Dear HR, Whose Side Are You On?

In the last post, we talked about the stay interview and its power to keep good employees and make them feel valued. If you’ve decided to give it a go at your company, you might be asking yourself who will be interviewing whom.

The “whom” part is pretty straightforward. Start with your key employees, especially those you think are at risk for leaving the company and those hard to replace. You might also use the stay interview to check in with your new hires—and, ideally, with every employee throughout his or her career.

The “who” could be trickier. In most examples I’ve seen, it is the job of the direct supervisor. And this is where it gets a little weird for me. There’s no question that a manager should get to know his direct reports, understand their concerns, acknowledge their contributions, and empower them to do their best. However, if this is not happening already, something is probably amiss in the relationship. And a scripted stay interview may not be the right tool to repair it.

One company, Whirlpool, specifically warns its managers not to attempt to fix a broken relationship with an employee during a stay interview. It argues that the goal of the interview is to keep the employee, who sees his boss as the problem. Under these circumstances, Whirlpool would bring in “another senior leader, a mentor or sponsor for instance, to conduct the retention risk assessment and stay interviews.”

But another senior leader might be busy doing whatever it is senior leaders do. Why not let HR handle it? After all, they are the ones who created the tools and trained the managers. Wouldn’t this be a perfect place for an impartial and well-trained professional to intervene? For example, Dr. John Sullivan, an international authority on stay interviews, has this advice:

“In cases where the employee’s manager may be reluctant or where they may themselves be part of the problem, an HR professional can be assigned to conduct the interview. Because they are experienced interviewers, in some cases, the results can actually be more accurate and insightful.” 1

You can probably guess why Whirlpool and many other companies are not going this route. Who the hell wants to talk to HR? Even if Whirlpool’s talent management team did nothing to deserve this attitude, they may be wise to stay behind the scenes. Many people mistrust HR because of past employment—or even popular culture.

How did we get here?

Just recently, a friend told me the following story. His employer was being acquired by a competitor. After the announcement, HR held a town hall to “address concerns.” One of the hot buttons was the upcoming change to employee benefits. The existing plan allowed employees to carry over and cash out unused vacation, while the new company had a use-it-or-lose-it policy. Some of my friend’s coworkers had saved up months of vacation time. Understandably, they wanted to know what would happen to it once the acquisition went through.

The head of HR took the floor. The first words out of his mouth: “I can’t promise you anything.” It got worse from there. Not only did the HR director do nothing to reassure them, he didn’t even acknowledge the problem. Frustrated, the employees started hurling accusations at the HR. “You guys just don’t give a hoot!” “You took care of yourselves and you’ve hung us out to dry!”

It didn’t have to happen that way. Instead of giving a CYA response, the HR director could have promised to investigate the matter further. He could have calculated exactly how much vacation time had been accumulated and proposed transition options to the new management. Most of all, he could have shown to the employees that he cared about their benefits and wanted them to be treated fairly.

Unfortunately, this HR director is far from being an exception. There are 100+ answers on Quora to the question: “What’s the shadiest tactic you’ve witnessed HR use at your job?” Here are just a few gems:

“Management rolled out a new vacation time policy and I forget the specifics, but it was worded in an obfuscating way to disguise the fact that most of us would now be receiving less time off…”

“…the company switched from a semi-monthly pay system (the 15th day and last day of each month) to every two weeks. Seems innocent, right? Nope…what they did was pay half the company one week, and the other half the next. This effectively delayed half their checks (including my final one) by a week…”

“…Within a week and a half of my insistence of being provided the proper mask, HR altered all of my prior evaluations, and concocted false records about my job performance and terminated me….”

“A 60,000 employee strong company laying off workers who cost too much for our health insurance, waiting a month or so, then hiring someone younger and healthier. HR was on board all the way with this…”

“…HR announced that a major company survey would be taking place and that it was important for everyone to be as honest and as frank as possible. We were told that the survey would be “100% Anonymous and 100% Confidential” and that the results would never be disclosed. They wanted honest feedback to make changes… It’s not hard to put tags on anything so that it can be tracked and the promise that it was anonymous was a lie. The information was being collected to be used against us, not to improve , unless by “improve” you mean “get rid of malcontents…”

“…I was at my new job when I received my last paycheck and I expected to receive payment for the 4 weeks of vacation I had saved up when I left, only I didn’t. Furious I called the old HR number and inquired calmly why I didn’t receive the 4 weeks vacation reimbursement. They told me that I didn’t serve out my two weeks notice. I said I did and they said, ‘No, it says here that you left early one night.’”

If you want a more objective take than that of a few (hundred) disgruntled employees, just google “HR is not your friend.” Fortune, Inc,. US News, and other major business publications have all returned a guilty verdict. The most common explanation is that HR works for the company, and that its job is to protect the company from the employees, not vice versa.

But isn’t it also HR’s job to protect the company from itself? Every one of the “shady tactics” you’ve seen and heard of is a missed opportunity to right a wrong. Here’s an example of what happens when HR seizes on this opportunity instead of letting it go.

“The interviewer, a very senior technical guy, asked me, “So, do you have any questions for me?” I… said, “What’s the worst thing about working here?” He thought about it for a minute, then got up and closed his door, and told me…, in painful detail, getting more agitated as he went… The next day I got called back in. Seems that after he talked to me, he went and resigned, and the HR rep asked what happened in our interview. After I told them, in detail, I expected to hear nothing further since I would have been reporting to him. Instead, the CTO came in to talk to me, and asked if I would be interested in coming aboard to help him fix all the things that seemed to be wrong with the organization (and solve some cool technical problems as well). So I did.” 2

An “evil”—or simply disempowered—HR is not on anybody’s side. They certainly don’t help employees succeed. But they don’t help the company either. While the managers are busy pleasing customers, building products, and meeting deadlines, HR should be looking after the people who make it possible. While business leaders are chasing quarterly numbers, HR should be keeping an eye on the long-term essentials, like the company reputation and employee morale.

If you like to have your employees on your side, you might like my book, because it helps you be the best boss they’ve ever had.

1 4 Stay Interview Formats You Really Should Consider by Dr. John Sullivan,, December 5, 2013


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Written by

Tim Eisenhauer is a co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.


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