How Do You Tell if You Have a Good HR Department or a Bad One?

On a Reddit post, I advised a poster to speak with her HR department. Several people jumped in to say no, go straight to the Labor Board, as HR is bad.

This is sometimes true, and I clarified that if you had a bad HR department, you should, of course, go directly to the relevant government agency or hire an attorney. And I got an excellent question back “How can you tell if you have a bad HR Dept or a good one?”

I hang out with good HR people all the time. (Virtually, of course!) The HR people I know well would take care of any sketchy management behavior as fast as they could. Sure, sometimes, HR gets overridden and leadership does dumb things. But, good HR people do their best.

How does the average employee know if an HR department is a good one or a bad one? Employment attorney and HR consultant Kate Bischoff says that good HR is like the CIA–they go in, and go out, and get the job done and you never know they were there. You only know they were involved if things go poorly.

While people in senior leadership roles often interact with HR Business Partners, your average employee doesn’t interact all that much. So, here are some signs to look for.

Do you know how to contact your HR department?

If you have no idea where the HR manager sits, what her name is, or how to get in contact at all, it’s a pretty good sign that your HR department isn’t interested in keeping employees happy. This should be a readily available piece of information and not having it is a red flag.

How is employee morale?

If your workplace is an awful, miserable place, chances are there’s an awful miserable HR person involved. While it is true that HR is never the final decision maker, it’s unlikely that HR will advocate for you in a miserable place. They know they’ll get shot down by the executive team, and so they give up trying.

Is your pay fair?

This can be a difficult thing to assess. Sure, you can look at pay on Glassdoor or PayScale but unless you’re speaking to your coworkers about their pay, it’s difficult to assess if your pay is fair. But, it’s pretty easy to know if you’re happy with your pay and your raises. Unfair pay is a sign of a weak HR department and a weak HR department is a bad one.

How does your company respond to emergency time off requests?

If your mother dies, what will happen? Are there 40 pages worth of paperwork and a requirement to bring a program from her funeral before they will grant you bereavement days? Or does your boss say, “Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss” and the company sends flowers?

Bullies don’t last

General bullying just based on meanness and not on protected characteristics is not generally illegal, but a good HR department will put a stop to it as soon as they are aware of it.

Responsive HR

If you have a question about your benefits or FMLA or something like that, HR gets back to you quickly. They speak with you as equals and don’t condescend to you. If they are nice about this stuff, they are likely to be on top of a serious problem.

Now, of course, you can have the world’s best HR person and have the company be horrible. But, good HR people will either make changes or leave. They aren’t going to sit around forever, watching companies destroy themselves.

From a management perspective, you also want to look for an HR person that tells you no from time to time. They should be able to explain why, but if they never say no, it’s likely that they are either incompetent or scared of you. HR is not a job for wimps.

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4 thoughts on “How Do You Tell if You Have a Good HR Department or a Bad One?

  1. Dear EHL:

    Does not having a true *conversation* about an ADA accommodation count as a negative point towards an HR?

    I have put in ADA accommodation requests. Two weeks or so later, I will get a letter in the mail saying that my request has been, accepted, denied, or accepted with changes. That is the first I hear back from them after putting in my application.

    Once, someone from building maintenance came in and just started adjusting the thermostat in my office. I had not put in a work order and knew nothing about it. He said that it came from HR and then I realized that it was related to a recent ADA request.

    According to Alison Green, the ADA accommodation process is supposed to be a “conversation”.


  2. Where there’s a gender issue, HR may telegraph the corporate attitude by having an HR staff made up of all or almost all women under a male department head, as if to say relationships are a woman’s place and leadership a man’s. Places still do this.

  3. A clear sign that you have bad HR is when HR is a shared roll. If you ask you boss who you should talk to about FMLA and they say “I think Jenny in the Analytics Department is handling that this year,” then you know you have a problem.

  4. Great list. I’ll add:

    How was your new hire experience? Organized or chaotic?

    When you have had an HR question (fmla, esl, etc) how were you treated? Like a nuisance/bother or compassionately?

    This tells you most everything you need to know about your HR.

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