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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Public Perception of HR

I got the following in a comment from Twitchh:

And a good HR manager recognizes that employees are assets, not liabilities, but we all know that the general perception of HR is not one of sunshine, sweetness, and light.

Perhaps that's because most people's experience (as you're seeing here), either direct or vicarious, is that if/once HR gets involved with *any* situation concerning you, things are *not* going to be resolved in your favor.

Do you have any suggestions for educating HR professionals to avoid the behaviors which reinforce this perception, perhaps even going so far as to spur HR into thinking of "mere" employees as people instead of replaceable cogs?

The problem with educating HR professionals is that we're used to doing the educating,so we think already know everything. This, of course, is true. We do already know everything, so stop bothering me and go fill out some forms. Thank you.

What behaviors reinforce this perception? I'm sure all of you could list a thousand of them. Unprofessional behavior, mysterious terminations, sneaky reductions in force, training courses with no benefit to the employee, and lectures on "hiring the best person, but you are low on minorities in your department, I'm just saying."

Now, I can give you reasons (and good ones at that!) for all of the above. Well, except the unprofessional behavior. I bet the rest of my HR friends could as well. Who can't give good explanations for all of this? The rest of the business world. Why? Because, we the masters of employee communication, stink at communicating.

Sometimes we don't communicate on purpose. We don't tell you the date of the upcoming reduction in force because it wreaks havoc on the business if everyone knows it is coming on Tuesday, March 16. The unknown is bad, yes, but the known can sometimes be worse.

The problem is, in my way of thinking, is that after we announce the RIF on Tuesday, March 16, we are still secretive. We don't share whether this was phase 1 of 2, or of 10, or if that was it, or what the plans are under the restructured company.

We give you lectures about meeting your Affirmative Action Plan goals, but we don't truly explain why we have to do this (government regulation), how the company benefits from this, what the consequences would be if we don't, how diversity is more than just a rainbow of races, and how we are working to build unity across the organization.

As for treating people as interchangeable and replaceable, well there's some logic to that too. For many, many, many positions there are thousands of people out there who could do the job and do it well. There are hundreds that could do that job better than for the person who gets hired. So, yeah, we may treat you as replaceable because you are.

But, this also means we're replaceable. (Well, I'm not. I'm one of a kind, unique and special, just like everybody else.) But, we forget that replaceable doesn't mean that there aren't consequences for replacing.

It takes time and money to bring a new hire up to speed. It takes time and money to search, recruit, interview, offer, negotiate, and hire a new person. It takes time and money to terminate someone. When someone leaves they take their institutional knowledge with them. This is often invaluable information that isn't written down anywhere. Some of these things just can't be effectively written down.

SHRM says managing people, managing organizations. Well, if people are our specialty, why do people hate us? And it's not just because we deliver the bad news. I love my dentist and he frequently delivers bad news to me in the form of a large bill and novocaine shots. (I suspect he owns a boat, but he claims the cost is due to his own children's orthodontic needs. I call foul.)

We joke about how we came into this line of work because we "like working with people" and how that was quickly beaten out of us. I have this theory that some of us (especially employee relations types) see employees as negatives because we only see the bad side. Sure, we're supposed to be available for all that good employee development stuff. But, instead, we're usually just called upon to tell Sally she has a hygiene problem and Bill that he's going to be terminated for going poor performance, and blah, blah, blah.

We need to be better communicators. We need to understand the financial consequences of our decisions. We need to refuse the responsibility for the company party (hand that off to Public Affairs), and instead plan the company succession protocols.

I love HR. Honest. With all of my cold evil heart, I love HR. Because I think it has potential. I've seen great HR. I've worked for great HR people. But, we need to get more of us up to speed and communicating and working with and not against. If people are our most valuable resource, let's cherish them. And for heaven sakes, let's get a good HRIS in place so that we don't have to bother you with paperwork.


HR Minion said...

No one with a cold evil heart would care so much about the profession and people. :) #justsayin

Doug DeJulio said...

I can tell you one thing that improved my own opinion of our own HR people: they were actually able to help me!

I had a problem that wasn't related to management, but to our health and drug insurance plans. A pharmacy was jerking me around and lied to me (at least from my perspective) about my drug benefits. I dropped a note to HR, and they bent over backwards to find out what was really going on, determine the truth, and educate me about it.

I'm sure in a sufficiently large organization, you'll have the occasional examples of an employee who goes to HR with some problem that's not rooted in the organization, and who actually receives help. Maybe in some cases those stories can be shared in some way that will improve HR's image?

jzygail said...

I think the biggest problem I've seen with HR has been, if they're going to go to the trouble to explain how economic difficulties are driving the need to downsize and those who didn't get hit THIS time, might get hit next time and we're not going to compete with the wages as XYZ company, so if you think they'll hire YOU at that wage, you'd better grab it because we're not going to counter offer--don't get all butt hurt when, after XYZ company DOES make me an offer at that wage you won't meet that I accept it and leave.

And no, "but we didn't mean YOU" will not impress me as a response.

By and large, however, my experiences with HR tend to be positive.

Twitchh said...

Thanks, EHRL -- I appreciate your addressing this issue.

I agree with Doug DeJulio above -- I think people would generally perceive HR more positively if anyone ever heard about the instances where HR actually *helped* someone. And you addressed this in your base post here when you pointed out that HR isn't always exactly on top of communications.

Sadly, I think privacy issues will be the major stumbling block to doom the idea of "Looked! See? We *helped* someone!" web pages.

Speaking of web pages and stumbling blocks, HR web pages are another major obstacle to a better perception of HR. And the problem with typical HR web pages is indicative of the greater problem with HR -- HR typically has an inward, insular HR focus, not an outward, helpful "customer" focus.

Ie, HR seems to assume you know how HR is structured internally, and assumes you know how HR does things, rather than focusing on the things people want to do when they contact HR.

Think about it -- When was the last time you gave (or got) that heavy sigh or those rolled eyes when dealing with someone who "just didn't understand" how things "are done around here"?

It may be the 40th time you've gotten this question today, but it's the first time *that* person has asked it.

If the first question I ask gets me a terse answer laden with "why are you wasting my time?!?" overtones, how do you think people are going to perceive HR?

SarahC said...

As an HR practitioner in the UK, I'm a bit surprised by some of these comments and the obviously negative perception of the HR function, but I wonder whether some of the reasons behind this perception are implicit in EHRL's comments in her post - "we're usually just called upon to tell Sally she has a hygiene problem and Bill that he's going to be terminated for poor performance, and blah, blah, blah". I won't take ownership of issues like these - my mantra is 'you are a manager, therefore it is your job to manage'. In other words - 'let me coach, help and guide you through the process by which YOU will be tackling Sally's poor hygiene and Bill's termination."

Additionally, whilst I firmly believe that HR should be heavily involved in the business decisions that may result in terminations and lay offs, and highly influential in developing a coherent and effective communication plan which considers the needs of the 'survivors' as much as those of the 'leavers', I don't believe it's for HR to be the people who deliver the bad news. That's the clear responsibility of Managers and Business Leaders.

And, by the way, I don't feel that staff in my organisation hate HR. They may not like some of our decisions around policy interpretation from time to time, but they certainly don't hate us. (Or maybe I'm just fooling myself here?!). The other employees in the business (and how often do people forget that 'HR' are employees too, bound by the same rules, guidelines and pay constraints as everyone else?) are my customers, and I give them the best customer service I can ~ always bearing in mind that I'm employed to contribute to the achievement of the Company's business goals, not act as anyone's surrogate Mom, nursemaid or harbinger of doom.

Anyway, enough of this - I must go and explore ways to become more Evil. Sarah

Krista said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Krista said...

Thank you, SarahC. I completely agree with your comments. I do not deal with those issues either and don't think any HR professional should be. We are here to guide managers to deal with those issues and to lead, coach and "manage" their staff. I will help you with the wording to approach those hygiene issues, or how to have a proper termination discussion, but I certainly won't do it for you.

There are some HR folks out there that seem to want the power and control of doing everything their way because they know the "right way". I am proud that our managers are confident having these conversations and involve us as a partner and ask for help when they need it.

If more HR departments operated this way, we would be much more highly respected as professionals and partners.

Greg said...

Try MBWA. Get out, mix with people. Get to know them and let them get to know you.

clobbered said...

There are two kinds of HR people, from my non-HR perspective. The best see their job as being there to solve problems. These HR people are a resource - they are there to offer advice to managers, or help an employee handle a difficult situation. Their default answer is "there may be ways I can help you with that".

The other kind see their job as controlling people. These are the "evil" HR people - they micromanage, they put out blanket rules with no understanding of individual needs or specific business challenges. Their default answer to everything (except to the boss) is no.

I don't think the difference between the former and the latter is communication. It's almost a personality trait, and I don't think it can be easily changed.

Of course, most people think they are good, and most people thing they are in the first camp. But they are not. Ask yourself this question: if an employee comes with a request, say "can I work different hours", what is your first internal thought? "OMG what if everybody wants to work 2-10pm" or is it "What would need to be done to allow this employee to work these hours"? Is it all the reasons why this cannot be allowed, or all the ways you could explore that would allow it?

Evil HR Lady said...

I love everyone's insights into this issue. Although I almost deleted Greg's comment as Spam because I thought, "Try MBWA? Is he selling something." And then my brain clicked in, Management by Walking Around.

I love the concept of having a "yes" minded culture rather than a "no" minded culture. But, I'm a big ROWE person myself. (Results Oriented Work Environment)

Aaron said...

On being replaceable...

... actually, this is where most HR people really fail to get it.

Most people are decidedly *not* replaceable. Feeding that myth, even entertaining it lightly, is a deeply dangerous thing to do.

People tend to have institutional knowledge that, when it walks out the door, has tremendous costs to replace.

Lets be real. Some people *need to go* (e.g. the incompetent, the lazy, the *complacent and just watching the clock*). Others need to be retained - and HR needs to make sure things never get to the point where that retention is ever really a question. If HR is ever to be more than a euphemism for the "person-risk management department", it needs to get beyond the "people as cogs" mindset.

Amanda said...

I find it so incredibly disappointing the tone of "...meeting your Affirmative Action Plan goals...(government regulation)."

EHRL, I figured you of all peeps would support it because it's just the right thing to do.

Richard said...

HR people have to make it job to understand the business. They need to align their individual efforts, programs and strategy with the business.

They need to understand that everyone is not glad to see them when they show up because they are in HR. Respect comes from your client groups because they feel you understand their issues and will try to help.

Key and critical. Help management remove those thorns that they find in their respective "paws". Don't become another thorn.

Anonymous said...

I have worked in HR as a Benefits/Customer Service Rep for over 20 years.

I help my employees all the time navigate their benefit issue; whether it is missing ID cards, problems at the pharmacy, claims being denied, etc.

Once I get them the info they need (Policy # or claim forms, etc) or help them with their issue, I always close with...."In my HR Benefit world - no news is good news". So, they know not to wait till it is a crisis, to let me know they are having a problem (very common among employees).

For no one calls HR to say "thanks for sending my ID card" or "thanks - my claim was processed with no issues".

Sadly, HR is usually notified when there is a problem. That is just the nature of the job. But I do find many of my employees didnt realize I could help them with some of their issues with the providers. So, always glad to help them out, when I can.

LOVE your column!!!

Cre8flow said...

I've been in the workforce for quite a long time. Seems to me that a truly GOOD HR professional is a somewhat rare commodity. I've worked with some exceptional HR people and some so abysmally awful that the fact they were ever hired in the HR field in the first place is frankly bewildering. It's about a 20/80 split between the former and latter. To those who are serious, concerned, rational and broad-minded in their approach to people, I salute you. To the other 80%.... please re-think your career choice.