Working with Human Resources
Few great men could pass Personnel.
– Paul Goodman (1911 – 1972)
I have a long history with Human Resources (HR), or as it was once called, “Personnel.” My father was a personnel manager, and he met my mother when they both were working in a personnel department, so I suppose you could argue that I owe my existence at least in part to personnel management. My mother went on to other work, but my father remained a personnel manager throughout his career, which began in the forties and continued until the early seventies.
When my father spoke about his job, he spoke about employees. He worked with both white and blue collar workers and spent a lot of time in factories and offices talking with people and helping them with both work-related and personal problems. He knew everyone who worked in the divisions he supported, and he knew their wives and kids, too. My father was always interested in new methods and techniques and would occasionally bring home tests, usually psychological tests that were used for employee screening, and try them out on my brother and me. The one thing he never talked about was paperwork, and he never mentioned legal issues. I’m sure both were part of his job, but they certainly weren’t the main focus.
Now, before we get lost in a Norman Rockwell painting, it’s important to remember that when he first started working in the forties most of the workers were men, women were not paid equally, discrimination was legal, tests were unconstrained, and quotas were common for all sorts of things, from ethnic background, to religion, to what college you went to. But, it was also an environment where he could spend time working with people, rather than laws. I know that’s why he chose that career, and I think that’s still one of the reasons people go into HR.
A lot has changed since then. Thankfully, in the United States, most forms of employment discrimination are illegal, pay for men and women is much closer to equality, and pre-employment tests must relate to job performance. Our country and our workforce have become much more diverse and working conditions are much fairer. These are not gains that we’d want to give back, in fact in some areas we still have a way to go, but they have not come without a cost. The price for these gains has been tighter regulation of hiring and employment practices, increased scrutiny by the government, increased paperwork, and possibly most damaging, a greater distance between employees and management. That distance carries over to HR. Many employees only see an HR person on their first and last days of work, and those encounters are usually tightly choreographed exercises in filling out paperwork.
To an alarming degree, HR people spend their days navigating a labyrinth of legal landmines. For example, years ago I applied for a job at a large computer company. By complete chance, the HR person I spoke with was a woman I knew in college, but hadn’t seen in years. We had plenty to catch up on, but because of the constraints of the interview process, she couldn’t ask me anything that was not job related. So, the “how are you, how are the wife and kids, what have you been up to for the last 10 years,” conversation you’d normally have with an old acquaintance was off-limits, and I’m pretty sure that the information I volunteered so that she wouldn’t have to ask probably still made her nervous. That’s the unfortunate reality of being an HR person these days. Most of the laws are there for good reason, but that doesn’t make the job any easier.
Corporations are so concerned about exposure to law suits that they sometimes do crazy things. At one company I’m familiar with, which was in the midst of layoffs, an employee who was nearing retirement and who was planning to leave the company soon anyway, volunteered to be laid off so that some other employee would be passed over. When the list of people to be laid off was revealed to managers, that employee was left off the list, but a colleague who was much younger was put on the list. The HR representative said that they needed to keep a particular distribution of ages in the group of people being laid off to avert the possibility of an age discrimination law suit. Having a skewed distribution might lead to a fairer outcome for the people involved, but could open up a crack for someone else to sue the company. Eventually things were straightened out, but it took a fair amount of wrangling, and it could easily have gone the other way.
The point here is not to disparage discrimination laws or the HR organization. I’m a strong supporter of both. I was glad that the HR representative I met in the first story stayed within the letter of the law, even with an old friend. And, even though the second instance skirted insanity, in a perverse way I appreciate the diligence shown by that company. The point is that these days, HR departments are consumed with legalities. The days when an HR manager had the luxury of actually getting to know all of the employees he or she supported are long gone.
That said, as a documentation manager you need to cultivate your HR people. In the case just mentioned, it was only through a close working relationship with HR that the right conclusion was reached. If this had been the first time that the manager involved had dealt with HR, it’s likely the result would have been different. It was only through having a strong previous relationship with HR that the manager was able to turn things around.
The obvious, but still most important, reason for working with HR is that those laws that I’ve been talking about are targeted at you, and the HR folks are there to keep you, and the corporation, out of legal trouble. While they are there for anything that relates to personnel issues, they are your lifeline when it comes to the hardest decisions: hiring and firing.
For hiring, they can help you make sure your screening and interviewing processes are fair and legal. Hiring is not just a matter of grabbing a few good looking resumes, asking a few random questions, then picking the person who makes the strongest first impression. In fact, that process pretty much guarantees you’ll make the wrong choice. If you screen and interview correctly, you will not only avoid legal problems, you will have a much better chance of hiring the right person.
When it comes to firing, HR is even more important. We are decades past the point where Mr. Dithers could fire Dagwood on a whim. Most employment is “at will,” meaning either the employee or the employer can terminate employment at any time, for pretty much any reason. However, in practice, terminating employment for anything other than a gross violation of company policy or law almost always involves a script that must be followed to the letter. That script will normally involve documenting problems, working with the employee, developing and tracking improvement plans, delivering a sequence of warnings, and then only if all of these steps fail, terminating employment. Make the wrong step anywhere along the way and there will be legal problems. If you find yourself with an employee who’s headed down this road, you’ll probably spend a lot of time with your HR representative, who is usually well equipped to take you step-by-step through the process.
Even though you’re most likely to need HR during a crisis, you should spend time with your HR representative regularly. I always make it a point to meet my HR representative as soon as I take a new position, or a new person gets assigned. And, I periodically find a reason to call or exchange email. For a long time, my HR representative was at a location that I regularly visited, and I made it a point to drop in whenever I was in town. When I spoke with one of my favorite HR people about this, she said that a surprising number of managers never call or drop in, even some who are on the same site, until there’s a crisis.
This is not a good idea for a lot of reasons. First of all, if I have to deal with a difficult situation, I would prefer to speak with someone I know rather than a stranger. That’s just a question of comfort level, but it’s much easier to have a useful discussion when you have that level of comfort.
Secondly, someone you know will tend to give you the benefit of the doubt; he or she will want to be on your side, even if you’ve made a mistake. Of course, this only works if you’ve given that person good reasons for trusting you.
Thirdly, you will have a much better idea of how much you can reveal safely. Nearly every HR person I’ve worked with takes confidentiality very seriously. But, you may run into that one person who’s willing to reveal something he or she shouldn’t. Or, more likely, you may run into someone who has the tendency to reveal things inadvertently. You should never treat an HR person like a priest; even with the best of intentions they may reveal something you don’t want revealed, but if you’ve spent time with your HR representative, you’ll have a pretty good idea about what you can safely say and what you can’t.
Finally, HR has it’s finger on the pulse of the organization. You can learn a lot about what is going on just by keeping in touch with your HR representative. I don’t mean that you’ll pick up confidential information, which in my experience you probably don’t want anyway. What you can get is information from a fresh perspective. For example, if you are about to start a project with a manager you haven’t worked with before, most HR representatives will be happy to answer questions like, “What can you tell me about this person’s management style?” You won’t hear that he or she likes to torture kittens or is about to be fired for harassing an assistant, but you will get good, if sanitized, information. And if you have a good enough rapport, the chances are that you’ll be able to sense whether he or she thinks that manager is someone you want to work with or not.
I know managers who have no time for HR. They may have read too much Dilbert and take Catbert, the “evil director” of human resources too seriously. Or they may see HR as a questionably necessary evil that mostly wastes their time, and HR people as clueless drones who have no idea what’s really going on. If you feel that way, please think again. HR is there to help and generally doesn’t have time to waste your time. They’re also generally very personable folks, who love to chat when they can find the time. After all, you generally don’t go into a Human Resources job if you don’t like humans. But, even if you don’t want to make your HR representative your best pal, take the time to meet him or her, get a feeling for what he or she is like, and stay in touch. I can pretty much guarantee that some day you’ll be glad you did.
Copyright © 2007 Richard L. Hamilton