In The Workplace

I’m the human resources (HR) manager of a small enterprise with 230 workers. I’ve been holding the job for five years and have experienced criticism from people who dislike some of our management policies. The trouble is that all complaints are directed against my person and not to top management, which created and approved those policies. The latest incidents involve the discovery of graffiti targeted at me in the men’s toilet and a poison pen letter in the suggestion box. What’s wrong with us? — Tasteless Bud.

A husband and wife were leaving the office of a marriage counselor. The husband turned to his wife as they walked to their car: “Did you understand what the counselor said about being tactful? Did you get it through your thick skull?” That story, in essence summarizes why some people hate HR — and dealing with it is all about diplomacy.

I experienced this personally during my corporate days in people management decades ago. I was also the target of insults, many below the belt, from workers who didn’t understand my work. When I brought the issue up to my boss at the time, I received a reassuring answer: “Don’t worry about it. HR is not in a popularity contest.”

I wish my boss could have told me how better to manage the situation. But I understood that he meant to take things in stride, and to do what’s best under the circumstances.

True enough, while HR leaders can’t control everything, it helps to create and maintain a work environment where dissent and diversity are cherished corporate values that people can use towards a mutually-profitable cooperation system.

No matter what you do or where you do it, an HR manager like you should work with a clear sense of purpose. You should explain HR’s mission in terms of serving both employees and management needs while acting with integrity and in the best interest of the organization.

In 2005, Keith Hammonds wrote a long, scathing article, “Why We Hate HR.” Quoting an unidentified management professor, he claims the “best and the brightest don’t go into HR.” Hammonds says HR practitioners “have ghettoized themselves literally to the brink of obsolescence” as many of their jobs like hiring, payroll, benefits, retirement and other administrative tasks are increasingly being farmed out to service providers who can handle such tasks at lower cost.

“What’s left is the more important strategic role of raising the reputational and intellectual capital of the company — but HR is, it turns out, uniquely unsuited for that.”

You might ask: How valid is a 16-year-old article in today’s environment? Are those claims applicable in the Philippines? The short answer to those two questions is a resounding yes. Speaking of the Filipino context, let me list the most common mistakes that many HR people have been making to unwittingly reveal their incompetence:

One, hiding behind the mantle of management prerogative. Instead of explaining the rationale of a certain policy, HR people may simply brush off complaints and tell workers it’s the employer’s right to manage the organization as he sees fit. There are no questions to be entertained. Unless the organization is forced to go before court, HR should avoid using “management prerogative.” It antagonizes a lot of people. Be more diplomatic.

Two, becoming a hive of uncritical thinkers and “yes men” or “yes women.” Many of them are subservient to management, and create and implement policies even if they are immoral or illegal. HR sometimes implements such programs without offering better solutions to top management. The perception may be that HR is too arrogant and lazy to actively listen to employees and fail to address issues from various angles. Even if a certain policy has proven to be outdated, HR can sometimes cling to their mistaken beliefs, if only to tell the world who’s in control.

Three, operating without a compass. Management guru Dave Ulrich tells HR people they must perform the following jobs, not necessarily in order: business partner, administrative expert, employee champion, and change agent. The trouble is that they don’t even know that Ulrich’s ideas exist! It’s like not knowing that your long-time girlfriend is a vegetarian or if she holds a college degree. This happens because many HR people are not strategic-minded and rely on a trial-and-error approach copied from inexperienced mentors.

Four, acting like the police, determined to catch violations. That’s why I don’t like people with police or military backgrounds in HR. You can’t blame them. Their experience and orientation are focused on catching wrongdoers. Instead of focusing on nurturing people to become highly motivated, they direct their attention to catching them doing wrong. It’s one of the reasons morale can plummet, manifested in high rates of absenteeism, tardiness, and job turnover.

Last, being oblivious to continued process improvement. This is related to Ulrich’s framework. In particular, it’s about Lean HR or the application of kaizen and lean thinking in the performance of HR functions. Many HR people don’t know what to do to eliminate operational waste. For example, I’ve seen job vacancy announcements that require applicants to submit unnecessary documents like birth certificates, an NBI clearance, a barangay certificate, or an SSS identification card in the early stages of the hiring process.

Are these items proof of competence or expertise? Shouldn’t these documents be required only of the top two applicants in the shortlist?

Given my bias against police officers doing HR work, I still believe it doesn’t matter what an HR practitioner’s educational attainment or background is, as long as they know how to set proper goals and engage in active two-way communication, build mutual trust and respect, and foster accountability and responsibility.

Some HR people are only good at one or two of these things. They could be strong in goal-setting or fostering accountability, for instance. What’s important is a desire to identify and continue assessing what’s working and what’s not. This can only happen if HR knows how to listen by consulting employees, which may include regular town hall meetings, suggestion programs and quality circles, some form of labor-management cooperation system, and periodic morale surveys.

So, when an HR person is not tactful or diplomatic in dealing with people, it’s pretty certain he or she will not succeed in people management.


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