Do Your Employees Hate HR?

Pros share success stories about turning employees’ suspicion and skepticism into trust and gratitude

By Dana Wilkie Feb 5, 2016

There’s no shortage of news stories and blogs with headlines like “Why We Love to Hate HR.”

HR professionals are often misunderstood or even disliked because they tend to be viewed as the company bad guys – enforcing rules, putting employees on probation, and even firing people. They’re criticized for covering up or “spinning” bad news about an organization, or for siding with the company’s best interests and not the workers’. 

Yet, as most HR professionals can attest, including those who spoke with SHRM Online, there’s a much more rewarding side to their job responsibilities.

Sarah Greene, HR vice president for El Segundo, Calif.-based Centerfield, has heard it all. And she says she’s happy to confirm that the HR pros she knows prefer to serve as cheerleaders, counselors and advocates for their company’s workforce.

“We are often put in the disciplinarian role, especially when managers don’t want to face that aspect of their responsibility,” said Greene, whose company develops digital advertising technology. “We in HR fail sometimes at being compassionate toward the demands of daily living that employees are going through, and we can be quick to be harsh and imposing.” But, she added, “I am often in the role of counselor and support for employees, even more so than [as an] enforcer of policy.”

When a Worker Is Struggling

When Greene was an employee relations manager at another company, executives asked her to fly across the country to counsel a team leader who had recently started working remotely. The leader had become emotionally explosive—crying and screaming at her boss and colleagues. When visiting company headquarters, executives noticed that she was neglecting her hygiene and appeared exhausted.

“When I arrived, she hadn’t been eating well, so I made sure to help her food shop and get to her doctor appointments,” Greene recalled. “I also was just present with her. There was a lot of venting and crying about the things she was dealing with—her work load, a [romantic] relationship ending, her isolation.”

After spending 10 days with the employee, Greene said, the woman’s behavior was stable and her relationships with colleagues had begun to improve. Today, she enjoys great success in her field, Greene said.

“It was an unconventional strategy for helping an employee, but [executives] felt that it was important that someone be there for her—given her tenure and long-standing relationship with the company’s team.”

Helping With Transitions

Christine Akiyoshi is human capital manager for a Dallas-based global management consulting firm. She discovered that the relationships between new and existing employees—much like that between newlyweds—can be frustrating as each learns how to communicate with the other. She now encourages new workers to stop by her office if they need tips on the best way to approach a boss or colleague.

“They’re trying to figure out how to work with someone new and there can be growing pains,” she said. “As an introvert, I prefer to send e-mails, but … some like to talk in person or on the phone. Another thing is when someone wants to get an update on a project you’re working on. Sometimes, they just want you to contact them when you need help, while others might want daily or weekly updates. Each person that you work with will have different needs. If you don't spell this out in the beginning, it can lead to frustration on both sides.

“I offer a neutral place where it is safe to vent and strategize. It’s always been positive. I love when [employees] follow up with me to let me know that the tips I gave them were successful in strengthening their relationships.”

When More Is Better

After Jenny Clarke became an HR generalist for Chicago-based Datassential—which does market research for the food industry—she realized that her company could be doing more to retain good workers.

“We are a small company of less than 50, so when someone leaves, it can have a pretty large impact,” she said. “People were leaving for bigger companies with more benefits. I wanted [Datassential’s] new employees to brag that their job had this or that. I wanted people to talk positively about getting a job here.”

Based on feedback from an employee survey, Clarke approached executives and convinced them that more-robust benefits would help attract and retain the best employees. With their blessing, she introduced vision and commuter benefits for the first time, and expanded dental coverage to cover implants and orthodontia.

Currently, she is exploring implementing a paid-parental-leave policy. In addition, the company now offers discounts for movie and theater tickets, clothing stores, hotels, and restaurants.

Clarke is also in the process of adding eight more days to the standard vacation benefit, and introducing a company match for 401(k) plan participants.

“Many people don’t think Millennials are thinking about retirement, but they are,” she said. “The 401(k) match is incredibly important and as I was recruiting, I found that probably four out of five people asked me if we had a match program before they accepted our employment offer.”

She added: “Ultimately, we want to be one of the best places to work in Chicago, and to be that, you need to be able to offer competitive and possibly unique benefits.”

Clarke acknowledged that employees often view HR professionals with suspicion and distrust.

“Many people only go to their HR department when there is trouble,” she said. “I don’t think HR is the only profession that is like this; there are others out there. Changing it takes time and a lot of hard work. I think simple, day-to-day interactions can help employees see HR professionals as people instead of ‘the bad guy.’ ”

Akiyoshi said she believes HR’s image is changing. “But the change has to happen with each one of us—treating people fairly and [maintaining] the balancing act of protecting the company while meeting the needs of the employees.” 

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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