Why HR Has Such a Bad Rap, and What You Can Do About It

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Works of fiction have created a trope that paints HR departments as incompetent and bureaucratic. As someone who works in HR, I don’t doubt you find that a bit unfair. But what can you do about it, exactly? How can you ensure that your HR department isn’t the same as those that people seem to loathe?

HR has a public image problem. Maybe it’s due to the way in which HR is often depicted in TV shows or movies written by people who’ve never worked in HR. Maybe they’ve never even worked for an organization. According to most shows dealing with businesses, most HR departments are completely ineffectual or serve as little more than a mouthpiece for corporate interests.

Maybe it’s the influence on writers and everyone following the news of HR-related scandals. There’s a constant stream of high-profile harassment and employment lawsuits involving individuals whose behavior clearly isn’t complaint with federal, state and local laws. How come HR didn’t prevent those terrible abuses from happening? News like that generates attention, even if it doesn’t paint a realistic portrait of your profession.

Maybe it’s in response to movements like #MeToo and its far-reaching impact on workplace sexual harassment. Perhaps it’s hostility from exactly the kind of people you exist to root out, folks who’d rather go back to a time when they could get away with sleazy behavior. Maybe it’s easier for such individuals to cast blame on HR rather than accept responsibility for inappropriate behavior.

At the end of the day, the cause doesn’t matter all that much. What does matter is what you do about it. As an HR professional, you need to rise above the negative perception that’s been so unfairly foisted on your department.

To that end, I’ve got some good news. It’s actually fairly easy to accomplish that. You just need to be good at your job and make sure your colleagues are, as well.

Zero in on Expertise

One common falsehood about HR is that it’s frequently staffed with inadequate employees. Men and women who lack specific knowledge of their organization’s industry and whose hiring process consists largely of scanning resumes for particular keywords. Each mistake only reinforces that perception.

Your best bet here is to make sure that every single person in your department is both knowledgeable and passionate. New employees should go through mandatory training that introduces them to your department’s systems and processes. The information they need in order to do their job should be readily available, and they should be encouraged to learn new skills and seek out new technology.

Perhaps more importantly, your department should be the spearhead of better employee training across the organization. Work with your peers in other departments to devise programs designed to help people reach their full potential, and brainstorm ways you can recognize, reward, and retain top talent. In short, focus on experience, enablement, and expertise in everything you do.

Be Authentic, Accountable, and Objective

The most common thing I hear about human resources is that it exists exclusively to protect corporate interests. The misperception may be that HR professionals will do everything to insulate the business from a lawsuit. That they will inevitably side with management, no matter the situation.

Show employees that this isn’t the case. Demonstrate that you’re not only trustworthy but that you’ll also hold yourself accountable for your own mistakes and shortcomings.

No matter who steps into your office for conflict resolution, remain objective and fair in your dealings. Be open when it comes to dealing with problems. Document every interaction between HR and staff extensively to help guarantee accountability.

In the event that someone in your department makes a mistake, cop to it. More importantly, ensure you’ve processes in place for dealing with problematic employees within HR. If an HR professional is caught lying to or harassing an employee, there must be consequences.

Finally, emphasize honesty and transparency. There should never be any doubt as to why a policy change occurred, nor should employees ever wonder why someone was (or wasn’t) punished in a dispute. Employees should feel comfortable asking you questions because they know you’ll answer honestly.

Demonstrate That You Care

In a way, one of the biggest problems with HR is right there in the name. Human resources. The implication, from an outsider’s perspective, that when it comes to employees, that’s all you see.

A worker. A resource. A tool.

I know that’s not the case. So do you. But people outside HR don’t.

It’s your job to change that perception and to show them that you aren’t there to merely enforce policies and carry out the orders emanating from C-suite suits.

There are a few ways you can do this.

  • When an employee comes to you with a complaint or concern, pass it along to the relevant leadership.
  • Take an active role in employee appreciation efforts, as described earlier in the piece.
  • Make an effort to cultivate friendships. One of the biggest problems with HR is that it often exists in a silo, isolated from everyone else. You need to show everyone that, at the end of the day, you’re people, just like them.

Keep a Level Perspective

Your department exists to manage people, to deal with training, hiring processes, and workplace policies, and to act as a mediator when there’s conflict.

Unfortunately, some people think that the last one means they can come to your department with issues they’re perfectly capable of resolving on their own. As much as possible, emphasize that open, honest communication should always be the first step in conflict resolution. That HR should get involved only when direct efforts for resolution have not succeeded.

Of course, there are exceptions to that rule. Sexual harassment, blatant favoritism, and outright abuse are all within your bailiwick. And if one of your staff recognizes the potential for a problem to escalate, you should get involved.

But where should you draw the line otherwise? Simply put, by trusting your own judgment. If an issue or policy seems trivial to you, then there’s a good chance that it may be.

Focus on policies that objectively improve the workplace and make life better for employees. On problems that could have far-reaching consequences for your business, like employee morale, turnover, or lost productivity. On initiatives that measurably improve your business.

Streamline Your Processes Wherever Possible

The faster and more efficient your department becomes, the more positive its interactions with people will be. Stuff like employee onboarding, initial recruitment, scheduling, and pay should be largely dealt with via automated processes. That will free your staff up to focus on what matters – people.

Understand That Sometimes, the Problem Isn’t You

At the end of the day, an HR department is only as good as a company’s leadership. If you’ve done everything in your power to follow the above guidelines and you still feel as though everyone looks at you and your colleagues with hostility, then you might not be the problem. It might well be that you’re enmeshed in a toxic corporate culture.

Brad Wayland

Brad Wayland

Brad Wayland is the Chief Strategy Officer at BlueCotton, a site with high-quality, easy-to-design custom t-shirts.

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