How HR Can Navigate Competing Loyalties

HR pros need to balance competing employee and executive demands―and stay sane in the process.

By Jennifer Arnold May 24, 2017
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Holly Montroy was an HR trailblazer. In 2015, she became the first director of human resources at Vizergy, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based digital marketing agency. She immediately became responsible for every aspect of HR for the company’s 68 employees.

Although the role was new, Montroy found that some workers had preconceived notions about the function. Staff saw her as an extension of the business’s owners and were reluctant to confide in her about their concerns with management. Meanwhile, the executive team was unsure how the new role aligned with its goals. What, exactly, did HR do besides administering benefits and hiring people? “There was a lot of skepticism,” she says.  

Many HR professionals find themselves in this position, caught between employees and management and their sometimes opposing objectives. At times, it can seem like a perilous balancing act, as HR managers try to make everyone happy—and often end up miserable themselves.

​This conflict isn’t new, but in today’s highly charged political and social climate, even seasoned professionals say it feels amplified, especially those like Montroy who function as an HR department of one. And while there are no easy solutions, there are time-tested techniques that can help HR practitioners win this game of “monkey in the middle.”

Choosing Sides?

​So whose side is HR supposed to be on? “It’s clearly not an either/or [proposition],” says Jason Lauritsen, an employee engagement consultant and speaker based in Gretna, Neb. “That’s what makes HR so challenging at times. Our job is to find the balance between the business interests and what works for employees.”

It’s important to remember—and to remind everyone involved—that the best interests of both parties are often in alignment. “When you can advocate on behalf of the staff on things that are valuable to performance or morale, it’s still in the best interest of the company,” Montroy says. For example, workers told her they were uncomfortable buzzing in visitors because they could not see the front door from their workstations. A simple webcam system resolved the issue, alleviating staff concerns while also reducing the company’s exposure to risk.

Macro issues such as compensation and benefits also involve shared interests. When an HR professional is negotiating with a candidate, for example, her role is to educate management about the market salary for comparable positions and the attributes of the candidate, while communicating the complete value of the opportunity to the potential employee. In the end, both sides are well-served. “When people feel valued and [management] sees value in it, it’s a win-win,” Montroy says.

​When dealing with performance or personal issues, however, situations can get more challenging. Experienced HR professionals say it’s important to remove the many different personalities from the equation and focus on the worker and the business as generic entities. Particularly in small, privately owned firms, it can be difficult to separate the company from the owners as individuals.

“ ‘The company’ doesn’t always mean leadership or ownership,” says Montroy, who works for a privately owned employer. “Sometimes, you may have to push back on executive leadership in the best interests of the business itself. It’s not about them—you’re protecting the organization.”

‘That’s what makes HR so challenging. ... Our job is to find the balance between the business interests and what works for employees.’
—Jason Lauritsen, employee engagement consultant

Montroy once dealt with a person at the company who had a serious health issue. Over a period of months, he updated her about his condition, but due to federal regulations protecting the privacy of personal health data, she wasn’t able to share details with the owners of the business, even when asked. She explained that, although she understood that the situation was affecting productivity, it was in the best interests of the organization for her to deny their requests for information. “We have to walk the line in protecting the company and giving employees the time and confidentiality they need,” she says.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Workplace Conflict]

“Our job is less about picking sides and more about being a mediator,” Lauritsen says. “I’ve got to protect the company’s interests. But another role HR has to play is being the voice of the human side of the organization. We have to give voice to how a new policy or process will be received and what it is going to do to people.”

Clearly, this is a complex challenge for any HR practitioner. But three key strategies can help you navigate this tightrope in any setting: 

1. Set Expectations

​The tension HR professionals feel between competing loyalties is often a self-inflicted wound. “Both sides [staff and management] can get equally confused, and we create that confusion,” Lauritsen says. “A lot of HR people aren’t clear on what their role is or what their intention [should be] in an interaction.”

In their quest to satisfy everyone, inexperienced HR managers sometimes send conflicting messages. “HR can come off as if they are the advocate for the employee, and that creates expectations among employees. Some HR people will take orders from managers, and then a new HR person comes in and says, ‘That’s not my job, that’s your job,’ and that’s confusing,” Lauritsen says. “[HR professionals] need to be clear on what their job is, define their role, set expectations for employees and managers, and hold themselves accountable.”

That clarity comes through consistent communication and lots of reinforcement. Be transparent with everyone, from senior-level staff to individual contributors, about what they can expect from HR in terms of confidentiality, advocacy and support—and stick to your defined role.

​It’s important to back those expectations up with a business case—how does your position fit with the individual’s and the company’s goals? “As an HR pro, if you really understand the business, and what drives success at the organization, you can be a vocal advocate for people collectively,” Lauritsen says.

[SHRM members-only platform: SHRM Connect]

2. Gain Trust

​It’s best to define HR’s role in writing, but it’s equally important to “walk the talk” and follow your own written policies in daily interactions with managers and staff. People at all levels need to have confidence that their HR representatives will say what they mean and mean what they say, regardless of who is in the room at the time.

Without that confidence, communications break down. “[Employees] don’t come to you with issues; they don’t trust you to help them,” Lauritsen says. “Then you get all sorts of poisonous gossip, turnover increases, you get flamed in exit interviews.”

This type of toxic environment can become a vicious cycle. Not only can HR staff become defensive and isolated, but it can further alienate workers and managers who need to rely on HR.

​Building trust takes time, especially within a sensitive function like human resources. Written communications and formal meetings can set the foundation. At the same time, informal interactions with employees can have a huge positive impact. When Montroy started in her role, she placed a candy jar and an assortment of stress balls and small toys on her desk in plain view. “Little by little, people started coming in for candy, and while they were in here they’d start to open up,” she says. “It was a door to open a conversation, and the perception wasn’t that they were in HR because they were complaining.”

During her first few months on the job, Montroy also held one-on-one listening sessions with every employee. Some workers responded with skepticism, grumbling, “This is going to go right back to the executive team.” But Montroy confronted those reactions head on, saying, “No, this is information for me. We can’t fix things we don’t know about.” Those conversations led to a series of small victories—like the webcam solution for employees nervous about buzzing in guests unseen—and trust in the new HR role grew.

Simple initiatives like Montroy’s are often more impactful than elaborate campaigns. It’s tempting to react to a culture of distrust with a flurry of activities to solicit feedback and build morale. But the effort will backfire if it is perceived as insincere or is not sustained over time. Lauritsen has seen many organizations overreact to problems discovered in expansive employee surveys, then fail to share the results or respond to them in any meaningful way. “HR doesn’t appreciate how much that undermines our credibility,” he says. “Fewer initiatives would be better. Just make sure the ones you do are done well and followed up on.”

3. Establish Limits

Confidentiality is an area where expectations and trust intersect. “All employees have a right to confidentiality,” says attorney Thomas Anderson, SHRM-SCP, employee relations director for 6,500 workers within the Houston Community College system. But HR’s discretion cannot always be guaranteed. “With anything legal or criminal in nature, once the HR person has knowledge, the company has knowledge [in the eyes of the law],” he says.

Many businesses today have a formal whistle-blower policy, and in some industries it is standard practice to have a confidential ethics hotline for reporting violations. Workers and managers need to know, however, that any information HR receives about a criminal activity that could affect the company will not remain private.

[SHRM members-only resource: Conflict Resolution Policy]

Hopefully, those situations are few and far between. More frequently, people come to their HR representative with issues related to their physical or mental health or that of a family member; personal problems that may influence their performance, like divorce or the responsibility of caring for an elderly parent; and conflicts with supervisors and co-workers. In these cases, HR does need to ensure confidentiality, although it is important to establish clear boundaries from the beginning. In many cases, it’s best to coach the individuals about how to resolve the issue themselves, without HR’s direct involvement. 

​“Start by being very honest about what you can and will do,” Lauritsen says. “Express your intentions: ‘I want to help resolve this and support you, whether manager or employee, but understand my role is not to fix this for you.’” Of course, there are times when HR must get involved, but save those interventions for big, complex situations, not disputes over the coffee maker.

‘With anything legal or criminal in nature, once the HR person has knowledge, the company has knowledge [in the eyes of the law.]’
—Thomas Anderson, SHRM-SCP, Houston Community College system

As important as it is to clearly state HR’s role, it’s also important to listen. “It has to be two-way communication, not just me telling [employees] things,” Anderson says. “Sometimes, you really have to delve deep to find out what the real issues are. It may be family problems [or] money problems, and it manifests itself as poor attendance or poor performance. But you would never know that if you don’t [communicate] properly.”

In cases such as these, it may be appropriate to encourage, and even facilitate, a conversation between the worker and his or her manager so they both understand the situation. For example, if someone tells his or her HR representative about a newly diagnosed disability that requires accommodation, the person’s supervisor must be involved in planning and implementing any modifications. The HR professional can prepare and coach the employee and manager beforehand, facilitate the initial meeting, and then get out of the way.

In human resources, there is no way to avoid the “human” factor—and, therefore, it’s impossible to completely eliminate misunderstandings, conflict and disappointment. But when HR practitioners consistently set expectations, build and maintain trust, and set clear boundaries, there are bound to be fewer problems. And that’s a good thing for the employees, for the business and for the HR professionals who support them. The whole team wins.  

Jennifer Arnold is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville Beach, Fla.

Illustration by Michael Glenwood Gibbs for HR Magazine. 


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