HR Need Not Be Your Friend to Be Effective

By Dave Ulrich | April 25, 2018

Some have lately demeaned HR because they are “not your friend.” Let me offer three tips or advice about HR’s true role and how their expertise delivers real value.

Some have lately demeaned HR because they are “not your friend.” They claim HR has not been sufficiently supportive of employees in cases of misconduct or harassment—perhaps additionally implying that HR will not act in the employees’ best interest or do them any favors to help. At times, these allegations against HR are likely true; at other times, they miss the role of HR in ensuring both employee well-being and organization competitiveness.

HR need not be your friend to be effective.

Service professionals (doctors, architects, attorneys, therapists, or accountants) need not be friends with their clients to be respected and able to execute their jobs. I don’t have to share hobbies, dinners, or birthdays with these individuals for them to support me through their expertise.

Likewise, HR professionals do not need to be buddies with the individuals they serve in order to be effective. In fact, personal relationships may complicate what HR delivers. Let me offer three tips or advice about HR’s true role and how their expertise delivers real value.

First, navigate the paradox of employee well-being and organization competitiveness.

HR professionals support all employees by navigating a tenuous paradox: encourage individual employee well-being by creating a healthy work environment and create a competitive organization to win in the marketplace. Without winning in the marketplace, organizations fail (and many do!) thus rendering moot the need for a healthy working environment.

HR professionals gain respect and help their organizations win in competitive marketplaces by ensuring the right talent, leadership, and culture that will encourage customers to buy more products, investors to have higher confidence that shows up in market value and access to capital, and communities to have a positive image of the organization. When HR helps firms win in the marketplace, they help secure stable jobs, sustaining this incredible primary benefit to all employees.

HR professionals also should help individual employees have a healthy work place where the employees experience a sense of belief in the company purpose, a place to belong as a community, and an environment where they are safe and can become better individuals. This means that HR professionals help create organizations where employees are treated with respect and dignity.

HR professionals can and should connect the healthy workplace to winning in the marketplace. Jeffrey Pfeffer has shown the impact of a toxic work environment on health care costs and employee productivity. Many have shown the high correlations of employee and customer engagement with employee attitude a lead indicator of customer attitude. We have shown the impact of leadership and organization on market valuation through investor confidence in future earnings (higher price/earnings ratio). You cannot create a successful company while neglecting employee welfare. The two are not mutually exclusive; each enables the other.

Second, quietly and fairly do your work – even in a transparent world.

Even in a transparent social media world, HR professionals often are generally required to do their work in private, quiet, and influential ways. While others make social media statements where accusations are de facto guilty declarations, HR has the stewardship to ensure confidential, fair, and due process.

In a recent online article, the authors accused HR of not doing their job, citing allegations from employees who felt mistreated. The authors state only one side of these allegations as if they are true, putting the company in a damning light. In this situation, company representatives cannot really respond since these are private legal matters that need appropriate adjudication. This type of unjust public transparency makes fairness in these situations very difficult. While the allegations may or may not be valid, simply being accused in a public forum does not mean guilt. HR professionals have a demanding task of listening and responding to what is often a two-sided, volatile, and emotional situation. Good HR is not done through social media but rigorous and confidential investigations that treat everyone with respect.

Third, act with great speed, diligence, and discipline.

A harassing or hostile work environment is generally not created by HR but by line managers, senior leaders in positions of influence, or a cultural heritage. HR has a difficult job in confronting these negative situations, creating a healthy work environment, and rooting out bad behaviors. Today’s #metoo movement and transparency positively enables this action. Employees should always feel like they are physically and emotionally safe at work.

When a manager is accused of wrong-doing, HR should investigate quickly and boldly. If the manager has misbehaved, HR should recommend reprimand and/or terminate the manager. This has been done in many, but not all, cases.

HR also has to adjudicate or help discover difficult realities. Sometimes management misdeeds do not rise to the legal definition of harassment or hostile work environment, and HR has to help employees recognize this reality. At other times, HR has to confront their formal “bosses” with intended or unintended consequences of their choices.

There are obviously many cases where HR falls short on both the competitive organization and the healthy work environment. It is a difficult tightrope to walk.

Why might HR not respond well? I’m not sure there is a universal answer. Some in HR may have a distorted view that they are more stewards of management than of employees, which leads them to protect managers more than employees (or vice versa). Others may lack courage to ferret out bad behavior. Seeking justice in settings where personal choices and often-private acts are loaded with emotion requires wisdom and nerve. Still others may lack the skills for how to deal with wrong-doing. Discovery, adjudication, and action skills are often not part of HR training curriculum.

When misdeeds are obvious, HR should act decisively; and in many public cases, HR has done so as individuals in very visible and public roles have resigned or been fired. When the cases are based solely on the conflicting testimonies of individuals, HR needs to build trust by managing a speedy action of due process by bringing in experts to run thorough investigations.

So, HR need not be your friend to be effective.

To be effective, HR professionals can and should improve and do a better job providing a safe and competitive work environment. Top HR professionals need not be your friend to provide sincere service by being experts at serving both employees and the organization honestly, designing fair processes for all in difficult situations, and acting courageously and decisively when required.

Alongside my colleagues at The RBL Group, we help HR professionals think and behave from the "outside-in". HR pros today must start with the organization's customers and investors first. To learn about our Strategic HR programs and events worldwide, click here.

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

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