HR’s Big Task: Keeping Its Finger on the Pulse of the Workforce

By Michelle T. Johnson

When average people think of the HR department in the company where they work, they tend to think of the “resources” aspect of the function rather than the “human” part of it. People think of employee orientation, benefits, paychecks, training, evaluations, and all the multitude of rules and regulations that the department is responsible for.

But a big aspect of the department is dealing with the human element. It’s managing the interactions and relationships that impact and form the workplace. It does not just mean being responsive to the problems that come up with employees, but being proactive about issues that come up regarding diversity.

To a certain extent, some HR people have an obligation to observe the employment environment so that they can keep a vigilant gaze on whether any underlying issues exist that need to be addressed.

When they do this as a routine part of their jobs, they gather information and become aware of the undercurrent of issues that exists. It is much more difficult for HR to do this when employees see HR people interacting with the rest of the company only when there is a problem or an investigation.

Getting the pulse of the work environment

How can HR people observe without looking like they are being intrusive or outright spying? At company events, HR people could actually mingle more, introducing themselves and stepping out of the bubble. If a company doesn’t have a lot of events — such as luncheons, discussion groups, after-work parties, or educational events — then HR could be more proactive in sponsoring them. Basically, HR should create opportunities for people to mingle, which would help HR to get the pulse of the work environment.

Also, if there are places where the employees in a company gather, HR people could make a point of actually going there too. For example, HR people could eat lunch in the company cafeteria, which would give them the opportunity to mix with others.

Again, the point isn’t for HR to be nosy or attempt to conduct an investigation before a complaint has been filed.The point is for HR to be constantly in the habit of observing. Maybe every person in the department isn’t a personality type well suited to do this, but in every company’s HR department, someone needs to be. Then, HR would be aware of what’s going on in the company.

In every lawsuit regarding discrimination or harassment, there is almost always buzz going on before it snowballs into an actual complaint, let alone a lawsuit. In fact, in the Statement of Facts that is filed in the motion to the court to dismiss a case before it goes to trial, there is usually a fact or set of facts that makes you realize that there was a turning point in the circumstances leading up to the complaint. If some aware, objective person — removed from the situation or with a bit of authority — could have stepped in, he or she could possibly have derailed what eventually took place.

Managers and department leaders have to actually lead

Similar to the points made in the preceding section about the role of HR people, a lot of proactive responsibility falls on the heads of the men and women who are the frontline managers in the workplace. By frontline, I mean people who actually see the work of employees on a day-to-day or frequent basis. I mean the managers who see employees come to work at the beginning of their shifts, who see employees throughout the time they work, and who then see them when they leave.

How does a boss do that? By watching what goes on.

For one thing, it’s always a good idea not just to notice who bonds together but if there is a shift in bonding. I’m not talking about minute shifts, like Sally no longer going to lunch with Marquita. I’m talking about when, say, groups of a particular ethnic group, who normally seem to be smiling and laughing and talking freely, start looking pensive and serious and more concerned than usual about who may be listening to their conversations.

When you notice shifts like that, especially when they take place over more than just a day or two, then there may be something that requires a little probing. Maybe you can do this casually. When you have the opportunity, you could ask one of the group members whom you have a fairly open relationship with if there is something going on.

It’s not about stirring the pot or seeking gossip. It’s about staying in touch with what is going on with your employees, especially if the issue even potentially has a problem attached.

People are very good at going up to a group of people who share some racial dynamic and trying to join in the conversation or comment on the gathering when the group is laughing or having fun. While there is nothing wrong with that if you’re the type of manager who talks to these employees individually, this action is more likely to come off as intrusive and a nosy attempt to insert yourself into a rare opportunity for workers to relax and let down their guard for a few moments in the workplace.

Interaction should invite trust and confidence

Ultimately, the point is about managers and supervisors actually interacting with the people they manage in a way that invites trust and confidence.

Most managers tend to fall into either of two extremes. They are way too distant from the people they manage, or they are so overly friendly that they destroy the healthy degree of boundaries that needs to be in place. Being a manager who is interested and approachable strikes the right balance for employees to come forward with their individual diversity issues that can have a larger impact on the work environment.

Managers who fail to observe, interact with, and act upon what they observe when necessary put themselves in the position of being the fall guy or girl when potential problems snowball. They will be questioned on what they knew and when they knew it.

If you are a manager in charge of a department or area of your company that appears to have a problem, you will be questioned about what steps you took to prevent or lessen the issue. Also, because you are the manager, you will be held to a higher standard regarding what you did or didn’t do than any other employee involved in the issue.

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For example, say there is a female office worker who complains to the HR department that several male coworkers frequently make off-color, offensive comments and tell dirty jokes that make her feel uncomfortable. She tells HR that she has repeatedly told her coworkers to stop.

While she hasn’t reported this directly to her supervisor because she didn’t feel comfortable doing so, HR should ask her manager what he observed. HR should ask if the manager ever observed the female worker’s discomfort, overheard any jokes or comments, and was ever aware of any other female who expressed concern about the same issue.

In addition, a thorough HR investigator should probe a little deeper and try to get an idea of why the female coworker went directly to the HR department to register her complaint rather than going to her manager. It’s not so much that HR is trying to blame the manager, but a sharp HR investigator goes the extra mile to make sure this isn’t the surface of a larger problem.

The investigator wants to make sure that the female employee’s complaint is just an isolated issue. If HR doesn’t look into these matters and the complaint keeps going, it will land right in the arms of the company’s outside legal counsel, with massive billing rates. The attorneys will definitely ask these probing questions if the HR department doesn’t.

So you see, managers and supervisors have a greater incentive than most in a company — even HR — to make sure they have their finger on the pulse of the diversity issues in the area that they govern. At the very least, they have a responsibility to create an environment with an open door, inviting employees to bring to them what they might not otherwise notice.

Excerpted from The Diversity Code: Unlock the Secrets to Making Differences Work in the Real World by Michelle T. Johnson. Copyright © 2011 Michelle T. Johnson. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved. http://www.amacombooks.org.

Michelle T. Johnson
Michelle Johnson (www.michelletjohnson.com) writes the "Diversity Diva" newspaper column for the Kansas City Star. She is a former employment attorney and author of Working While Black: The Black Person's Guide to Success in the White Workplace. Her diversity workshop clients have included Wal-Mart and H&H Block. Contact her at michelle@michelletjohnson.com.