take appropriate action to build a workplace attractive, compelling, and motivating to our people, so we can put them in a position to do their best work.
Consider this: if people didn’t worry about threats to their core needs (i.e. mental, physical, emotional, spiritual), how much more time and effort could they allocate towards focusing on moving the company towards achieving its goals?
To complicate matters, we now have infinite tools, brought about by what could be argued as the next technological revolution, that have led to an accelerated pace at which work is performed, and with it higher expectations by employers to get work done. Acceleration of productivity is one thing, but if you’re accelerating without regard for informed, human choices and thoughtful reassessment as needed, you increase the opportunity for misplaced momentum in the wrong direction, whatever that might mean for your business. It then becomes more difficult to keep your people onboard with your vision, should you need to reset and change course too many times. Confidence is lost. Trust is compromised. People revert back to spending time thinking about their own security/core needs, instead of focusing on making their jobs more valuable.
How she works
I view my role as a partner to our business: how can we put our people in the best position to succeed in their own jobs, in the most effective and efficient way, so that they can dedicate their efforts delivering for the business and not focused on basic human necessities. Traditional “benefits”, in the form of medical, dental, and vision coverage, and retirement have historically addressed this idea. Today, in this networked and info-saturated era, these human needs have come to transcend the personal and professional boundary, and as these boundaries becomes less finite, a refresh in philosophy becomes pivotal to the success of business and the engagement of their people.
Humans are social animals, and while some humans are more social than others, there still exists an underlying need for community and sense of belonging. That does not stop in the workplace (which is it’s own community) especially as work/life integration, as compared to work/life balance, becomes the standard. These “benefits” now extend to include “life hacks” such as daily meals, fitness reimbursements, staff happy hours and the like.
Therefore, my day-to-day consists of asking lots of questions, asking our people what they want their outcome to be, what tools do they have that can help them get there, what support they need outside of their own resources. Then we figure out how to help them make it happen. People are SO smart; when prompted with the right questions, it’s amazing what they’ll accomplish with what they already have, or not much else.
It’s a uniquely and distinctly human act that the HR Lady would develop an identity in the workplace as such. Oftentimes I’m the defacto-benefits expert, internal therapist, brand ambassador, compliance officer, salesperson and cheerleader. Because that, on the surface, is the role I play and the persona I embody, given the perspective (Humans are awesome!) with which I approach my role.
In acknowledging we are all human, and every human’s nature is different, we can foster an environment that breeds success, whatever that means for each person in their role at their organization. It’s up to our leaders to identify what these are, and leverage them in each of their people, to optimize not only job performance but engagement and sense of purpose.
Remember, we are all human. All humans are different by nature. In these differences lie our greatness. Find your greatness. Remember YOU are human. Repeat.
Don’t forget that I, the HR Lady, too, am human.