Your Parents Don’t Work in HR – So Why Do Employees Act Like They Do?

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Apr 11, 2013

Do parents make good HR professionals?

I ask because I worry that too many HR people — with or without children — mistake themselves for moms and dads when they come into the office. That is, when companies send employees the well-meaning message that HR is here for them anytime they have interpersonal conflicts, they treat them like first-graders.

We’re all supposed to be adults, the cliché goes, so why do so many workers act like children? Because HR won’t let them grow up.

Sure, you want to help your people resolve disputes, and you should communicate that. But there’s a difference between conveying a message and encouraging workers to act on it.

Resolving issues without getting HR involved

Do not embolden your people to run to mom. Mom does not work in HR. An overworked executive does, and she has better things to do than address complaints from employees whose college degrees should qualify them to keep non-issues from ballooning into issues, and resolve them if they do.

For example, I once wrote “huge piece of excrement” in a work email. (For the record, I would’ve typed the four-letter synonym, but I’m way too intelligent and professional to allow some spam filter to block my correspondence.)

For reasons that had nothing to do with my wording, the recipient of my message (who was not offended; next time I’ll try harder) forwarded it to a co-worker, who felt my phrasing was “inappropriate.” There was more forwarding, more CCing. Eventually, this reached the chief — yes, the chief — of HR. (Any day now, it should land in President Obama’s inbox.)

In other words, typical corporate bull-piece of excrement.

Let’s put aside the question of the appropriateness of my words.

Actually, let’s not. My language was practically called for, given the previous dialogue I’d had with my original recipient, who peppered our conversation with bleep and bleep, rather than their tamer substitutes. I would’ve gladly explained this to my perturbed co-workers had they come to me.

This anecdote isn’t about colleagues thwarting my Bring Your True Self to Work Day Parade. It’s about concerned co-workers paving a road, or paper trail, with good intentions (you know where that leads). It also highlights missed opportunities to interact with, learn from, and understand each other.

It’s about managing confrontation

The problem is, we all fear being confronted as much as we do confronting others. But when someone, particularly a manager, avoids addressing co-workers directly, he highlights his own laziness and lack of interpersonal skills, fails to build positive relationships, possibly creates negative ones, and fosters pointless corporate bureaucracy.

Good leadership is not about avoiding confrontation, it’s about managing it — and the only way to manage confrontation is to have it without needlessly involving hapless HR staffers when possible, which is almost always possible.

There is almost no issue — be it allegedly inappropriate language in an email or potential sexual misconduct — that first demands a sit-down with HR rather than initial conversations between employees.

No matter the discomfort, when employees talk to each other first, the company benefits through increased camaraderie, collaboration, and confidence among staffers. Dragging in HR, which should be a last resort, can easily breed contempt because even if HR can help end a conflict, it doesn’t necessarily solve it.

Ultimately, the best companies are those with employees who feel like they they’re free to go talk to HR — but choose not to.

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