The Human at Human Resources

Jeni Strand, an HR executive in Fargo, North Dakota, talks about the challenges of building a workplace that respects employees’ time at home in an age of the smartphone.

Jeni Strand  (Rebecca Clarke )

Figuring out the best way to manage others, and be managed, is a common concern of working life. What makes a good manager—and what happens when they’re absent—has been dissected by endless studies, articles, conferences, and books. Lots of factors determine whether any employer-employee relationship is a good one, but some argue that responsive human-resources departments can set the tone for the whole office.

Jeni Strand is the vice president of human resources at AgCountry Farm Credit, a company that provides financial services to agricultural communities, in Fargo, North Dakota. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Strand about the importance of good managers, how to retain talent in changing office cultures, and why some people are uncomfortable going to their HR managers for help. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: How did you become human-resources manager?

Jeni Strand: I’ve been in this gig for 25 years. I started out as a legal assistant, and when I was going on to law school I decided that I really like the people side of it. If you combine the legal side with the people side, what you get is HR. I’ve been in my current role at AgCounty Farm Credit for nine years. I love agriculture, and the environment I'm in today is agriculture finance.

Prior to that, I worked for a laundry list of different types of industries: in a manufacturing environment at John Deere; in technology with Great Plains Software, which was acquired by Microsoft; and in the public sector, for the city of Fargo. The one thing that's the common thread through the whole thing is that people are people. It doesn't matter where you work, the bedrock is the fact that you need to take care of people.

Green: It seems like you've worked with lots of different types of people and workers. Have you noticed any particular commonalities among North Dakotans?

Strand: The one thing that comes to my mind instantaneously is a phenomenal work ethic. The commitment that people have to their work, to their professions, and frankly, to their employers, is almost nostalgic of the 1950’s. It's really kind of strange. I hear often from family across the country that if you're from North Dakota and you're looking for a job, you're going to get hired, because people understand that the work ethic is legendary. I think that that is truly what sets apart the people of North Dakota.

I think that reputation is steeped in the agriculture roots of the state: The number of hours it takes, the physical labor, the mental commitment, the adversity, is the bedrock of the whole state. The industry has grown from that over the last 150 years or so, and I think that bloodline is still running pretty strong.

Green: What exactly do you do as a human-resource manager?

Strand: I'm responsible for everybody's relationship with their employer. All of the programs and processes that we put in place are intended to make sure that nobody has to worry about anything other than doing their job. They shouldn't have to worry about health coverage, or a paycheck, or whether or not their work environment is going to be negative. It always has to be positive and uplifting, and for people who love [working in human resources] that's really what they want to do. They want to balance the needs of the individual with the organization, so that the organization can run, and grow, and change, and so that the people are allowed to grow and change with their roles, and with their company.

We say around here that if 95 percent of our population is happy, that still means that some people aren’t. You’re constantly trying to find ways to make sure that everybody's needs are met. The biggest challenge in today's environment is work-life balance. That line between home and work is being blurred continually, and that genie's out of the bottle. It's not going away, so the next level in HR leadership is really trying to figure out, how do we get the organization stuff done, and still let people not be chained to their desks like in the past? People will demand that. They'll demand to be able to come and go as they please if the industry can allow for that. It's going to be a big challenge for organizations that haven't gotten past the 8-to-5, “if I can't see the whites of your eyes, then you're not working” mentality.

Strand: Right now, we're really being challenged, particularly, with younger employees and new parents, who want to be able to work at a branch location if they live farther out from our corporate headquarters. We have a job that's based here in Fargo, but somebody might live in an outlying community 35 or 40 miles away.  If we have a branch office there, our challenge is to get the leadership that's been around for a while to allow employees to work remotely.  We have had to say, "Okay, managers. You've got to think about this differently. We're going to lose this person if we don't get creative and allow them to work, and maybe there's a sweet spot here, and we say, 'Three days a week at the branch closest to their home, and two days a week in Fargo.’” Slowly, we're getting some of the thinking that's been steeped in the past moving forward.

I'm a qualified mediator, so I’ve received 40 hours of training, and that has given me the skills to be able to sit down and have two people talk about where's this gap in expectations, and how are we going to bridge that. The ability to sit down and allow people to give the other person their perspective, if you just would open up and listen [is really important].

Green: That sounds like great advice for life, not just in the workplace.

Strand: Work is life. We don't leave ourselves at the door when we start our workday. That's, I think, one of the things that's evolving, to my delight, in the workplace. We’re getting more and more understanding about the fact that we're employing a whole being. We're employing their families, their history, what's happening in their life, and we better get really good at accepting that nobody just leaves everything else at the door. If we don't hire and promote leaders who can be agile enough to change their thinking, then we're going to fail, and we're going to have turnover. It's the old definition of insanity, to keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.

You can't just warm a seat and be really good at what you do. You have to have innate leadership skills, the stuff that you can't teach. If it's not there, the problems you have with people are almost insurmountable. You almost can't recover if you've got a bad manager.

Strand: For us, it really starts long before we have any position that we want to advertise.  We start with our relationship-building at the three fantastic universities in town, and the most notable is an agricultural school called North Dakota State University. The most brilliant agricultural minds are here in Fargo, and the people that are coming in from their small communities, and from their farms, to learn about the science that is agriculture, we have a very strong relationship with that school in particular.

We're very much active in trying to help people understand that women in agriculture is a really important thing, the financing in particular. The history has been, it's a white guy’s game, and we want to change that. We also have relationships with local groups that are focused on helping disabled people and veterans find work.

That's where we start our relationships, and then we’ll advertise a position, and most of it is electronic. I can't remember the last time I had a hard-copy resume in my hand. We look at the resume as an invitation to a first date. If we like what we see, we'll come on in. We do talk about benefits and compensation that very first meeting, because we think it's important. Everybody's thinking about it anyway. We put our cards out there. We have our hiring managers look for the skill sets, and our HR team is in every interview looking for the emotional and cultural fit. One of the really cool things here is that once we make the hire, we send a welcome basket to their home before they even start working, and it's full of North Dakota products that are made here.  People just go crazy. That's where we hook them, and if we've made a good choice, that person really appreciates the effort we put into them.

Green: How does it make you feel when people lack trust in their human-resources department?

Strand: There are times when people just don't want to talk to HR for some reason. It's almost hilarious. We have 27 different branches, and if one of us from HR goes out to visit a branch, and just say hi to folks, the instantaneous response is, "Oh my god, what are you doing here? Who's in trouble?" Why do people think that? We're here to say hi. We're here to have fun. We're here to buy lunch.

We are rule enforcers to a certain extent, so that's probably where that comes from, and every now and then, if you've got a mandatory training that hasn't been done, we have to open up a can of you-know-what and say, "Get this done. It's part of your job. We know you're busy, but you need to do it." I guess we’ve got that good cop, bad cop thing going. The best thing you can do is make sure that you have created a culture where there’s enough transparency and openness to at least be able to come forward without fear. That’s absolutely critical.

Green: There are some people that believe that, for example, if something bad happens in the workplace, their HR department is not going to be effective in helping to solve those problems. How do you overcome that skepticism?

Strand: We have 27 different locations between North Dakota and Minnesota, and I try to take a good chunk of the summer, get in my car, and go to every single branch.  If they see me, and we sit down as a group over lunch, I can say, “I want you to be able to bring anything to me. You can ask me anything, and if I can't share it, I'll tell you I can't share it, and why.” That relationship builds over time, and that trust builds over time. I think there's an inherent hesitation for anybody in a position of power in an organization to say, “Yeah, well they're just management. They don't care.”

One person said to me one time, "I don't think you hear this very often, but things are better since you've been here." That will stay with me forever. I think you just have to keep trying.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a business owner, a vice president, and an office manager.