I’m From HR and I’m Here to Help

Hi Evil HR Lady,

I just found your blog, and it’s great. I’m writing because I am considering a career switch into HR. I’d love to focus on employee relations and helping to create work environments that are supportive, intellectually stimulating, and high achieving. The negative-nancy part of me is worried this isn’t possible–can people in HR actually help employees? Or, in your experience, are you more likely to be put in the middle between employees and leadership to the point where you don’t feel like you are helping the employees at all?

Thanks for your thoughts,

Ahhh, the negative-Nancy. A woman after my own heart.

Can HR really help? Or are we just a bunch of back room bimbos more concerned with issuing policy statements? (Just a reminder to our male employees. Golf shirts are NEVER appropriate attire, unless they have the company logo on them. We’d like to eliminate them as well, but the Chief Marketing Officer handed them out at his all hands meeting WITHOUT asking us (never do anything without asking us) and while we’re really ticked off at him, we can’t say anything because he actually could get our little rear ends fired. So, just remember, no golf shirts!)

Well, here’s my answer based on my experience. With the proper HR leadership, an employee relations specialist can achieve miracles. You can resolve problems, set up flexible solutions, facilitate communication between arguing parties and make the world a better place. You can also terminate poor performers in a way which shows respect from them as people. You can make a huge difference.

With the wrong HR leadership you are rather worthless. Sorry.

HR in general has the opportunity to be a tremendous force for good in any business. However, they also have the opportunity to be a drag.

Your goal, as someone just breaking into HR, is to find an HR department that can do good. (As you get more senior, you can look for positions in challenging departments where you will change HR for the good).

Here is what I would look for:

1. An HR department that understands the business. What kind of training do HR people receive as it relates to the business? Do they ever rotate their employees through line management jobs?

2. An HR department that has respect for people as one of its mottoes. It doesn’t have to be expressly done up in a poster, but what does this company do to show it respects employees?

3. An HR department that encourages flexibility among employees. This varies from industry to industry, but ask the question: “Joe’s daughter really wants to take dance. For this to happen, Joe needs to leave every Wednesday at 4:00 in order to get her to dance. He is willing to come in early on Wednesday. He also regularly works 50 or so hours a week as an accountant and is a strong performer. Can Joe leave at 4:00 on Wednesdays?” If the answer to that is “NO!” then walk away. The end result can be no (depending on the situation), but if they refuse to look at an individual case, you don’t want to be there. (And I would argue that HR shouldn’t be involved in that decision anyway–they should have trained their managers to handle that stuff, but it will show up at HR’s door.)

4. In contrast to the above, you do want an HR department that follows guidelines. Randomly enforcing rules is a killer for employee morale.

5. An HR department that is gutsy enough to fire poor performers. Nothing makes HR departments seem more useless to the average employee than their inability to get rid of problem workers.

6. An HR department with minimal bureaucracy. There is always paperwork in HR. (Some of it mandated by your friends, the federal government.) But how many forms need to be filled out and how many signatures gathered to authorize Joe (above) to leave at 4:00 on Wednesdays? How about to change Joe’s title or cost center? If it’s excessive, run like the wind.

There are definitely other things to look for if you want to be in an HR department that can make a difference. I’m sure (I hope!) that my colleagues will join in with their ideas.

We can help. We do help. We need the right people. So, if you’re the right person, jump on in!

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2 thoughts on “I’m From HR and I’m Here to Help

  1. Shoot golf shirts are worn every day at my current co (biz casual environment, small company). Jeans are everyday attire as well. I love it!!

    The only thing I have to add to Evil’s suggestions is kind of a buzz-kill. Sorry! Employee relations is not usually an entry level position. It is never something I would have someone new to HR handle.

    First, one must have a solid grasp on fed, state and local laws AND current case law in order to appropriatly advise the company of risk and put employee relations situations into perspective.

    Second, one must be a very experienced in “drilling down” situations to find the root of the issue (and the truth!).

    Third, one must be willing to have what are sometimes very difficult conversations with co-workers they like and are even friends with. Ever tell someone their breath is so bad that employees within 10 feet of them are wilting like flowers? It’s fun times let me tell you.

    Fourth, one must be able to establish and maintain boundaries regardless of personal feelings. It can be very easy to fall into the “counselor trap”. You are not the psychologist of the company. Some people (even executives!) may try to give you that role regardless. Sometimes you will feel so horrible FOR an employee going through a difficult situation that you will want to be their friend instead of their HR person. It takes a lot of experience, in my opinion, to find an appropriate balance here.

    That all being said, you have to start somewhere. You can gain experience by asking to sit in / be a note taker with the more senior HR person you work with. Some HR folks hate employee relations and will gladly pass the torch once they find you know what you are doing. But remember, it is their job to make darn sure you know what you are doing before they can entrust employee relations to you. It is NOT simply common sense i.e. “everyone just get along dammit!”.

    That is my $.50! 🙂

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