March 26, 2012 at 6:02 pm #157028
This weekend, I took a group of Cub Scouts to the Maryland Science Center. We had a great time and camped out overnight. Trips like this give are not only good for the Scouts, but they give adults a good chance to hang out and talk too.
The discussion I bring to you was started by a friend and fellow Scout leader. He’s got a few years and well-earned gray hair on me. I enjoy our chats. This one was about Human Resources.
He made a claim that Human Resources, in his experience, was not on the side of employees. His experience had taught him that HR stood to protect the organization it supported. In the event of complaints or issues, HR would not fight for the employee, but would generally fight for the organization – leaving the employee to assemble and manage their own counsel and arguments. This, in his opinion, often left employees feeling isolated and disenfranchised.
I shared with him some of my own experiences in the military. I had once had friendly arguments (that were never settled) with members of the chaplain corps and with mental health professionals. In those arguments, I suggested that their purpose was to identify weaknesses in the organization and either fix them or get rid of them. Our “arguments” were between friends, but the underlying discussion was quite serious and challenging.
I’ve known and befriended many Human Resources professionals. The people I know are good. They genuinely care about their jobs and I genuinely like them. I often did what I could to support them, and still would still do that today. I often took advantage of resources they made available to me – which strengthened me and ultimately by doing so – the organization I worked for.
What is your opinion about or experience with Human Resources? What is their role in an organization?
Are they there for you? For the organization? For both?
Where are the lines drawn?
March 26, 2012 at 6:43 pm #157074
I think your friend is looking at a very narrow swathe of what counts as “HR”. The extent to which someone working in HR becomes obsessed with procedure/process, or an advocate of corporate, rather than employee, interests, or becomes a sensitive caring confidante, will depend on what aspect of HR they are in. There are folks who deal exclusively with pay and benefits, and their job is to simply follow protocol and explain “the regs” to people. In many respects, they are an extension of folks in accounting. There are folks who work in HR planning and/or policy that may never really deal with employees all that much. There are folks who work in staff development. There are folks who work in staff relations, like being ombudsperson or in employee assistance. There are folks who only work in recruitment or staffing. And that’s just for starters. And of course the degree of specificity or generality the role assumes will depend on the size of the organization, and will also dictate their approach to employees. The stability of the workforce also plays a role. If you have a very stable organization, I would imagine there is a different perspective about employees than if the workforce regularly turns over.
So, I wouldn’t doubt that somewhere out there, there really are people like what your friend describes, just as in other places there will be the prototypic touchy-feely self-actualizing HR specialist, and in still other places we’ll find Catbert, the Evil Human Resources Director. I think the extent to which they conform to your friend’s stereotype will depend on career stage (people can enter a field for one set of reasons, and develop other motives over time), and specific corporate culture. he’s not completely wrong, but nor is he completely right.
And, as always, I direct your attention to this now-classic and provocative article in Fast Company from a while back: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/97/open_hr.html
March 26, 2012 at 7:01 pm #157072
Mark – the article you sent us to is quite useful for context in this discussion. Thanks for posting!
I can also appreciate the perspective that the role of HR could be situation specific.
March 26, 2012 at 9:19 pm #157070
This is a great question! As an HR generalist, I also believed I was 51% for the company or organization and 49% for the employee. It is always a fine line that HR people walk!
March 26, 2012 at 10:40 pm #157068
I wondered what HR professionals would say about this. Thanks for sharing, Stacy!
March 27, 2012 at 5:47 am #157066
I remember having this discussion with my management team when I took my first job as an HR Manager in a mid-size state agency. Our conclusion was that the ‘customer’ of HR is executive management. We distinguished executive management not only from employees, but also from line managers. Executive management (and the board if applicable) should have the long term interests of the organization as thier top priority. This includes keeping employees engaged, so that they are inclined to contribute their full measure of discretionary effort to the mission and vision of the organization. Sometimes executive management (and by extension HR) should focus on meeting the long term interest of employees rather than the immediate desires of line management, and sometimes vice versa. Strategically minded HR leaders should work with executive managers to develop workforce strategies and policies that make these long term interests transparent to both line managers and employees.
March 27, 2012 at 11:38 am #157064
As an HR Specialist, I agree with Stacey. HR Specialists are there to serve the organization and not necessarily the employee or the manager. However, it’s hard to generalize about HR since some specialists are more focused on serving management (e.g. staffing, compensation, labor/employee relations, etc). Others are focused on employee needs (e.g. training, work/life, etc.). Ultimately, HR specialists should serve the needs of the organization. Where they make errors in judgement is when they hold an individual’s interests above the organization’s.
March 27, 2012 at 1:40 pm #157062
Well, it’s pretty much built into the name, isn’t it? “Human resources” implies something the organization can use. Me, I kind of long for the days when there was a “personnel” office. It was…a little more personal to be personnel.
March 27, 2012 at 2:33 pm #157060
I think HR should be on whatever side is ethically correct. I mean the word human in HR has always meant you look for the most humane solution to every problem. Obviously people’s ethics and morals vary but the in most cases the horse shouldn’t be found that far from the wagon. So whether that stands on the side of the organization or the individual is not particularly the issue for me personally.
March 27, 2012 at 7:48 pm #157058
Very interesting, Mark. This is probably not what most people think about. Thanks for the insider’s look.
March 27, 2012 at 7:51 pm #157056
Stephen – from the HR specialists perspectives shared here, it sounds as if there is a strong focus on humans as a resource to the organization. HR management strengthens and optimizes this resource whenever possible. But when an individual strikes out against the organization, then HR defends the organization.
March 27, 2012 at 7:52 pm #157054
I felt this a few times as a manager, Terrance.
March 27, 2012 at 7:55 pm #157052
I’ve never much actually interacted with HR. It seems like a lot of people have opinions on HR, but I’m not sure how many people are really in touch with HR. I know I’m not too privy.
March 27, 2012 at 8:11 pm #157050
Some of my favorite people came from HR, Corey. I really liked them and often went to visit them when I found some free time as an oasis from other things. As a manager, it pays to get to know them. They usually have great resources, tips and advice for developing people on your staffs.
March 28, 2012 at 2:07 am #157048
My personal experience with HR is…..yeah, some live the letter of the rules (you MUST stop to take that 30 minute lunch, even if it means you get back late…don’t you even lift a finger to work without being on the clock, etc), some support the company, covering liabilities, diversity training, etc….while there may be some individuals that are ‘in it for the little guy’….aka employees on a personal level, my personal experience tells me that HR is not the employee’s friend. They’re not there to advocate for or intervene.
In the situation that I know about, HR can know something questionable is going on, but they choose not to act unless a report is made that forces them to intervene. In other words, they can know of a manager behaving inappropriately but they can just ‘ignore’ it until an employees steps forward and officially files a complaint. There is no proactive (unless it protects the company) just reactive.
IMHO, they’re only going to speak up if they have to. As in they can be held accountable for NOT speaking up. (they’ll be proactive if they see sexual harassment or stealing, but they can witness bullying or verbal abuse and just turn and walk the other way)
From an employee POV, HR is a great resource, but they’re not your friend. As an employee don’t depend on them to watch your back, because far too many of them won’t take any steps that they’re not ‘forced’ to take. Their ‘watching of your back’ goes as far as enforcing the rules that get them into trouble if they’re not enforced. (ANd when you get down to it, they’re not doing it for you, they’re doing it to keep the company out of trouble.) They can know something is wrong, but until someone files that form to officially file a complaint, they’ll just ignore it and wait for it to become official.
March 28, 2012 at 2:29 am #157046
If there is anything that needs to be communicated to all staff, the message often comes from HR. I suspect that the “opinion” some folks might acquire about HR (as if it was one amorphous blob of people), and which might lead them to chuckle over Dilbert strips featuring “Catbert the Evil HR director”, are messages about unfathomable policies and requirements. As well, remember that HR is often the first point of contact many employees will have with respect to the particulars of their contract or collective agreement. so they may associate “HR” with nitpicky details, or simply finding out they can’t do this or that. I’ve heard managers say that it seemed to them the job of HR was simply to say “No”.
Then there are impressions people form from ads like this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCmsTn0InPw&feature=related (keep your eyes peeled for “the lady from HR”)
I’ve worked with plenty of folks in HR. People in HR planning. People in HR policy. Heads of HR. People in ombudsman roles or other aspects of staff relations. Great folks all. Some might suggest that I work in HR too, though it is more on the research and HR metrics side. If there is a common thread running through many of the folks I’ve encountered, it is that quantitative skills and research methodology were simply not part of their formal training. I suspect that this factors large in the claimed inability (in the Fast Company article I linked to) of HR to be a “strategic partner” at the business table. My role in working with HR is often to be that link to the quantitative, either by supplying them with data, analysing the data, arranging for them to be able to acquire the right kind of data, or interpreting data for them.
March 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm #157044
As a Federal performance and workforce development specialist I always thought that I WORK FOR THE TAXPAYERS. It’s my job to do so as effectively and efficiently as possible. For example, the taxpayers wouldn’t want us to help a GS-15 justify his SES by promoting all of his staff. The taxpayers asked President Obama to lead the country. He told the Secretary of the Department of Commerce (DOC) to double exports in a very short period of time. I ensure that the Secretary’s goals cascade down into the Bureau, SES, and individual employees goals and that those goals are meaningful and measurable. I develop corporate performance management and employee development systems because it is most effective and efficient to do so. When I was implementing the system I surveyed customers to see what they wanted in a performance system. They asked for multiple performance levels to reward performance, for a link between performance ratings and awards, and expressed their fear that their supervisors would abuse them because they didn’t know how to manage performance or were unethical. I built their requests into the ystem, addressed their fears in town hall meetings, trained every supervisor on performance management, and ensured they were all appraised on it by making leadership a critical element on every performance plan. The system, and these practices, increased our performance so much they were copied internationally. Additionally by managing training on an organizational basis, I am able to offer more competency gap filling training hours than employees would receive if I gave them each 1/40,0000th of the training budget.
However, to some extent, HR must remain reactive and for problems to be brought to us. We can’t see what is going on in each office. On an individual basis, if an employee files a grievance against their supervisor or are facing disciplinary actions, we can advise them on that, and advise supervisors if charges are reasonable, etc. We also help leaders develop their underperforming subordinate supervisors and employees when asked.
March 29, 2012 at 5:41 pm #157042
By the way, as the taxpaying customer, don’t you WANT HR to work for the Department instead of the individual employee?
March 29, 2012 at 8:25 pm #157040
I don’t know that “instead of” is really the right way to frame it, since it places the two parties at odds with each other. We would assume that the organization/institution’s hiring practices are to attract and appoint those with motives, career orientations, and capabilities that align with the organization, and in the case of public-sector institutions, with the public interest. As such, what serves the individual employee ought to serve the organization as well.
For example, when it comes to staffing, some might take the view that the employer and HR’s role is to select those that are somehow “good enough” for the organization. Poppycock!! HR’s role is to arrange for a “shidduch”, a match, between prospective employee and employer so that the employee is happy and thrives within a job/role that also benefits the organization and the public interest. Developing staff not only makes them happier in their work and career but benefits the organization as well. Milking them dry not only hurts the employee, but undermines the organization’s capacity.
I suppose some might look at this through a cynical Machiavellian lens and cast the what’s-good-for-the-employee-is-good-for-the-employer line as a manipulative ruse, but so be it. AFAIC, though, once the employer becomes the adversary of the employee (and vice versa), and HR becomes the advocate of the one or the other (or merely perceived as such), you’ve lost.
March 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm #157038
I’m an HR professional also. It is interesting to watch the profession evolve, but unfortunately my observation has been that up and coming HRMs are being taught that we MUST become strategic partners with our executive team to bring value to the HR role and support the financial goals of the organization. Sounds good, right? The problems is that HR originally devloped as an alternative to unions so that employees would have a voice in management and be fairly represented without outside representation. Thus the fine lines and 49-51% splits one way or the other. As long as we stay on this edge I think we are okay; when we fall squarely in line with strategic financial goals we lose something very important to our very existence – the voice of our human resource, the employees.
March 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm #157036
An interesting insight, Katt. I appreciate the history. I wasn’t aware that HR was originally developed as an alternative to unions.
March 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm #157034
In as far as the employee is a contributing part of the organization, HR supports the individual. But when the individual pushes against the organization, then HR switches roles. Is that what you’re saying, Mark?
March 30, 2012 at 1:55 pm #157032
A higher calling. Greater than the individual or the organization. Yes?
An interesting idea, Carol. How do you think individuals or the organization would react if this statement was made clearly in say, a department mission statement?
March 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm #157030
Denise – it sounds like you’re making the case for an HR that is deliberately neutral – a sub-organization that goes out of it’s way to stay out of conflict.
I’ve seen the phenomenon you’re referring to: when an HR dept knows that a manager is missing something critical in their skill set, for example, but does not become confrontational. Hopefully, wise HR professionals will find a way to diplomatically fill in the gaps.
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