In our post, “Dear HR, Whose Side Are You On?”, we heard many complaints about HR: the stone-cold indifference toward candidates and employees, the infamous double-speak, the failure to stand up for what’s right… Even big publications, like Fortune and Inc., seem to take the side of disgruntled employees and their lawyers.
Tempting as it is to join them, I have to admit that in both my lifetimes—as an employee and as a business owner—I’ve met more decent and helpful HR folks than the other kind. In my book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?, I give several examples of outstanding HR leaders. And those are just the lucky few who made history. The rest must do their noble work in anonymity. (Imagine an email blast from corporate HR headlining, “Dear Employee, the management wanted to cut your benefits in half, but we fought and won!”)
All things considered, I don’t believe the problem with HR is as sinister and deep-rooted as it’s made out to be. However, the consequences of mutual distrust between employees and HR are unfortunate for the company and sometimes tragic for the individual. We would all be so much better off if we could somehow mend the fences between the two. Any ideas?
What if we just let HR do their job?
Let me explain.
On February 16, 2018, Fortune published a piece titled HR Is Not Your Friend. Here’s Why. In it, writers Claire Zillman and Erika Fry cite case after case of HR neglecting its duty towards employees. As an explanation, they offer this insight:
“The reason for that is obvious if you stop and think about it: As nice and well-meaning as they may be, your colleagues in HR don’t work for you. Management signs their paychecks, and their No. 1 priority is to serve and protect the company. The “resources” in question are there for the benefit of the executive team, not the average worker.”
It’s a very common view, and it’s responsible for the fact that HR is largely presumed guilty until proven innocent. I agree that HR is there to protect the company, but does it necessarily follow that HR is not your friend?
Two thoughts come to mind. One, people are creatures of habit and emotion. Even if logic dictates that we throw someone under the bus, our instincts might tell us differently. Two, since when does serving the company mean throwing employees under the bus?
By the way, I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. What I am saying is that it doesn’t need to. Companies don’t need an evil and complicit HR department to be successful. In fact, they need the opposite. When HR fails to take care of employees, nobody wins.
The words “management” and “company” could be misleading. No company is a monolith, especially not the ones big enough to have HR. Healthy companies are made up of diverse and often clashing points of view. Finance wants to cut spending. R&D wants to spend more. Marketing wants to hurry up and launch products. R&D wants to beta-test until the cows come home. General Management wants to hike the prices. Sales wants to cut deals…
It is out of these contradictions that the best decisions arise. What would happen if marketing stopped representing the market and became a yes-man for the technocrats? A failed product. What if R&D stopped being a voice for new technology and gave up fighting for resources? No innovation. Shrinking margins. Lost market share.
So, how does it make sense for HR to throw employees under the bus? Even if it makes sense to their managers, the General Counsel, or Finance, shouldn’t HR raise a flag? Wait a minute! What about our employer brand? What about employee morale?
Isn’t it the job of HR to know and represent the interests of honest hardworking employees, present and future? To make sure their voices are heard when the company deliberates important decisions? We wouldn’t expect them to always win, but without these voices, can we really say that the management team is playing with a full deck?
Am I looking at corporations through rose-colored contact lenses? I do—for a reason. I’ve heard many stories where HR have done their job. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much. In either case the human touch made a difference in people’s lives and the way they viewed the company’s actions. Here’s one example.
A large corporation recruited a freshly-minted MBA into its executive development program. After one year, the company decided the employee was not executive material and took her out of the program. The program director disagreed, but was overruled by the execs.
This HR leader knew how hard it was to get elite MBA grads, like her, to join the company, and he took it upon himself to give this young woman the opportunity he felt she deserved. He told her that she was a talented and motivated employee and that the company failed to provide the development she was promised through the program. He helped her job-search inside the company and even offered her a position in HR.
This woman ended up leaving the company. She went on to have her dream career in a whole different field. Although painful, this experience helped her build confidence and gain self-esteem. And the entire credit belongs to the program director who coached and supported her in a critical moment. In turn, she sincerely recommended the company and the program to all the young MBAs reaching out to her for advice.
Was this program director an exception to the rule? Maybe. He was the only one in HR—and, indeed, the whole management team—to offer a helping hand. At the same time, his actions were nothing more than doing his job. Was it not his job to coach this young employee? Or to promote the company’s executive development program among the country’s top business schools? He could have followed the herd and given her the cold shoulder. But again, as a program leader, wasn’t it his job to think for himself?
How can you get your HR to be more like him? It starts at the job interview. If you want to hire caring and thoughtful individuals, test for empathy and strategic thinking. Recruit from non-traditional backgrounds, like teachers, nurses, or social workers. It’s easier to train someone with innate people skills to work in HR than to teach listening and compassion to a self-centered paper-pusher.
Bring management on board. Even the best HR team can only do so much without a company-wide philosophy to back it up. Need talking points to sell management on investing in employees? Check out Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? for case examples and talking points. Find your issue. Give it your best shot. And don’t forget to let me know what happened!
If you like being human, you might like my book, because I wrote it for warm-blooded 3D individuals, like you.