Perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of the HR role is its duality within the organization. Straddling the line between being part of management and being employee advocates, HR walks a tightrope during many of its interventions. Fulfilling such as role is not always easy. In fact, it is a delicate balance, and one where no matter where the chips may fall, it is bound to leave some people on either side of the fence unhappy with the decision or action.
The main obstacle in overcoming this stance is the expectation each side has of the outcome of an HR intervention. Their expectations rarely compliment each other. Depending of where one stands in the organization and one’s point of view, HR may be perceived from one end of the spectrum to the other as being either too soft or not caring enough. As we approach each intervention, understanding how these perceptions impact our interactions will serve the HR partner well. For a function tasked with implementing and executing on policies and practices that aim to protect and enhance the entire organization, including its human capital, contrary opinions are to be expected.
At times, some managers can be less than forthcoming with their HR partner. In order to get HR to side with them, approve promotions, dismissals, or some other action, they may withhold or embellish information pertaining to the circumstances at hand. While the behavior is unbecoming, the intent is not necessarily always malicious. Sometimes, managers who engage in such practices do believe that getting what they want is in direct benefit to the organization. Their flaw may lie in things like not upholding people to high standards, not giving employees direct and timely feedback, not having a broader view of the organization, or not having a solid commitment to the longer-term goals of the organization.
In addition to the obvious requirements of technical, execution, and strategic capability, business leaders who do build on the HR relationship expect that the HR partner give them unvarnished counsel, candid feedback, and viable options for solutions that are executable within the organization’s ethical parameters. Above all, they expect HR will be fair in their assessment and demonstrate high integrity standards. The key component in this relationship is trust. There’s some finessing involved, but if the manager is unwilling to openly discuss relevant issues with HR, the latter will not be able to effectively partner with the manager. Instead, consultations are haphazard and the relationship never truly develops.
For obvious reasons, employees often have a completely different opinion of HR from the one business leaders have. For some within this group and depending on the employee-HR relationship and the workplace culture, HR might be a place to be visited only under the direst of circumstances and one to be approached cautiously.
Even on the rare occasions of gross misconduct, no employee deserves to be addressed in a sanctimonious way. HR is a partner for the employees as well; we’re partners in their careers, and partners in their success. I’ve gotten some really valuable insight from conversations with members of the greater employee population. We should always be open to their suggestions, ideas, and most of all, feedback. After all, they’re closer to the product and the customer. In addition, having an ear to the ground helps HR stay in the loop and be alert to any type of potential employee-manager issues.
Once again, trust plays a part in this relationship as well. If they never see HR, then HR becomes an unknown entity. Rather than relying on employees approaching HR when they may “need something,” there are a number of actions that HR can take to initiate a relationship with the larger employee population.
- Send a personalized email to the teams you support
- Is there a new initiative you’re rolling out? Communicate it directly through an email. The more employees see your name, the more they will feel like they‘ll at least know where to go when they need to engage with you.
- Are you about to start supporting a new team? Introduce yourself via email to your assigned employee population. Let them know where to find you and how they can contact you. And if you really want to make yourself visible, consider including a photo of yourself with the introductory email. That way, when they see you around, it’ll be easier for them to know who you are. If your populations are virtual, they’ll be able to associate a face with a name.
- Engage in MBWA – Management By Walking Around
- Famed management guru, Tom Peters, articulated this practice as a critical component of a manager’s toolbox. HR, as an extension of management, can practice MBWA as a way to make themselves more visible and approachable. A simple, but purposeful “hello” to folks as you walk around on your way to visit a senior partner’s office may be all it takes.
In addition to the high focus for HR on being a strategic partner to the business, being employee advocates makes good business sense and it should continue to be a major role for the function. Initiatives to establish relationships will stretch the time spent at the office, especially in the beginning of their implementation and while they’re consistently built. However, if HR’s intent is to be seen as approachable and accessible, it must first put the effort on being “seen,” literally.
Employees who value their relationship with their HR partner tend to demonstrate onus over their careers. They approach HR with a vision for where they want to go in the organization and they invest time and effort in following through on the advice received.
Harmony over balance
Perfect balance is nearly impossible to achieve, but if we could at least have a harmonious relationship with both sides, it will soften the impact when we advise contrary to the expectations of the parties involved. Some may not like our decisions, but if they can respect our professionalism, then we’ll have a solid ground on which to stand and perform our role effectively. One good way to achieve this is by being consistent in how we go about making decisions. We should strive to be known as much for what we do as for how we do it. That doesn’t mean we can’t change our minds if new details emerge or if we sharpen our assessment. It means that the filter through which we base our assessments is as clear as possible of certain political influences. This includes avoiding falling in the trap of telling people what they want to hear. This way, they may not like what you have to say, but they’ll always remember that you were straightforward in your interactions. Duality is part of the role, but duplicity must be avoided at all cost.