By Dave Crisp
One of the newsletters brought a link to a priceless collection of unadulterated feedback for HR. Several observations strike me on this, but you really have to take a look at least briefly to appreciate what’s going on. The title asks: “Human Resources – Friend or Foe?,” a question posed by an IT guy with an issue arguably so easy to handle properly it hardly seems it would ever lead to his conclusion — that HR is evil and should be avoided in future at all costs. His issue: He reported possible time/material "theft" by an intern, but was rebuffed by HR, who made him feel like the one in the wrong for reporting.
So a relatively trivial incident for all concerned escalated into a major debate that dozens of others obviously feel strongly enough about to comment on. Most articles generate one or two comments, but this attracted four pages — a hot button issue to pay attention to for sure — not so much the issue itself as the reaction about HR in general.
It appears there are multiple misunderstandings involved, along the lines of the quote I mentioned in an earlier post: “The natural result of communication is misunderstanding.” It also smacks of earlier comments about an organization that abhors coaching and mentoring. In this case, the HR person clearly didn’t get his joke across if that’s what it was — a good caution about joking when serving in an HR role, at least without clarifying or recognizing some people either can’t handle jokes or just don’t understand them.
Assuming HR might actually have been criticizing him for reporting possible time and material theft as he believed, HR clearly erred and, in any case, definitely erred by not spelling out that he was right to report or at least enquire about whether there was a policy being violated. Every encounter can be an opportunity for HR to educate, coach and promote effective approaches to handling people and this was clearly a missed one.
What follows the initial post are the four pages of pros and cons, people agreeing, clarifying, advising, arguing and, most of all, taking sides. Those comments demonstrate the very wide range of views people have of HR — some sophisticated, others totally naive.
Should every employee understand the limitations when speaking with H? Absolutely. Should HR be blamed for those? No. However, we should never allow a picture of HR to develop as the place to go with every people issue you can’t immediately see a way to handle yourself, expecting HR will do whatever it is you didn’t imagine for yourself.
It appears we are caught in exactly this problem: People desperately want to believe HR should exist to resolve all problems in ways they feel are sensitive (ie: sensitive to their needs, not anyone else’s).
We can’t simply ignore this issue. In fact, we need to help people to understand how HR works, what its constraints are and, most especially, why those constraints exist. Definitely ask HR, just don’t begin to expect HR should be the one to solve every problem.
I’m sure I was guilty of not optimizing every teaching moment in my HR role. Sometimes it just seems as if the answer is so obvious you can just jump on it and do it for the person, but HR’s coaching roles is far more effective and strategic that any “I can do that for you” approach. Providing the solution risks bad outcomes — it gives the wrong impression, it makes people dependent and it risks missing the complexity of human preference and the likelihood that whatever you choose will not be exactly right for those unique individuals and you will be blamed.
Yes, sometimes it seems nice to have the answers, to be seen as skilled, knowledgeable and proactive rather than bogging the individual down with a lengthy explanation of how she could take steps to resolve things herself. Yes, there will be people, like the company that hates coaching, where others will say, "If I’m supposed to do it myself, what’s HR needed for?’ The answer, though, is clear — HR is needed to assist people in learning how to work more effectively together, not to do the work for them, criticize them or make jokes when they clearly don’t understand the situation.
This seems, when one lays it out, to make a lot of sense — so much so, in fact, that we might be tempted to think it isn’t necessary to spell it out. But reading the comments on this: "Friend or Foe" post, we can easily see feedback it helps to pay attention to. We can also see some HR people need better training in dealing with issues they haven’t encountered before because, in HR, encountering the unexpected is a daily occurrence.
We need to face the fact that announcing you are “HR” is putting a target on your back for those who believe someone else should solve every problem somehow. Why else would HR exist, they reason. Part of our job and our overall HR strategy must become ensuring they understand this isn’t the role — never was, never will be, never could be. Empathetic, helpful, yes, but in building individuals skills to solve their own problems wherever possible, not just stonewalling or just doing it for them.
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network
with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com