Thursday, May 23, 2013

Whose team are you on, anyway?

Why employees feel HR is not on their side. Or…..Here, we’re random and unfair!

Ideally, we’re all on one team. However, it’s clear many people don’t really understand the relationship.

We in HR walk a fine line, each and every day. Our job is to represent and support management in the mission of the company; in order to do that, we have to manage and support our resources (human resources). If done well, in my opinion, that also translates into being an advocate for employees. I believe, as do many others, that what that advocacy really means to employees is not well understood.

What does it mean to represent and support management and employees? How does that work? We do both in many ways.

In order for companies to operate legally in terms of our employees, there are hundreds of laws and regulations we must follow (when you consider state, county and city, maybe even thousands). HR is tasked with making sure the company complies with all of these laws and regulations. In this sense, we advocate and support both the company (management) and the employee, since complying properly normally results in employees being treated consistently and fairly; and the company continues to operate within the law. What you think is our insistence on being too "by the book" and inflexible, is really the necessity to follow the law so we all continue to have a place to come to work!

Any particular employee may not agree it’s fair if she doesn’t get what she wants, but our own individual definition of what’s fair is not necessarily consistent with what the laws we must follow consider to be fair. (And to be fair, what some may view as "unfair" does not make it illegal.) We need to be fair, and consistent to all, as much as possible; not just to one or two.

Most employees don’t understand or see that HR is in a balancing act between representing and supporting the business and fairly dealing with an employee’s complaints. The employee views the situation in terms of how it affects her. But, she does not understand that making an exception for her involves the concept that we may very well have to make the same exception for others, who may in fact be less deserving of that same consideration. Doing so can be impractical from not only a business standpoint, but actually ends up being -- unfair.

It’s not unusual for someone to come and complain to HR about another employee, a supervisor or manager. We can’t simply act on one report of potential wrong-doing. Would you think it fair if you suffered consequences based on one person’s opinion that you violated a policy or did something wrong, one time? Not likely. So, we need more documented evidence that a problem actually exists before acting on it. This benefits both the employee and the company. People need to be told what the expectations are and given a chance to correct. Immediate action by HR or management on a complaint is not always prudent. There will always be exceptions (violence, harassment or discrimination, for example). Again, done correctly, everyone is represented and supported.

In a similar vein, if an investigation of some type does occur, and if some disciplinary measure is taken, we’re not going to announce it over the loudspeaker. We’re all about confidentiality. Employees who don’t see an obvious result of their complaint may think nothing was done and feel they were ignored. Think about it, would you want us to discuss with other employees what performance issues you have and what was done to correct them? Not likely. This often comes up when an employee is terminated. Everyone wants to know why, but we really can’t tell you why. Don’t assume you know both sides of the issue, simply because we can’t give you an explanation. Again, you don’t want us blabbing on about you, do you?

HR can’t be everyone’s friend. If we try, it can come back to bite us -- big time. If we make close friends at work, others may feel we’ll "play favorites", and be unable to trust us, even when that’s simply untrue. Or, and this gets ugly, those friends may actually expect favored treatment, and when we don’t give it (because we’ll be prepared to support management rather than the friendship), become angry and resentful. As a result, we tend to keep our distance for the most part. However, that results in many employees not really seeing us as employees, too.

Finally, what many people don’t realize is that HR is often not the decision maker. We certainly advise, recommend, suggest and yes, even advocate for a particular decision or policy. In the end, however, the final decision is often made by the CEO or owner of the company. Do we always agree? Nope. But, we’re not going to tell you that, either. It’s really bad form for any good HR pro to blame another manager for a decision with which she doesn’t agree, or to openly disparage such a decision. Our job is to properly implement those decisions, and so you may not know who made the decision.

The bottom line is we’re all employees; we’re all paid by the company for which we work. So, saying that since HR is "paid by management" they only support the company and not the employee, doesn’t really make a lot of sense. We all support the company – by working to make a product, or offer a service – whatever the company does. We just have different roles. All roles represent and support each other and if done well, we all get something out of it. There is no "us vs. them". It’s all us. Or should be.

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