A woman HR Director walking a tightrope over shark infested waters

HR is About Walking a Fine Line

What's the Problem Here?

For many employees, the HR department is bad news in its purest form. Human Resources people are viewed as the Grim Reapers of the company just waiting for staff members to slip up so they can fire their fannies with glee. Others feel they are a shill for management and that to trust an HR person with anything confidential is a mistake, as it can and will be used against them. Reports abound of HR managers who are power mad, or arrogant and deceitful trolls who will make your life a living hell if you dare bring a personnel problem to them to solve.
For others, however, the HR department is a valuable resource. It is a group of professionals who provide important information about health benefits, intra-company employment opportunities, training and all other aspects of a person's career with that firm. They work hand-in-hand with management to provide the best working conditions possible for the best employees available. They are involved in a worker's life from hiring, through ongoing retention, to when the staff member leaves the company via firing, layoff, quitting or retirement.

The role of HR in the new millennium.

So why are some HR people despised with great enthusiasm for being colossal jerks while other HR specialists are highly regarded as facilitators that help employees to be as happy, productive and secure in their positions as possible? Let's examine both sides of this coin beginning with the first part of this equation; why the reputation of HR people with many employees is mostly negative.

Don't hate me for being beautiful!

There are many reasons employees may dislike the HR department. Some of the friction may be attributable to the HR person's own shortcomings and has nothing to do with corporate policies. For example, if an HR manager doesn't understand his role, he may feel he's above it all and not part of the team working towards the company's common goals. He is likely to be the kind of personnel manager that never leaves their office to engage with staff in their comfort zones. Instead they force employees to come to them at their HR desks, in "the principal's office", where bad boys and girls are sent for punishment.

Other HR people may be difficult to work with as they take their position of power seriously. We know power has the ability to corrupt all but the strongest of individuals. Some may even abhor an HR manager because that person is human, as well, and may have been experiencing a bad day when they interacted with the employee. Everyone should keep personal lives separate from their work but we also know that is not always the easiest thing to do, being human and all.

Beyond the faults of individual HR managers, there are other reasons HR departments lack popularity which may have nothing to do with the personality of the director.

It's not my fault I'm a jerk!

One of the most oft-cited issues for the lack of engagement with a company's employees is that the HR department isn't given the resources necessary to do a proper job. If an HR manager's time is fully occupied with managing the paperwork for new hires and fires, this will allow him little time for retention initiatives which might eliminate the revolving employment door the HR manager is trying to deal with.

Another issue some HR managers face is being forced by their own bosses to be management-centric and to never go to bat for the workers. The HR position is routinely remunerated higher than most other workers in an organization and there are those HR specialists who will accommodate any management request, no matter how vile, in order to keep safe their own position. We would all like to think we can't be bought off with a fat paycheque if the result was a detriment to other employees. We all know there are many that would be tempted, however, to take the money and run roughshod over the staff beneath them. Some might say it is just human nature.

Also, it is quite possible the HR manager is simply not a people person and was hired for the sole purpose of being hard-nosed and calloused when dealing with employees. They were brought on specifically to be the "bad cop", as opposed to management's "good cop" image they want to project. The fact that this is not the proper role for management to thrust on the HR department is irrelevant if Job One for the personnel person is his own job. Even if the HR guy knows his stuff, if management doesn't understand the relationship between their HR people and their staff, it won't help.

How HR should work.

Just because the HR head is part of the management team and owes his living to the boss of the place, doesn't mean he should abandon principal and simply roll over when ordered to do so. It is in the company's best interest to manage their employees fairly, respectfully and equitably. HR professionals do their firm no favours if they don't make it clear that employee abuse, in any form, is unacceptable. Not only is it morally wrong, obviously, but being a worker-respectful employer is far better for your bottom line than trying to manage staff inequitably or on the cheap.

Ultimately HR must act as an ombudsman between upper management and the folks in the trenches who are doing the actual work. After all, in most companies, it's the labour force that makes the company money. If a general manager suggests to an HR manager an unfair course of action or demonstrates a lack of conscience, it is HR's responsibility to point out to the errant leader the negative effects of the initiative. If the higher-ups are of good character, they will listen to reason, especially if the bad decision will inevitably affect profits negatively. If, however, the management team demonstrates short-sightedness in the handling of their staff, it may be time to look for a different company to work for. This is because amoral management will eventually be coming for the HR manager's head for staffing problems caused by the bosses own lack of sense.

Can you give me a for instance?

For example, a manager expanding a department and looking to staff it inexpensively may suggest offering wages below the industry average in the hopes of saving a few dollars. A wise, principled HR professional will point out that low wages may interest some applicants but retention will be difficult and constantly training new people to replace those finding better pay will negate any savings the low pay scale may have garnered.

Okay, what else?

Another frequently mentioned complaint about HR people is that they have become the disciplinarians of industry which is not appropriate to their role. Departmental managers should be the ones tasked with solving interpersonal disputes between employees. They work far more closely with the staff members under them than the HR head and are best situated to sort through those kinds of issues.

HR does play a role in such situations, of course, by monitoring warnings and keeping data on absences and reprimands. This data is critical for the HR team for letting undependable or difficult employees go without worrying about being sued for unfair dismissal. It is not their job to judge those employees' behaviour, but to track the department managers' actions with regard to disciplining the employee.
Unfortunately, all too often, management will jettison their responsibility as the company disciplinarians as they want to be seen as being nice guys. They send cases of employees acting out to the HR staff to handle, even though, HR people weren't present at the incident, don't work with the employee directly and can't possibly be as aware of any background to the issue like the employee's direct supervisor has.

At the end of the day.

If you, as a boss, have hired HR staff to look out for your employees, for both the company's benefit and the workers', you have made a smart business decision. HR people can be a positive force in a business' morale picture, instead of the loathed and feared entity they have become in less healthy work environments. Giving the HR department the resources to do their job properly and the direction to treat all employees respectfully, will positively affect profits. Happy employees, who feel part of the team, are far more productive than those that live in fear of the HR portion of your company's hierarchy. Put simply, smart HR is like everything else in life. If you engage in it with professionalism, fairness, honesty and a cooperative attitude, your company will be richly rewarded in a multitude of ways. It is how business must be transacted in the social media conscious new millennium.

Author: Chris McKerracher

Chris McKerracher is a Social Media Marketer and Professional Writer for Industrial NetMedia. Chris has worked as a journalist, editorialist and humourist for a number of Alberta newspapers since 1995. He has also written eight theatrical plays which have been produced with the ninth to be staged in May of 2016.


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