Sunday, April 28, 2013

HR 101: Don't Ask Me This Question, Please

There are few pleasures in life I enjoy more than a meaty conversation with individuals of differing viewpoints.

That said, there is one topic of conversation that drives me nuts, and it centers on this question—

Is HR an advocate for the employee or the employer? 

I hate this question. It seriously sets my teeth on edge when I hear it.

Here’s why.

The Question Seems Determined to Perpetuate a Divide
Who says that HR has to choose sides? Why is this an acceptable proposition? Where else in the organization is someone called to be an advocate of one group at the expense of the other? So what that employers and employees sometimes have conflicting interests—so do customers and employers. If a sales person is an advocate for his customer, is he operating outside the interests of his employer? Of course not. So, why do we keep asking this question of HR? Instead, why not ask a better question—what can HR do to balance the interests of employer and employee? Which brings me to …

The Question Gives HR an Excuse to Do a Crappy Job
You say, “Oh, that sounds good, but HR is paid by the employer, not the employee.” Yes, and the sales person is paid by the employer and not the customer. Again, does that give the sales person license to not solve the customer’s problem? On the flip side, if HR is all about “helping” employees, then there’s no reason for HR to thoughtfully consider the effects of any employee request. Can you use bereavement leave to attend the funeral of your ex-wife’s cousin’s husband? Why sure, employee! You have a need, and we’re here to help you! This is bad HR, people. Bad HR.

The Question Makes it Okay for Employers to Behave Irresponsibly
If HR’s job is simply to “take the employer’s side” then there’s no reason for the employer to consider any information from HR before making a decision. So go ahead employer and misclassify your employees, ignore that bully, promote that incompetent into another department, and pay Betty less for doing the same job as Joe. Apparently HR is just here to push your paper and effect your bad business decisions.

The Question Gives HR Detractors a Reason to Diss the Profession
Seriously HR, you don’t have the critical thinking skills, maturity, or business sense to solve a problem based on its own merits? You don’t have the wisdom or the courage to tell that misguided employee who says his boss is “harassing” him that his manager has every right and a responsibility to set and enforce standards? Or to tell your employer that the Director of Temper Tantrums in department X is causing a serious morale issue, and you know she’s brilliant, but folks and productivity are suffering?

Please, don’t get me wrong. At the end of the day, the employer pays the bills and the employer will decide the type of HR department it gets.

But my question is—what type of HR practitioner are YOU? Your employer doesn’t get to make that decision.

So forget about sides and instead recommend the very best solutions you can devise with the information you have on hand. And let knowledge, skill, compassion, wisdom, tact, and maturity guide your decision making—not some simplistic notion of "us" versus "them." 


  1. The same conundrum afflicts the real estate industry. Does the agent represent the buyer or the seller?

    It is not the job of HR to sell the applicant to the company.

    From the initial contact, HR is sifting through and evaluating applicants. The interview is to further determine if the applicant will fit the needs of the company AND to inform the applicant, one way or another, if the company will fill the needs of the employee--beyond the standard paycheck.

    Ah, the good old days.

    I was taken to lunch, the boss saw that I'd attended Seton Hall and Georgetown, spent lunch talking about basketball, I "got the job."

    When I thought I might write the Great American Novel, I dropped out of the corporate world and took a job as a security guard. Same process--sans lunch.

    I was once hired by the owner of a store to work (part-time so I could write) for him even though he did not know my last name. Only that I was a regular customer.

    Idea! Change HR back to Personnel, and have the boss(es) do the interviewing and hiring.



    1. Oh Slim, you are funny! I'm not a fan of the term, "Personnel," but I agree with you that something about our common hiring practices is off.

      What happened with the novel?

  2. Pat Higgins in AlaskaMay 27, 2013 at 9:39 AM

    The perception of HR has been the result of things HR professionals have said and done. We have no one to blame but ourselves.

    I believe we are an advocate for the corporate culture. In most cases, that means HR plays a role in receiving employees concerns and ensuring they are properly handled. They tell employee the company supports employee rights to raise concerns and to protect them from retaliation.

    We also play a key role in protecting the company from litigation. Management actions that we believe may result in a legal challenge requires us to notify the right individuals in the organization.

    As managers, not limited to HR, we strive to manage based on an approach we think will contribute to the success of an organization. Most in HR, because of our education and experiences, prefer a progressive disciplinary approach. Some in management prefer a "employment at will" approach to everything. No one is right or wrong.

    We deserve to be labeled because some in HR try to control too much, sometimes by claiming something is "illegal" when that simply isn't true. Or trying to do too little to help the organization success by saying it is someone else's responsibility. Me, when I walk down the hall and see paper laying on the ground, I pick it up.

    Back to the question, no. We should never be an employee advocate. That implies that we are like a defense attorney, trying to help the employee win even if they did something wrong. That should happen in no organization. But we are what the organization wants us to be. And in some cases, we play a role in promoting a corporate culturn.

    1. Hello Pat! I couldn't agree more that we've done much to malign our own reputation and that we play a role in shaping company culture, whether that's defending it or advocating change TO it.

      But I'm intrigued by your view of advocate. What if the organization does something wrong? Who speaks for the employee? (By the way, I consider myself an employee advocate, if you will, when I tell the employee that he's off in left field instead of allowing him to go off half cocked with his erroneous beliefs.

      And I totally agree that HR reps and their "this is illegal" when it isn't doesn't help anyone. The fact is, we need to learn our jobs better.

  3. and what happens when HRM is not only paid by company but is vested as part owner of the conflict of interest there either hmmm?

    1. Hi Cece! In THAT case, I'd have to agree (I think I'm agreeing with you) that there really is a conflict. Wow. I wouldn't recommend that at all. Thanks for giving me something new to think about.