ask a manager logoOne of the sites I follow regularly is Ask a Manager, where Alison Green shares her thoughts and wisdom on management, job hunting, and the workplace. With a wildly popular site like hers, she gets all kinds of questions from readers about different situations. I wanted to take the opportunity to get her thoughts on our (HR) side of the fence, so I pitched her a few questions. She was gracious enough to answer in detail, so check out the great Q&A below!

Ben: So, Alison, I see that one of your more typical answers to questions from job seekers and workers is, “No, don’t go to HR” when responding to letters you receive. Working in HR, there are times I would like to see some of the requests that these people raise. I understand that HR can be backward and bumbling at times, and for some organizations it can even be an evil arm of management dedicated to squeezing the life out of employees. So, what sorts of instances would you recommend someone actually contact HR for help, assuming no evil intent?

Alison: I’d say there are four main categories of times when I suggest people talk to HR instead of their manager: (1) to report harassment, (2) to report discrimination based on a protected class like race, sex, religion, disability, etc., (3) when they want to take advantage of a protection guaranteed by the government, such as FMLA leave, and (4) with questions about or issues with benefits.

In very limited circumstances, I might also suggest going to HR about an issue with your boss — but not as a general rule. If your boss is yelling or being abusive, then yes. Or if your boss is doing something that clearly your company would be horrified to know about (like dating a subordinate or directing people to violate a safety rule or never permitting anyone to use sick leave).

But if you just don’t like your boss or have relatively mild issues with her, that’s not a matter for HR. In some companies, it can be helpful to go to HR to get ADVICE on how to navigate a tricky relationship with a boss — advice, not intervention. But you have to know your HR department to know if that makes sense; some are great at giving advice in those situations and others will turn around and share the conversation with your boss, and not in a helpful way.

Ben: That’s excellent advice, and I’d agree that those are the times HR actually wants to hear from people. So, what qualifies a company as having “good” HR in your opinion, both as a manager and employee?

Alison: I’d say that a good HR department one that’s highly aligned with the organization’s culture and goals and does excellent work in areas like ensuring that managers are well-trained, benefits are strong and well-administered, salaries are benchmarked to industry norms, and that they help rather than hinder a company’s managers (for instance, by finding nuanced, flexible solutions rather than requiring everyone to operate the same across the board, which is a hallmark of a bad HR department). A good HR department can help managers get more done, more effectively.

Ben: I love that explanation, especially around flexibility. I always thought that was an incredible power (for good or evil) that companies often used poorly. As a former manager who now coaches managers frequently, what relationship do you advise for managers to have with the HR team?

Alison: If you have a good HR department, they can be a great resource to managers — a source of advice on all sorts of tricky issues, from delivering tough feedback to navigating hiring dilemmas to helping retain your best people. If you have a bad HR department, I recommend an avoidance strategy.

Ben: Give me a couple of the most common reasons people say they plan to reach out to HR that cause you to just shake your head at them.

Alison: I think sometimes people think of HR as being neutral referees who they can go to when they have a problem with a coworker or are upset with their manager; they think HR will mediate for them, which of course isn’t exactly how it works. I hear a lot of things like “should I talk to HR about my coworker who won’t stop playing her music too loudly” or “can HR help me if my boss is nitpicking my work?”

Ben: Referencing the last question, I often see this when people are having petty squabbles with managers or peers. Do you think decision to “go to HR” is just an inability to emotionally distance themselves from the situation, a lack of understanding of what HR actually does, a last ditch effort when all else seems to fail, or something else entirely?

Alison: I think it’s a lack of understanding of what HR actually does. It’s the idea I mentioned above that they’ll be a neutral referee. I also think people often think HR is there to be their advocate and don’t understand that HR is there to serve the needs of the business. Of course, in some cases that means advocating for employees against bad managers, because it’s in the best interests of employers to retain great employees, spot and address bad management, and nip legal problems in the bud. But lots of other times, what’s best for the employer might not be what’s best for the employee, and the best interests of the employer will always win out. Employees don’t always get that that’s how it’s supposed to work.

I also think people often go to HR for things they should be trying to solve themselves. It’s why so often when HR reps ask people, “Have you talked about this directly with the person you’re complaining about?” the answer is no. And that’s not surprising — I mean, my mail is full of letters from people who are looking for ways to avoid having a direct, semi-awkward conversation with a coworker or a manager; everyone hopes there might be a solution that will get them out of having a tough conversation that they’d rather avoid.

Ben: That’s entirely true, and I’ve seen it in pretty much every company I’ve ever worked for. Let’s shift a bit on this last question, because I know you have a big chunk of your audience in the form of job seekers looking for advice. On the recruiting side, I completely agree with you about candidates not “reaching out to HR to follow up.” We hate that and it just slows things down (hint: we often have other things besides recruiting going on, and while recruiting is a big deal for you it might be a relatively small priority in the bigger scheme of things). So, is there a time or two that makes sense for a candidate to reach out to HR?

Alison: If you’ve been interviewed, and they told you they’d get back to you in X amount of time, and it’s a week past X. At that point, it’s reasonable to reach out and see if there’s an update on the timeline.

Or if you’ve been interviewed and you have another offer that you need to respond to, so that the company has a chance to expedite things if they’re interested in you.

Otherwise, I know it’s tempting to follow up and ask for updates, but really, if the company wants to hire you, they’re not going to forget about you. People do know that on some level, but it’s so normal to feel anxious and want closure and everything else that makes job searching so emotionally difficult.

Thanks again to Alison for spending some time with us! Please follow her on Twitter and check out her site if you haven’t already. Here are a few good stories that you don’t want to miss:

What did you think of Alison’s honest opinions about HR from a manager’s point of view? Do you agree or disagree?

First, read this from the Ask a Manager blog:

HR won’t let us hold people accountable for performance

I just read your column about accountability and got aggravated because one of my long-standing frustrations as a manager at the large, government affiliated nonprofit where I work has been a lack of commitment to accountability. In my department, I try and, I think, mostly succeed at following your advice about talking explicitly about expectations, giving feedback, etc. – but then I come up against a lack of ability to ensure that actions have consequences – good or bad – at the institutional level.

For example, every employee is evaluated using the same performance appraisal template, which asks questions like whether the person is “courteous,” then spits out a score. If you have a score of at least 60 out of 100, you keep truckin’ along. The problem is that everyone on my staff is responsible for making 25 teapots a year. If someone shows up sober most of the time and doesn’t swear at anyone, but they only make 21 teapots, my hands are tied. On the other end of the spectrum, everyone gets the same salary increase, so those people making 42 teapots don’t see any tangible reward for going above and beyond.

So I was excited when we got new leadership this year that requested a plan for providing rewards and consequences for meeting or failing to meet the 25 teapot goal. I’m happy with the plan I developed and it was endorsed by our leadership. Then it went to HR and fell into a black hole. For months, I have been following up and told they were reviewing the plan and would get back to me. Finally, I ambushed the person I’ve been trying to talk to and she told me that the problem they’re hung up on is the consequences for failing to reach goals. Essentially, if someone fails to meet the 25 teapot goal (and this is after I have met with everyone regularly throughout the year about their progress and provided them with as much guidance and support as I’m able), I want to give them six months to improve their performance or be let go. HR asserts that the proposal “changes the terms of employment.” I don’ t understand this because the job is “teapot maker” and the job description explicitly states they’re responsible for making 25 teapots a year.

Instead of just tearing my hair out, though, I want to try to move this thing forward. I see a glimmer of opportunity because the HR director hasn’t outright told me it’s impossible. I’d rather the next step not be whining to the boss – in part because HR doesn’t seem very impressed that our top leadership wants this to happen. How do I proceed?

And now for the (quite appropriate) response:

Alison@Ask a Manager: Your HR department sucks, and your organization’s management sucks for allowing HR to suck (although it sounds like that might be changing with your new leadership). And really — “changes the terms of employment”? Have these HR people ever held a job outside this organization and seen that, in fact, you can indeed hold people to performance standards?

I’d talk to your new leadership directly if you can — the ones who want this to change. Tell them you’re having trouble getting HR to move forward with it, say you feel hamstrung in taking action on low performers, and ask for advice in getting HR to move on it. [Source]

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Please don’t do this

HR has to stop doing, and allowing, things like this. It seems like it’s a weekly occurrence where someone writes to Alison (Alison Green is the superstar behind Ask a Manager) with a problem that is being caused by someone in human resources.

Look, I get it. HR is like any profession—we’re going to have people that just aren’t great at this stuff. But my sincere hope with this post is to help some of you guys see the AWFUL people practices that some organizations use and help you avoid them. For goodness sake, please steer clear of anything resembling this madness.

It’s no wonder that so many leaders, managers, and staff don’t respect HR when things like this are occurring.

This snippet appeared in a post on the Ask a Manager blog a few months back. Thought it was a good topic to jump start a post as well as a great reminder from Alison on the dual roles of HR.

Sometimes when I read an article advising a reader to go to their HR department for help, I wonder if this is really a solution that will benefit the worker. I\’ve been privy to situations where it seemed that HR became involved not to mediate–but to fast-track an employee to the exit door. I\’m looking for perspective. It seems as if HR works to shield management, and is rarely a real resource to resolve issues workers may have with folks in a manager\’s role or higher. What does your experience say? 

HR is there to serve the needs of the employer. In some cases, that means helping out employees — because it\’s in the best interests of the employer to retain great employees, hear about and address bad managers, stop legal problems before they explode, and so forth. But plenty of other times, what\’s best for the employer is not what\’s best for the employee. It varies by situation. In general, though, when I read advice suggesting that an employee take a problem to HR, about 75% of the time it strikes me as an inappropriate thing to do; HR people aren\’t therapists or priests or mediators. Unless something is a legal issue or truly egregious, you should deal with your manager directly. (And a good HR department will tell you to do that.)

First off, I think this is a great summary of what HR does from a manager’s point of view. Most of them don’t have this concept down just yet, and it shows in how they interact both with the HR team and with their staff. I have a unique perspective because unlike a lot of HR pros, I work right next to the people I get to serve. I’m always willing to help with the routine questions, but I really enjoy when people ask for those more in-depth things like how a mutual fund in their 401(k) works or how a manager can use incentives to reach one of his team members.

The not so fun side

In my daily work, I run into people who assume it’s their job to tell me every little detail that’s going on with them. Sometimes it’s an obvious attempt to try and excuse poor performance. Other times it’s clearly a call for help, though the person is trying to keep it hidden. Working in small office makes those random complaints of inappropriate behavior much tougher to handle.

And when we truly have a performance issue, we bend over backwards to give the offender plenty of opportunities to get it right. Why? Because while we do “serve the needs of the employer,” we also realize that we’re dealing with people. We’re fallible. Acknowledging it doesn’t mean we have to accept it as the answer to the problem. It just means we are more willing to offer innovative solutions to the problems facing our people.

The key to success Continue reading

It seems like just yesterday that I reached out to Alison Green, author of the amazing Ask a Manager career advice blog, to see if she would be interested in writing an eBook to help job seekers. Today, that dream is a reality!

What it touches on

  • how to stop sabotaging your job search
  • how to avoid the companies that aren’t a good fit
  • how to craft a resume and cover letter that will catch a hiring manager’s eye
  • how to answer the most common interview questions
  • how to talk about sensitive issues when you interview — firings, bad bosses, “overqualification,” and more
  • the secret to handling rejection

My fave part

Even with all those cool features above, my favorite part is still the section on questions to ask your own interviewer. It’s been something I’ve always been interested in, and I love hearing the questions that a hiring manager wants to hear from job seekers.

What you need to do

Order now, even if you have a great job. Why? Well, first you’ll get it for the super low price (it goes up in just 48 hours!). And second, when you’re ready to move on to another job (there’s always another job), you’ll have this handy dandy guide to help you get through the transition.

Click here to get the How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager

I have been working alongside Alison Green on her new project for job seekers, and today she is giving away a free guide on how job seekers can do a job interview well. The guide has some great tips in there that I’ve never even considered, and I’ve already told her it will be going in my job search toolbox for the next time I have a job interview. :-) If reading’s not your thing, she has also created a twenty minute video (also free!) to give you the information you’re looking for.

Click here to get the free guide on how to prepare for a job interview

I can’t guarantee that you’ll get a job if you use this guide, but I darn well know that you can do better in the interview than you ever have before! Continue reading

the biggest job seeker frustrationI’ve been watching the results come in from a survey that Alison Green is working on, and I’m kind of ashamed to see the final result. What are job seekers frustrated about?

The biggie (49%!) is lack of communication. The second most common (11%) is having standards that are unreasonably exact, which keeps candidates and hiring managers frustrated.

Fixing the broken recruiting process Continue reading

Okay, people, I have a short post today. Why? Because I’m stumped. Recently I read this mentoring post by Alison at Ask a Manager. An excerpt is below.

Do we seek out those with star potential because they’ll benefit the most from our help — or is it possible that it’s actually less about that and more because we like to see ourselves in them, or that it’s so gratifying to watch them blossom and feel we played a role in their success? Maybe we’d actually have a more significant impact if we made that kind of time investment with someone who doesn’t have obvious star potential, someone who doesn’t appear to be a natural candidate for grooming.

Basically, should you spend your limited time mentoring someone who is a high performer or someone who is a low performer?

I can make an argument for each side, and I have talked with half a dozen HR pros while seeking an answer. There have been mixed results, to say the least, and I’m stumped. Therefore, I shall turn the question over to my incredibly intelligent audience. What do you think? Should you spend your limited time mentoring someone who is a high performer or someone who is a low performer? The best responses will be published in an upcoming post that will feature comments by some HR bloggers you know and love.

Image by Pierre-Olivier