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Is HR the ‘fun police?’

Compliance watchdog or corporate cheerleader?

By Brian Kreissl

I’m always a little surprised every year around this time when I see so many articles and blog posts about the potential liabilities surrounding company holiday parties.

While such articles are no doubt well-intentioned and the advice is generally pretty sound, one would think HR practitioners would know by now what not to do when hosting the staff holiday party. It still seems that these pieces are extremely popular even though one would think HR professionals had heard the message many times before.

I’m not saying such dangers aren’t very real or that the advice isn’t good, but if you don’t know by now to offer non-alcoholic drink options and taxi chits or to remind employees not to drink and drive and be on their best behaviour, there’s probably little hope for you as an HR professional. While I suppose relatively few HR practitioners actually plan holiday parties, there is generally a role for them in managing risk and ensuring everyone is well-behaved.

The problem is the perception is sometimes that HR is getting involved where they aren’t wanted. They also end up being the bearer of bad news and can come across as being somewhat “goody two shoes.”

This all feeds into the stereotype of HR as the “fun police.” Unfortunately, a lot of people think of HR as killjoys who try to stamp out any kind of fun in the workplace with our bureaucratic and inflexible policies and excessive political correctness.

Because of that, people will sometimes stop telling jokes when someone from HR walks into the room. They also frequently roll their eyes and blame HR for instituting policies that stop them from doing what they want to do.

Being in HR can also sometimes feel a little lonely because many people in the organization don’t completely trust you. This can be difficult for people who decided to go into HR because they like people.

An organization’s compliance watchdog

There is no question HR is frequently tasked with being an organization's compliance watchdog. Most of the time we’re up to that challenge, but sometimes, as I've mentioned before, HR can actually be a little overzealous in worrying about compliance risks precisely because they don’t know enough about the law.

I have encountered several situations in the past where HR practitioners fretted about legal risks that were actually extremely trivial. But, because their knowledge of employment law and legal compliance in general was lacking, they didn’t realize that they were worrying about a risk that was very unlikely to materialize.

Developments like the Human Resources Professional Association (HRPA) introducing jurisprudence exams to their new certification framework will certainly help in that regard. Up until now, many HR practitioners didn’t have to take an employment law course as part of their academic program or professional designation.

Fun police versus corporate cheerleaders

What I find interesting about the whole “fun police” stereotype is that paradoxically HR is also sometimes accused of being the complete polar opposite of that. Many people think of us as corporate cheerleader types who are always trying to introduce some “fun” way of trying to engage employees through cheesy games and activities that people find patronizing and annoying.

While most of us understand the importance of employee engagement and organizational commitment, sometimes that kind of thing can go a little too far. We all understand the importance of having fun at work, but the idea should never be to treat employees like children or force them into participating in activities that make them roll their eyes.

Trying to introduce such activities – particularly where they aren’t compatible with the organization’s culture – can just make HR look like amateurs and add to the stereotype that HR doesn’t understand the business. It can also be difficult to force very busy people to take time out of their day to spend time on activities they simply don’t have time for.

So, which stereotype is correct? Are we the organization's fun police or its cheerleaders?

I would argue we’re generally neither, although, depending on the situation and the individual in question, HR is certainly capable of conforming to both extreme stereotypes. We should be involved in compliance and be able to advise business leaders on genuine legal and financial risks. But we shouldn’t forget that employees who can have fun at work and have a good opinion of their employers are more likely to be motivated and engaged.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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4 Comments
  • RE: Negative
    Tuesday, December 16, 2014 4:25:00 PM by Brian Kreissl
    I disagree, but you are of course entitled to your opinion.

    However, please don't "shoot" the messenger. I am not saying HR is or should be either an organization's "fun police" or its "corporate cheerleaders" (although I would say a small minority of HR practitioners might conform to those stereotypes). I am just saying these stereotypes do exist and we need to deal with them as a profession. I think I was pretty clear that both of these stereotypes are largely undeserved (in addition to the two stereotypes being complete 180-degree polar opposites of one another) but to try to pretend they don't exist is simply burying one's head in the sand.

    I have also had several instances where people attacked me for the headline of my blog post - particularly where the headline asked a question - and assumed that my entire blog focused on answering the question in the affirmative. In many cases, the answer was about 95% the other way around, but that didn't stop people from being offended anyway. It was as if they didn't really bother to read and think about what I actually wrote. I am not saying that is necessarily the case here, but I have to say I am a little perplexed by your reaction.

    With respect to a significant number (albeit a minority) of HR practitioners having an insufficient knowledge of the law, I still stand by what I wrote. I have personally seen HR practitioners worry needlessly about relatively minor legal risks, and I do think taking an employment law course (and perhaps a general business law course) is helpful in that regard.

    Finally, I am not sure if you follow my blog regularly or not, but I am actually a former HR practitioner, so I do feel qualified to comment on our profession "warts and all."

    My feeling is that it's like being in a family. I may be completely aware of a family member's faults and may even feel perfectly free to comment on them. But if someone outside the family made the very same comments, I would be offended because the comments came from an outsider. To me, the HR profession is like a family, and as a member of that family I have more freedom to comment and even criticize than an outsider would. That may not be entirely fair, but I think most professions are like that.
  • RE: Is HR the ‘fun police?’
    Thursday, December 11, 2014 3:16:00 PM by Brian Kreissl
    I agree with you up to a point, but I never said HR should be an organization's sole engagement driver. Quite the contrary actually. Let's face it, HR can only do so much. Employees deal far more with their managers and team members than they do with HR, and it would be a huge mistake to think that HR is solely responsible for an organization's work environment or its culture. Nevertheless, there is a role for HR to play in all of this - and this is a blog for HR practitioners.

    I personally don't think games or "icebreakers" engage employees at all (I thought my post made that fairly clear because I was critical of such activities). And while I agree that recognition programs can be helpful up to a point, I believe that what engage employees the most are interesting and valuable work, supportive managers and co-workers, a positive work environment and a feeling that what they do makes a difference.