A good HR department is on everyone's side

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Whose side is the Human Resources staff on?”

That question came to me from an old friend recently. A few months ago she started a new job as the head of large department in a hospital and wasn’t seeing eye-to-eye with the HR staff on much of anything.

My friend expected service and help. She wanted to talk over the situation she found in her department and get some advice on how to make changes and move forward.

Instead of advice she was facing a wall of no’s without explanations or suggestions.

I can picture that HR department: a pocket wall of forms at the ready, the required Department of Labor notices on display, and plastic plants sitting under a one-word motivational poster that gets changed every now and then (“Teamwork,” “Vision,” “Perseverance”). .

That HR department will keep everything legal. They don’t like questions, challenges to policy or exceptions. At the first hint of trouble or a question that requires judgment they call the lawyer. They are good at issuing dire warnings and making everything and everyone sound difficult. I have seen way too many of these HR people.

Do these “policy police” serve the business well? Or the managers or employees?

No, they don’t. They are so careful and focused on protecting themselves, so inflexible and unhelpful that they are an impediment to managers, employees and the business as a whole. (I may be a bit too negative; I have my reasons.)

They overlook great job candidates who may not have the perfect résumé. They shoot down ideas rather than try something different, and they turn small problems into battles. Fortunately not everyone takes that approach.

One of my favorite HR managers was a woman named Rosemary, a chain smoker who spent a good part of the work day seated on the windowsill in her office poking her head outside when it was time to exhale. She arrived at work in the morning with a large bag that held six cans of Tab, her makeup and a variety of implements to shape her hair into a bouffant up-do.

As Rosemary made up her face and did her hair, she instructed me on HR management.

First, you need to understand the business — how we make money. If the HR staff doesn’t understand what the business does, who the customer is and what it takes to make a profit then they won’t understand how to help the managers.

Rosemary taught me to pay attention to the monthly financial reports and ask questions about changes in costs or problems with productivity or quality. Everything good or bad that happens in a business is the result of a decision or action by an employee. And it is HR’s job to make sure the employees are well-trained and know how to make good decisions.

Next, always remember that the policies need to meet the needs of the organization. Policies aren’t carved in stone; if something needs to change then do the analysis and propose a change. Ask employees and managers for their opinion and find out what works and what frustrates them. People don’t expect perfection; they will work with you if they know you are doing your best for them.

And sometimes an employee just doesn’t fit the job. When that happens, treat that employee as you would like to be treated. We are all human, we all make mistakes, and people— even if they are losing a job — deserve to be treated with kindness and dignity. It costs nothing.

Rosemary did fire people, but she did her best to help them find another job. How we treat an employee who is struggling says much more about our values and character than how we treat a star performer.

When Rosemary made a manager aware of a problem with his department he understood that she was there to help. She might be telling him that his employees were leaving the company because they found him difficult to work for. But by telling him this, and offering to work with him to improve his supervisory skills, she was showing him that she was on his side.

When Rosemary spent time talking to an employee, explaining that his personality was alienating his co-workers, she was making him aware of a problem and offering him help.

The HR manager should be working with everyone: managers, employees, business owners alike. And when she sees someone, be it a mid-level employee or a senior executive put their own interests ahead of the business, then she needs to speak up.

And that’s what makes it tough to be a good HR manager. Doing the right thing for the business and the best thing for the employee is one tough balancing act. Lean too far to one side and you will take a hard fall.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at hrpartneroncall@gmail.com or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.

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