Speaking Truth to Power: HR as the Employee’s Advocate

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Apr 24, 2018

Once upon a time, the Human Resources Department was known as Personnel. Now it has changed again and is being called things like Talent, Talent Resources, Human Capital and a dozen other things. The problem is that it is all the same and there is nothing much new. All these titles put the emphasis on talent, but unfortunately the function exists to protect management.

Originally, HR or Personnel was tasked with handling things like benefits, health claims, training programs, administration of retirement plans and even employee investments. Many companies did have HR handling important things like succession planning, compensation and employee relations. And while these are still partial functions, most of the time today this department spends its time handling conflict resolution, hiring and firing and legal compliance. In fact, at most marketing companies, including ad agencies, HR is primarily defined as interviewing and hiring.

In addition to whatever else they have to do, HR is also charged with many extraneous duties like handling office parties, company picnics, blood drives and filling seats for events that management has purchased tickets for. Additionally, HR staff often has to manage the company’s sports teams.

The employee advocate

No wonder HR gets poor marks – it is charged with everything other than taking care of the one thing it should be doing – advocating for employees.

HR people, even the most junior, must be trained as to what their real job is and how to do it properly. As an example, if, as the saying goes, a company’s most precious resource goes down the elevator at night, then the HR people must be taught how to protect and safeguard those resources at all costs. In other words, they must maximize any employee’s ability to contribute to the company – even if the company makes it difficult to do so.

A company’s lack of ability to do that shows up in numerous ways.

Turnover is so high today that salary administration and promotions are rarely the province of any one department. I have written about employees whose supervisors turn over so frequently that loyal employees are unable to obtain overdue raises. (What happens is that their new supervisor, who most often has to sign off on a salary increase, says, “Well, you have only worked for me for a few months so we will have to give it more time so I can properly evaluate you.”) This should never happen in a well-run company, but I have seen raises put off literally for several years because of promotions or turnover without HR interceding. But that should be where a well-managed HR department steps in to handle the situation. If employee evaluations are conducted thoroughly and regularly, HR should administer the overdue raises.

When there is a conflict among employees, I am guessing that in 90% of the cases, the involved people are afraid to go to HR, lest they become the bad guys and get into trouble. Certainly that is an issue which has come to the fore in the #MeToo movement. There should be no fear of HR. I have seen terrible managers who cause excessive turnover be ignored (“The client likes them.”) to the detriment of the company and, eventually the detriment of the client. Clients liking an abusive supervisor is an unacceptable excuse where counseling, retraining or termination are the real answers.

Are you trusted?

While everyone knows that HR works for management, there is no trust among employees that things will be handled objectively and fairly; I can think of only a very few stories I have heard over the years where the solution was made in the favor of the employee rather than management.

It even happens in minor incidences. I once had a candidate asked such a poor question during an interview that I reported it to the director of human resources. Here is her response, an exact quote: “What do you expect me to do about it? He is a department head and a member of management. You don’t think that I can really correct him or control what he says?” Of course that is exactly what she should have done.

I wrote about a senior vice president at a top five worldwide (ad) agency with almost 20 years tenure who was terminated with no warning. She was actually fired by a complete stranger who sat in her office waiting until she returned from an internal meeting. She was with her client and this person actually blocked from her office, told her she was terminated and had to leave the building immediately. There was no discussion or explanation. This stranger escorted her out of the building without allowing her to pack her personal possessions, including her phone, all in front of her client. The HR director should not have allowed this; nor should the president.

There are far too many stories like this. No wonder people distrust and don’t like HR.

Wage freezes are an excuse for companies to save money, but even during the most serious wage freeze, a salary increase can be obtained. Someone from one of the big agencies said to me that the way to get a raise is for an employee to be in the middle of some crucial initiative and then accept a new job. The raise would certainly then be given. What a terrible way to manage people or to build confidence in an organization.

Human resources should and must be given the responsibility and authority to override management when necessary. But that requires enlightened management as well as a very strong and well trained human research director.

This article was originally published on the View From Madison Avenue

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