HR’s Bad Reputation is Discouraging Me from an HR Career

My good friend Alison Green over at Ask a Manager passed me this question she received because it’s HR-centric. I think many of you will get value from what could have been just another private email conversation, so I’m sharing the question and response here. If anyone else has comments PLEASE add them below, because we’re all better when we help each other, right?
Dear Alison,
I’m currently in my final year of high school and strongly considering pursuing an HR designation in post-secondary. Reading through your blog, I am very often reminded that HR exists primarily for the company (preventing lawsuits, attracting and retaining talent, etc.) and issues that employees have are resolved with the company’s best interests in mind. As such, I can understand why HR can sometimes gain a reputation for being useless (even if I do find it somewhat discouraging).
That being said, I would like to ask you for your input on what an effective HR manager should be like in terms of going above and beyond to support employees when the job description may not ask for it.
I’m thinking especially on how you would advise someone on the HR side to handle a situation where, for example, a department manager is out of control (but not doing anything illegal) and because of nepotism, is safe from consequences or intervention? If HR’s hands are tied, how could HR still go on to assist the employee even though the root cause isn’t solved?
How can HR still be supportive to employees in situations where the company calls for neutrality (or even to side with the company when it is ethically at fault)? And vice-versa?
I think overall I am just experiencing a sense of helplessness when I read stories with negative experiences with HR. On one hand, I can understand that there may be certain legal and logical restrictions to what an HR rep can do that sometimes the employee can’t see. On the other hand, I don’t want to be someone who just throws her hands up and says, “There is nothing I can do for you.” and adheres to the bare minimum requirements.
Is this something that will get better once I have more experience? Am I just being too emotional or naive about my job expectations? If so, any input on helping me recalibrate?

Thank you for being very clear about your questions and concerns, J.

HR does exist to protect the company, and this is still prevalent thinking in many organizations. However, it's also true that many forward-thinking firms are offloading these compliance-related functions to legal and are focusing more on how to improve employee performance, create better working environments, drive worker engagement, etc.

5 characteristics of a great HR manager

  1. You take your role as advocate for the employee base seriously.
  2. You build rapport with your workforce, even if you can’t truly be friends with everyone.
  3. Sees the common HR tasks like orientation, handling benefits, and generating pay stubs as table stakes for performance, not the ultimate goal.
  4. You can talk the business language and drop the HR-speak when needed.
  5. I’d love to have some reader comments here! What did I miss?

As for the nepotism/bad manager question, even if you can't get rid of the manager, you can make it clear what kinds of behaviors are valuable and which are not in the organization. Reward the behaviors that are aligned with the culture and do not reward those that are exhibiting behaviors counter to this. The stronger the culture, the easier it is to do this, but even that's not a silver bullet. At the end of the day you can't keep or fire that manager, so it's out of your hands, but you can still do your best to influence the chain of command, point to the business impact of keeping those kinds of morale-killers, and try at every opportunity to protect the employees. I know, I’ve been there.

The best way to be supportive of employees in tough situations is by having that foundation of rapport and trust. I took the time to build connections with many of the influential workers in one of our business units that was particularly troublesome, and when we had an impending layoff that would have affected all of the workers (due to customer changes, not anything we did or didn't do), those that I had built connections with were more likely to accept my comments as truthful than those that didn't have those connections.

HR has a stigma of being stodgy and compliance-heavy, but the good news is that most people have never seen GOOD HR in action, so you have a great opportunity to break that mold.

Above all else, you have to work at a company whose leaders value HR for what it can be, not what it has been historically. This entire discussion is moot if you're at a firm where the CEO and leadership team do not see HR as a contributor to performance. The best companies are those whose CEOs and other executives understand that talent is the biggest budget item, but it's also the biggest contributor to success. This isn't just anecdotal—lots of research backs this up as well.

I've had friends that quit when jobs demanded that they side with the “company line.” Thankfully I never had to make that call personally, but it's one I always tried to prepare myself for mentally. One friend worked at a casual restaurant chain. One night a bartender overserved some customers and they left and had a terrible car accident. The person's manager told them to fire the bartender, store manager, and regional manager, even though the regional manager was hundreds of miles away and completely unrelated to the issue at hand. That's an instance of a time where someone was put in a tough spot.

It's really easy to find negative stories about HR, but I'd encourage you to take some time to read other sources of positive outcomes that HR contributed to, whether in hiring, development, engagement, or other areas. Some ideas for sources: SHRM, Workforce, or HR Grapevine.

Your note about not being able to help some employees is definitely a concern. I'd say in those instances when I felt like I had done everything I could, I at least could breathe easily knowing there was nothing more I could offer. For instance, I had to terminate an employee once because of behavioral issues, even though he was on medication to control the problem. I had worked with him, given him help, and went above and beyond to make it work, but he still couldn't handle it, so he ultimately had to leave. I hated to be the one driving the decision, but I also realized it was detrimental to the rest of the workforce to allow him to stay. At the end of the day I’d given him every opportunity and had exhausted every resource to keep him and nothing worked, so I felt at peace about the decision. If I had done it halfway or just “phoned it in” on that one, it would still probably bother me to this day.

I do have to warn you that this feeling will NOT get better with experience unless you are intentional about being more than the “average” HR professional.

I have HR friends at great companies and HR friends at terrible companies. They are all trying to take care of the people and create a good work environment, but some are more successful than others. I remember when I was starting out years ago, someone told me, “You are so passionate about human resources! That's neat. Just wait a few years and that will change.” That day I promised myself that if I ever felt like HR wasn't exciting or valuable, I'd get out. Just like any profession, we have people that “phone it in” or do the familiar quit-and-stay where they just try to fly under the radar.

I've never been one of those kinds of people, and from your insightful questions, I'd be willing to bet you are not either. I encourage you to revisit the list above and stay tuned for any comments that other readers make below. There are some great pieces of advice there. In addition, find one or two HR professionals that “get it” and stay in touch with them regularly. Build strong connections. That not only helps you to ultimately get a job, because networking seems to be incredibly valuable in this profession, but it also helps to keep you grounded and give you a network of smart people who can tell you that you're not crazy, even if you are going against the grain on a decision or feeling some heat from a leader that wants you to do something that isn't kosher.

I hope this helps. I wish you success in your future and would love for you to keep us updated on your progress as you blossom into your career!

6 thoughts on “HR’s Bad Reputation is Discouraging Me from an HR Career

  1. Bobbi Wilson

    Also, sometimes “Great HR” happens behind closed doors in the executive meetings. Employees may never see what HR prevented from happening as HR can not go out to the general population and take credit for saving a certain benefit or profit share – but I am certain it happens in more companies than we think. In HR you have to resign yourself that your employees may not always know of your “employee advocacy” and be okay with this because you are not in it for praise but to balance the needs of both employer/employee while still running a profitable business.

  2. Jane J

    Great response Ben. We need more people who are passionate about working hard to change the reputation of HR. It’s an incredibly rewarding career because you are doing meaningful, but it certainly takes a lot of time and effort to get to a point where you feel effective.

    I’ve faced the situation called out – where I needed to dig in (repeatedly) to advocate for employees under a difficult manager high up on the food chain. In both cases, I believe it was right for both the employees and the company, but that didn’t make it less nerve-wracking. I’d say this – you won’t always win, and you may need to leave some organizations that aren’t willing to budge, but ultimately you’ll feel good about having done the right thing. Really good HR people in good companies should never, ever have to compromise their morals. Good companies know you have the entire company in mind.

    Don’t shy away from the career path, join us in changing the reputation!

  3. J

    Thank you so much for the thoughtful response. Your point on finding the right company really resonated with me. Even now, just taking business classes, many of my classmates perpetuate that negative stereotype of HR so I am very determined to change that about my surroundings once I enter the workforce. In the few part-time jobs I've had, I've always enjoyed my experiences with companies that value their employees; it always shows through their company policies and the way they handle crises at work.

    I'll also do my best to expand my network; oddly enough, I rarely have the opportunity to meet with an HR professional, so I'd better get out there more often, haha.

    To Bobbi, your point on “Great HR” is so true. Depending on the nature of the company, HR definitely feels like one of those roles where people only notice if the department is dysfunctional. That being said, I really do enjoy the behind-the-scenes work and it is really rewarding when the work week goes off without a hitch.

  4. Scott

    Great HR is about amazing customer service. If you treat your employees like valued customers you will build trust and gain respect with every little interaction. Always think, “how can I make my employees lives a little bit easier?”

    One very important component of amazing customer service is honesty. You can’t sugar coat the truth when there is bad news on the horizon. I think some HR people get a bad rep when they try to spin bad news. And while we’re on topic of honesty, don’t guess at the answers. If you don’t know, so say. And for Pete’s sake admit it when you make a mistake. Employees will respect you for it.

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