7 Reasons Why HR Is Often Misunderstood—Really

Employees Don't Have an Appreciation for the Balancing Act HR Performs

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The most common complaint that Human Resources practitioners receive in an email communication recounts a Human Resources horror story. Employees tell endless stories about how they were treated by their HR staff person. They describe HR officials as uncaring, incompetent, and clueless. They accuse HR staff of being out of touch with the needs of employees and favoring management and the company line over employee concerns.

Worst of all? Employees accuse HR of turning a blind eye to sexual and racial harassment, bullying by bosses and coworkers, and egregious treatment by their companies. Employees tell stories in which HR staff demonstrates outright ignorance of the law and a failure to follow their own written policies and procedures.

Are all HR staff dumb, bad, only company-line oriented, and uncaring? Not by a long shot. But, as a profession, HR does exhibit behavior and actions that could make employees find them suspect.

In fact, the president of an employee-oriented company that appreciates HR told a story about the HR manager making an announcement at a staff meeting. Were they happy for her, a colleague asked? A dumb question apparently that was asked to fill the loud pause that followed the question.

No, he said, not a dumb question, but she is HR, and that makes a difference. Why the colleague inquired? Oh, he said, because employees are wary of HR because of what HR is involved in. Note that this is an employee-oriented company that appreciates what HR brings to the table. And, he still described employees as wary.

Face it, if there is a disciplinary issue, an HR representative is doubtlessly there. An HR staff member witnesses and participates in every employment termination meeting. HR staff influence who is hired, who is promoted, and the salary ranges offered to employees. Sure, you can love your HR staff, but that does not preclude warily.

It's hard for HR employees to be one of the gang or to make close friends at work. If you risk it, you're careful whom you choose and you're always prepared to support the company over the friendship. So, many employees don't know their HR staff members as people. It is from this environment that employees bring their HR horror stories to the HR site. In response to the frequent employee complaints, the following thoughts may help you to understand the HR view..

7 Reasons HR Is Often Misunderstood—Really

No one can pretend to speak for every HR department worldwide, but most HR staff are committed to both their employees and their company. They avoid causing employees pain.

Here are the reasons why employees might perceive the situation differently. These are the reasons why on occasion communication from readers is overrun with HR horror stories.

  • The HR staff person is caught daily in a balancing act between the role of employee advocate and the role of company business partner and advocate. And, no, the employee doesn’t often see or understand that the HR person is playing two roles.
    They gauge the HR person by their effect on the employee’s stated need. As an example, the employee wants HR to make an exception for him; the employee doesn’t realize that an exception for him begins to set a precedent for how the company must treat other employees—employees who may be less deserving of an exception. All the employee hears—and often tells all of their friends, is that HR said "no."
  • All information about employees is confidential. Even when the HR staff person handles an issue, whether the issue involved disciplinary measures or just a conversation, the steps taken and the outcomes are confidential. An HR employee can tell the complaining employee that the issue was addressed. Because of employee confidentiality, they cannot reveal more. This can leave the complaining employee believing their issue was not addressed. (The outcome of a formal, written complaint, as in sexual harassment charges, is disclosed.)
  • HR staff members need documented evidence that a problem exists. Witnesses are helpful, too, as is more than one employee experiencing the same problem. It is difficult to take action based on one employee’s word, especially if the other party denies the problem.
  • What an employee may see as unreasonable behavior on the part of a manager or another employee, HR may find within acceptable bounds of organizational behavior and expectations. The employees may have a personality or work style conflict. The boss may supervise an independent employee more closely than desired. HR can talk with all parties, but often, no one is wrong.
  • When an employee doesn’t like her job or work goals or experiences a conflict with her supervisor’s management style, HR can’t always find the employee a new job although HR will generally look to help. Additionally, because of the cost of employee onboarding and training, the organization is likely to have policies about how often an employee can change positions. Indeed, proving yourself in the current job is the fastest path to a coveted new job.
  • HR doesn’t know about the promises you say your manager made to you about a raise, a promotion, special time off, or a rewarding assignment unless the promise was documented in your performance development plan. You are welcome to complain to HR if you have addressed the issue with your manager. But, the end story is likely your word against the manager’s word. Is it possible you misunderstood your manager? If not, be wary about the promises made—when he has demonstrated that he doesn’t keep his promises. Work with HR on an internal transfer.
  • HR is not always in charge of making the decision. In fact, the decision you don't like may have been made by their boss or the company president. Good, company-oriented HR people won't blame other managers publicly for decisions with which they may disagree.
    And, they won't bad-mouth the decisions of their boss or other company managers, so you may never know where the decision was made. And, often, when a manager makes an unpopular decision, rather than taking the heat, they blame HR for the decision.

So, an unresponsive, unhelpful HR office that avoids helping employees with their problems is not always the case. (Though we know from our readers that such organizations do exist, let's hope they're rare.) There are legitimate reasons why HR cannot fulfill every employee's wishes.

If the HR staff listens, communicates actively, and informs the employee why a decision is made or an action not taken, employees are much less likely to write in asking how to solve their HR horror stories. This information should help your HR staff be less misunderstood by employees.

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