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Beware of Mission Creep

Tasked with lots of additional assignments, many in HR are finding it increasingly difficult to complete their primary duties.

Jenny Bledsoe had spent 24 years working at a wholesale distributor but quit her job as its HR chief last year after being bombarded with new responsibilities brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bledsoe and her team had to turn their attention to workplace safety, leaving no one to handle key HR functions, including the investigation of a growing number of employee complaints. They also had to put employee training on hold, along with a necessary update of the employee handbook and a plan to automate payroll and employee benefits that, ironically, would have helped alleviate the workload crunch.

“It’s good for HR to be seen as the go-to people,” says Bledsoe, who holds a SHRM-SCP credential and is now vice president of HR for Planned Parenthood of Northern California in Concord. “If you’re being asked to take on more, it means that you are trusted.”

After a while, however, it grew to be too much. “Ultimately, it became overwhelming to do a really good job with everything that was under my purview,” Bledsoe says.

HR’s Juggling Act

Many HR professionals identify with the issues Bledsoe faced. They say they’ve been given so many additional assignments since the onset of the pandemic that they find it challenging to complete their primary responsibilities. New tasks have included developing safety protocols, maintaining hygiene standards and creating work-from-home policies. This unexpected expansion of their portfolios, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “mission creep,” comes as many companies can’t hire more help for numerous reasons, including the tight labor market and financial constraints. All that has left HR professionals to perform a high-stakes juggling act. 

One HR director at a Virginia nonprofit was put in charge of payroll after a series of layoffs, despite having no background in finance. She recalls spending many sleepless nights worrying that she might cause a hardship for someone by mistakenly underpaying them or might make a tax error that could result in costly penalties. 

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” says the woman, who requested anonymity. 

Nearly two years after the change, she has become more comfortable with payroll and hasn’t shortchanged anyone, including the taxman, she says. Still, she regrets having had to pass on some of her favorite HR responsibilities to a subordinate because she no longer has time to do them.

“I feel like I’ve lost control over my career,” she says.

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Scoring Rewards

This trying time may well benefit HR professionals in the long term because they are acquiring business and leadership skills and other competencies valued by the C-suite. An ability to quickly change gears and face new challenges now comes with the job and has been more important than ever during the pandemic, some HR professionals say.

Trina DeWitt has spent countless hours over the last two years deciphering new rules on employee leave and other safety-related policies stemming from the pandemic. She has had to make room in her day to handle new logistical chores she never could have imagined would become part of her job.

“I’ve learned more about infectious disease than I ever thought possible,” says DeWitt, HR director for the Institute for Supply Management, a 50-person trade organization in Tempe, Ariz.

In a larger organization, duties relating to workplace safety might fall to an industrial hygienist or facilities manager. But in DeWitt’s small office, it was her job to come up with a new floor plan to maintain social distancing. And she continues to be the one who keeps the office stocked with masks and other protective equipment, monitors local COVID-19 case numbers, and does whatever else is necessary to keep the workplace free of the virus. She spent one weekend building clear plastic desk dividers for the office.

DeWitt says her willingness to take on extra duties to help keep people safe resulted in an unexpected pay raise.

“I did get a nice increase,” she says. “I felt like I was recognized.”

Shane Shepherd, HR manager at Allison Abrasives Inc., a manufacturing firm in western Kentucky, has also spent more time on health and safety than ever before. But it’s not mission creep that’s causing the change, Shepherd says; it’s “mission evolution.” And it’s one of the things he likes best about working in HR. “Learning about the new [safety] rules was exciting,” he says.

Not all HR professionals feel that way, however.

People don’t go into HR thinking it will be easy, according to Sarah Meusburger, SHRM-SCP, an independent HR consultant in Buffalo, Minn. But requiring employees who already are overextended to take on extra duties can cause stress and lead to burnout, she says.

Taking Control

Feeling overwhelmed by mission creep? Check out these tips:

Prioritize the jobs that matter. Sometimes the problem is not the amount of work you have but how you manage your time, DeWitt says. Organize your tasks by importance and stick to a completion schedule. If you are having difficulty forming a plan, find a mentor who knows the ropes and can help you focus, she suggests.

Stand your ground while being flexible. Push back when you’re asked to take on more work but are already struggling, Meusburger says. But be prepared to argue why taking on additional duties is bad for the organization, not just for you. Enter any discussion about your workload with a plan for how duties can be shifted, she advises, but expect to negotiate the terms. 

Brush up on your skills. Just because a trusting supervisor thinks you’re up to a new challenge doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it—especially if your new duties require technical knowledge that you don’t have. Gain confidence and increase your chances for success by getting formalized training. If your boss won’t pony up for classes, look for free or low-cost options. Online platforms such as LinkedIn, Udemy and Coursera offer courses on a broad range of topics. Community colleges and professional associations such as the Society for Human Resource Management also are sources for reasonably priced training.

Ask for recognition—when the time is right. If your organization is struggling financially, now may not be the best time to ask for a raise. Still, presenting your boss with data showing how your work adds value to the company or saves money may help lay the groundwork for a future promotion or other reward, Shepherd says. For instance, show how the safety procedures you put in place reduced turnover or sick leave during the pandemic. As with so much in HR, he says, documentation is key.  

Rita Zeidner is a freelance writer in Falls Church, Va. 

Photo illustration by Baona/iStock.