How HR Shoots Itself in the Foot

Which do you believe?

  • You can’t trust anyone in HR: they get you talking, look sympathetic, and then turn everything you say over to management;
  • HR = a partnership for managers, employees & organizations;
  • HR is a luxury we don’t need when we need all our budget resources to pay the employees who produce;
  • HR = lots of talk + little action.

The last thing I wanted to do was become an HR-type. I’m allergic to regulations and paperwork.

Then I found out what HR can be and do for employers and employees. So, several decades ago, I leapt off the cliff, deciding to create a business that offered employers and employees HR trouble-shooting.

My business focused on providing employee clients career satisfaction and success.

For employer clients our focused was increased productivity, performance, profits and employee retention.

I liked HR, but not how HR is often applied.

How HR shoots itself in the foot

In many organizations HR has minimal impact.

Supervisors don’t let HR know about problem employees until they’re ready to terminate them, when HR intervention earlier might have made a difference.

Senior managers rarely invite HR to the table to discuss strategy.

A significant number of employees avoid HR, distrusting what might happen if they air their grievances.

Some HR professionals contribute to this problem. They falsely promise but then break employee confidentiality; it only takes one betrayal for the “don’t trust them” word to spread.  

They fail to balance organizational interests with employee advocacy, when HR needs to serve both groups.

They act as if HR certifications trump real-world experience and talk over supervisors and employees who leave conversations with HR thinking “you don’t get it.”

What HR can do

True HR is real-world.

True HR focuses on what organizations need in terms of its people and how HR can help employers achieve success  – by making the right hiring decisions, helping managers motivate and retain productive employees and by fairly removing the wrong employees before they destroy others’ morale.

HR professionals can vet applicants by creating recruitment ads that draw the most qualified candidates, assess them against organizational needs and by conducting reference and background checks that spot problems.

HR can create the skills-training programs needed to keep managers and employers working at the highest levels and can teach managers and supervisors how to best motivate, appraise and retain employees.  

While employees still value basic health and retirement benefits, they also want more individualized, flexible benefits.  HR can design the right compensation, benefit and incentive programs that fairly reward high performers without breaking the bank.

HR can help senior management assess the organization’s pulse by administering employee surveys, 360-degree reviews that assess each manager and grievance channels that allow employees to voice concerns.

If employees deserve termination, HR can investigate the supervisor’s claims to ensure fair decisions have been made and can provide departing employees outplacement. 

HR helps organizations avoid risk with EEO compliance, safety and OSHA compliance, workers’ compensation administration, drug testing, policy creation and enforcement and other risk management processes.

HR can partner with senior management to forecast organizational needs and strategically develop the organization’s future structure –if senior management sees them as a viable partner.

In this time of pandemic crisis, employees and organizations need HR.

The balance: organizational interests & employee advocacy

To do the above, HR needs to fairly balance employer and employee needs.

Some HR rookies so eagerly strive to please management that they fail both employees and their organizations; after all, management needs to hear what they’ve done wrong to make it right. Employees aren’t widgets, and HR serves no one if it forgets H in HR.

What happens when employees don’t bring issues to HR because they don’t think HR does anything?

When employees don’t trust HR to solve problems, they disengage, walk out the door or worse, negatively impact other employees. Further, how can management fix what they don’t know exists?

As just one example, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently noted that three-quarters of those with sexual harassment allegations hadn’t brought their complaints forward. As a result, these long-buried complaints allowed anger to fester, allowed potential harassers to create problems for others even as they secured promotions, and resulted in defamation against some potentially falsely-accused employees. We see the result all over the media.

Why don’t more managers turn to HR? 

HR professionals often wonder why supervisors and managers don’t seek them out before problem employee situations hit rock bottom. The answer? – Managers see problem-solving as their job, not HR’s. It isn’t until a capable HR professional proves his or her worth that a supervisor or manager learned to make them a first and not a last call.

Similarly, how can HR earn a place at the table when senior executives meet to create strategy? After thirty-nine years offering HR On-call services, I’ve learned three answers for gaining trust and thus a seat at the table.

First, I have to prove I know what I’m doing. When I don’t know an answer or strategy, I need to say so, and then find the right answer and strategy.

Second, my intent needs to be clear. I need to make it clear I place their organizational needs first – whatever the cost. For example, when I’m asked to investigate certain situations, I may suggest my client reach out first to their attorney, even if that means the attorney’s staff then provides the investigative services.

Third and most important, I and any HR professional needs to show we  “get it,” that we understand how supervisors, managers and executives view situations. Instead of expecting managers to join HR’s team, HR needs to partner on management’s team. Finally, we need to contribute in ways that demonstrate our value.

HR’s future

Some “old-style” thinkers believe HR departments need to focus on administering payroll and employee benefits, processing hiring decisions made by others, and managing terminations, layoffs and Department of Labor paperwork. All true, but HR needs to move beyond these boundaries. 

Nothing shows the problem that results from employers and HR sticking their heads in the “HR is only compliance and paperwork” sand more than the #MeToo movement. Thousands of women and men aired long-buried painful stories, igniting anger that swept through many workplaces. Others, feeling unfairly targeted for behavior they believe acceptable, fought back.  

Employers need HR’s help to address these complaints, many of which take aim at senior managers and others that organizations hope to retain. HR needs to do more than fairly investigate these allegations; it needs to help organizations overhaul themselves at the cultural DNA level. HR needs to make it safe for targets and witnesses to come forward, to ensure that no one is above the law and to hold managers, supervisors and employees accountable for creating and maintaining a respectful work environment for everyone.  

While harassment issues are glaringly obvious, they represent only one area in which HR needs to exercise interventionary muscle. Our workplaces, like our larger world, appears to be coming apart, with escalating amounts of workplace violence and polarized groups who shout at rather than talk with and listen to each other.

A truly effective HR may be the one group most suited to help organizations address these needs.

© 2020, Lynne Curry

Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR, is the author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” (AMACOM, 2016, and “Solutions”, (both books are rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Send your questions to her at or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10.

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3 thoughts on “How HR Shoots Itself in the Foot

  1. I hope a lot of HR managers read this. My experience with HR in the past is they are there to protect the company, not to protect or help employees. And they do typically take anything you tell them and take it straight to senior management, which can often result in retaliatory behavior. It definitely creates an atmosphere of mistrust.

  2. Wow! You’ve summarized and given action points on the ongoing and most important controversy/conflict/values question in HR–is it actually doing something positive for employees and supervisors and the organization or mostly lost in paperwork’/policies and sucking up to management?
    Your comment that managers won’t go to HR for backup and support in solving problems until they’ve seen the value (and action) of HR in solving problems is the key observation here. Thanks, as ever, for your ingihtful and pithy comments.

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