They have been described as smiling assassins for appearing pleasant and friendly whilst informing you that you no longer have a job. They have been compared to estate agents in appearing to be an impartial broker when they turn out to be nothing of the kind. Most frequently they are seen as the people who do management’s dirty work. I am of course referring to Human Resources staff.
I suppose in a climate of redundancies, redeployments and restructuring there is a tendency to shoot the messenger and the messenger is often HR. The name on the bottom of the letter may be that of a senior manager but the contact person, the one who will be “advising you on your options”, will be from HR.
If you are unfortunate enough to be the subject of a disciplinary hearing then management will present the case supported by someone from HR. They will tell managers how to present you in the worst possible light. If you’re appearing before an attendance panel as a result of your absences from work then it will be the person from HR who ensures all the dates are laid out, the relevant sections of the occupation health report are highlighted and the chair briefed with policy quotes like: ”In view of the fact there is no immediate prospect of a return to work…”.
You can understand why staff might see HR as on management’s side. You might be surprised to learn that first line and middle managers are no fans of HR either. This is because they view HR as the ones who say “you can’t do that” in response to a manager’s proposal to sack someone, to refuse to take them on redeployment or to appoint them without following the formal recruitment process.
HR police the organisation’s policies and procedures and so they are often seen as bureaucratic and obstructive by operational mangers who just want to get things done quickly.
An HR colleague once told me my managers were in the habit of ring up HR staff asking for “advice” and when they didn’t get the answer they wanted they would simply ring another member of HR phrasing the questions slightly differently until they got the answer they wanted. They would then act and claim they were following HR advice.
The other reason managers are often antagonistic towards HR staff is due to what happens when a member of staff accuses a manager of harassment or bullying. Managers tend to resent having to justify their decisions to anyone other than their line manager, and view being asked by HR to show they acted reasonably as being guilty until they prove their innocence.
In fact HR are just following the agreed formal procedures knowing full well that not to do so would invite criticism from the trade unions with whom the procedure was agreed. Even more significant is the fact that to ignore agreed procedures would expose the organisation to future claims of unfair dismissal.
HR don’t work for management - they work for the organisation. Their job is to promote good employee relations hence their focus on recruitment, disciplinaries, absence management and health and safety. The true value of HR is their unseen work. It’s members of the HR team who meet regularly with trade union reps and sort out potential “misunderstandings”. These are often the result of senior managers getting carried away and being indiscreet or too bullish in their comments to a group of staff. On more than one occasion I have been thankful for HR digging me out of that particular hole.
HR actively encourage managers and staff to resolve problems informally (i.e. sitting down and talking about it with the union rep present) because they know that once the formal process is begun, attitudes harden. Some of the most difficult issues for managers to deal with are conflicts within their team, people who just don’t get on, the individual who upsets everyone by not taking their turn to make the drinks or do the washing up, the person who can cause a major falling out over whether an open window is too draughty or a closed one too stuffy.
More serious and more sensitive are accusations of homophobic bullying, sexist comments or inappropriate “jokes”. On these occasions managers are very grateful for the advice, support and guidance of HR, and perhaps they should be considered the diplomats who try to ensure disagreements don’t turn into conflicts, and where conflicts do arise, to bring them to a swift resolution.
I am not surprised if staff and managers don’t put up much resistance to cuts in HR. But I would be surprised if they didn’t come to regret it.