How You Can Keep HR From Becoming the “Fly in the Ointment”

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Feb 5, 2014

Being a “fly in the ointment” is not a good thing.

This simple idiom translates into times when things are going along according to plan until an unforeseen event (our little friend, the fly) occurs and stops progress in its tracks. It complicates situations and can become a larger hassle to work through.

Unfortunately, too many HR professionals continue to be those flies and get in the way of progress at work and I’d like to share one.

I was recently reading a post from an HR pro who was reaching out for advice. It went like this:

Advice is needed for an employee who has recently been making errors at work. When the manager addressed the employee about the errors, the employee stated they needed new reading glasses but couldn’t afford them. The manager came to HR and asked what the company could do, if anything, to help the employee get an eye exam and glasses.”

The HR pro went on to describe how they met with the employee about the errors and vision issues. The HR pro surmised that the employee was nearsighted and that reading glasses wouldn’t really help the employee with the work errors. The HR pro went on to ask about resources on where to find low cost or free eye exams that could be shared with the employee.


What’s wrong with this picture?

  • I guess the HR pro forgot to share information about their moonlighting gig as ophthalmologist.
  • Both the manager and HR pro are assuming the work errors are being caused by a vision issue.
  • The HR pro is not allowing the manager to be a manager.

The HR pro is now the “fly in the ointment,” ready to muck up this employee issue. And now the 3-way-”he said-she said”-dialogue mess is front and center.

Thanks for that. Just what Corporate America needs — more messed up workplace relationships.

Make an accurate plan

Here are some things for anyone in HR to remember:

  • Be an HR professional, not a physician.
  • Be a resource and advisor to the manager — only. It’s the manager’s responsibility to own and handle employee issues — let them do the jobs they were hired to do.
  • Keep the communication between you and the manager and let the manager work directly with the employee.
  • Advise the manager to take the time to sit with the employee and review their work together. Make an accurate determination of the cause of the errors vs. an amateur medical speculation.
  • Work with the manager on developing an action plan for the employee from there.

What does this accomplish?

  • Improved communication between the employee and manager, which allows for a better working relationship. The employee-manager relationship is the most important one at work. I’ll say it again: “employees don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad managers.”
  • Rule out why the errors are occurring. Is the employee clear on what they’re doing? Is there a step in their work that’s being overlooked?
  • Empowers managers to do the jobs they were hired to do instead of allowing them to bail and run to HR for the employee issues they don’t like to handle.

Managers always try to avoid rolling up their sleeves and handling employee issues if you let them. It’s easier to run to HR, right?

They’ll say they don’t have the time. They’ll say they don’t like these types of issues. Who does?

Employee issues rarely have a clear solution, almost always have gray areas and take time to resolve. But that’s part of their jobs — so let them do it.

This was originally published on Kimberly Patterson’s Unconventional HR blog.