Why Life and Work Is So Very Different in the Aloha State

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IT’S BEEN NEARLY 20 years since I’ve been in Hawaii, but the moment I arrived back in Honolulu last January, it felt like I had never left.

My connection with the Aloha State goes back a long way. Not only did my wife and I honeymoon on Waikiki, but we lived on Oahu for three years in the mid-90s when I was executive editor of Honolulu’s morning newspaper back when newspapers still mattered.

I learned many lessons while living in one of the most remote cities in the world, but one of the biggest and most long lasting was about the strong, positive impact HR can have on a business and the workforce.

Work, and managing a workforce, is different here because Hawaii is different. Yes, it has many of the trappings of America, but it’s really more Asian than American, more a mix of a great many different cultures than probably anywhere else in the U.S.

Caring for our workplace ohana

Ohana, which means family in Hawaiian, especially the good and supportive things that family members should be doing for each other, is at the core of life in Hawaii. And, ohana recognizes the importance of extended family, including your workplace family.

Talent managers and human resource professionals out here need to understand the importance of the workplace ohana and deal with those in it the way they would with actual members of their families.

And, no one made me understand this better than my HR leader in Hawaii.

When I was executive editor of The Honolulu Advertiser back in the mid-’1990s, the HR Vice President at the Hawaii Newspaper Agency was a wonderfully sweet and caring woman by the name of Carole Medeiros. Everyone in the building knew Carole, and everyone knew that she was someone who always offered a kind ear and a comforting shoulder to cry on.

More importantly, the employees all knew Carole had enough clout in the organization to resolve whatever issue you had, but that she was also discreet and would use whatever you told her carefully in her dealings with other managers.

Yes, she had a “seat at the table” long before people even talked about that, and she used that seat to make sure the organization’s people policies put ohana before anything else. Carole could make the tough HR decisions when need be, but she did it with the care and grace you would if the person was related to you — someone who was in your own personal ohana.

Lessons for anyone managing a workforce

Sadly, Carole died in 1996 from cancer at a far-too-young age. But, she taught me a great lesson — HR leaders need to care for their workforce as well as serve the company as the senior executive in charge of talent. And, you could only pull this off if you treat your employees as part of your own ohana.

All this resonates with me because I remember when HR leaders used to take their role as an advocate for the employee very seriously. Yes, there are HR directors who still try, but now it’s more of a balancing act and HR leaders will probably tell you, somewhere along the way, that in the end they are “management” and that they always need to do what is best for “management” and the larger organization.

Much has been written about how HR isn’t taken very seriously today, and how human resources people struggle to be accepted as real business leaders the way other managers are throughout the organization. And, much has been written about how HR struggles to get more credit for their business success.

For my money, the perception that HR doesn’t have business credibility started to grow when HR stopped being a strong advocate for workers and began acting like they were just another manager on the org chart. It diluted what HR always did best, and instead, magnified the image of HR leaders as glorified paper pushers who were overly focused on rules and compliance.

My friend Carole Medeiros was never too worried about compliance, but she was always concerned about the lives of the many employees in the building. She cared for her ohana and wanted the best for all of them, through good times and bad. 

I was reminded of this again while visiting Hawaii again this week, and although I wouldn’t hold out the Aloha State as a paragon of great workplace management, the ongoing focus on taking care of your own ohana is something we could all use a little more of back here on the Mainland.

It’s a great lesson for everyone, and one you don’t need to fly halfway across the Pacific to appreciate.

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