What HR Doesn't Want to Know

Dale Dauten

"I believe the real difference between success and failure in a corporation can be very often traced to the question of how well the organization brings out the great energies and talents of its people.”  

-Thomas J. Watson, Jr.

The subject line on a recent e-mail asked this ominous question:


Turns out, the message was reporting the results of a research poll that concluded, “HR Department Often Last to Know About Employee Issues.”

I like the disaster-izing tone of those statements, reminding me of those TV news promos where they say “Will a common household item cause you a sudden but agonizing death as you sleep tonight? Find out tomorrow, on NEWS AT 6. News you need when you need it.”

In this case, the poll was actual research, by Opinion Research Corp., and it wasn’t one of those on-line “unscientific polls” (where “unscientific” means “garbage”). Rather, several hundred people were asked to whom they would turn if they had an issue at work.  Most said they would go to their managers, many others would turn to friends and “only” about one in five would seek out the HR department’s assistance.

The report also pointed out that the youngest respondents, 18-24, where much less likely than the eldest group, over 65, to turn to HR:  32% versus 17%. The implication was that employees learn not to trust HR. That implication got me thinking: I’d swap out “trust” in favor of “bother.” Yes, after a while, you figure out that HR has better things to do. 

Recently a young man sent a message asking if he should report to HR the fact that a coworker confessed she had slept with their manager. I suppose he thought that by turning in the two lovers he would be a hero. Perhaps he even supposed they might fire the manager and offer him the job. No.

The truth is that people who work in HR, at least the best ones, have better things to do. If they get a report, they have to investigate, but it’s about as welcome as a store’s maintenance staff being told that somebody barfed in aisle three.  Yes, the folks in HR write the policies – if you think reading a policy manual is dull, try writing one -- but that’s only because they have become the defense against employees wishing to “stick it to” upper management, forcing HR to be the one saying, “I’ve got your back.” But, let’s face it, watching an organization’s backside is tiresome and tedious work.

The best HR people want to spend their time looking up and out, not back and down. They want to upgrade the talent level of employees, finding new ways to educate and motivate employees while seeking out new sources of fresh talent. When you understand that, you are reluctant to go to them with rumors, suspicions, or the inevitable workplace annoyances.

Young employees tend to misunderstand the role of people who work in HR. They start out seeing them as Santas in Dockers and polo shirts, pulling jobs and perks out of their big bag of gifts. Later, after working a few years, the employees begin to think of HR as the impresarios of bad theater, the folks who put on tedious workshops on matters such as sexual harassment. Worse yet, if their luck is bad, the employees come to think of HR not as the people handing out jobs, but taking them away, the ones handing out the ungifts, the empty boxes to use to clear out personal possessions.

On the other hand, if your luck is good and your choices wise, you might work in an organization with an HR department that is an ally to performance and an enemy of bureaucracy. It’s hard for some people to imagine, but there are places where HR is seen as a source of talent and ideas, staffed by professionals with a keen understanding of people, and how to help them do their best work.

So... HR: friend or foe?  Every HR department is either a friend of talent or a friend of bureaucracy. The problem is that many HR departments never realize that they have that choice, and when they don’t, bureaucracy has chosen them.

Dale Dauten, columnist of the Corporate Curmudgeon
©2008 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.


Print page