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Viewpoint: The Untold Story of HR

A woman sitting in front of a computer looking at a tablet.

​I want to talk about the emotions of the human resources experience.

My 14-year career includes various HR roles, up through director. During this time, I received training on HR processes; counseling employees; and practicing good management by applying laws, handbooks, and policies and procedures. My graduate HR classes also focused on employees and management, applying laws and other technical aspects of the work. However, I had no counseling or professional development on the emotional challenges the work presents. This is also not addressed in our HR certifications.

The HR profession is not for the faint of heart. We grapple with intimate family situations, difficult medical stories and death. We must have skills to manage conflicting situations, politics, employees at their worst and negativity toward our role from multiple levels of the organization. HR professionals are expected to be neutral yet compassionate. We are to remain understanding while we are accused of being unfair. We are yelled at, told we don't care and that nobody trusts us. This is the untold story of HR.

Managing complex medical disability situations in which employees are unable to meet the essential functions of their job is an example of the emotional turmoil a job in HR can bring. For me, one of these instances is particularly memorable. A new, young employee could not continue her position when she began fainting during her training for a job that fell under the Americans with Disabilities Act's direct threat provision. The supervisor and I terminated her employment while she was on probation.

Several months later, the supervisor informed me the police had been called to do a welfare check at the former employee's home. They discovered she had died alone due to complications of her condition. The sad news caused a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I closed my office door, leaned against it for a few minutes, and then took a deep breath and continued working. However, for several months, I questioned what I could have done differently to keep her employed. Would it have kept her alive? Over a decade later, I have never forgotten her name.

In HR, there is no honeymoon period. Within the first weeks on the job, we may meet with a dying employee and his or her family to discuss long-term disability and life insurance. An employee, crying, may share with us that there is domestic violence in her home. We learn the dirty secrets of the company: a bullying manager, a director who refuses to work with a colleague, an employee who uses a company vehicle for a side business, or a worker who keeps pornography on a work computer.

Our role is confusing and misunderstood as we face conflicting situations. HR may collaborate with a supervisor on an employee issue yet months later terminate that supervisor for egregious behavior. Employees share information with us about potential illegal behavior in the workplace and then think we've violated confidentiality when we start an investigation.

Managers often accuse HR of providing inconsistent advice. They don't recognize that each situation involves unique facts. Leadership accuses HR of favoring employees, while employees and labor organizations accuse us of favoring management.

We struggle with whether to stay or leave the job when our integrity is compromised due to politics. At one organization, the top official required the HR director to provide employee assistance program counseling for a union representative who tested positive for cocaine. At another agency, the president and direct supervisor of HR had little interest in the HR department. Thus, she consistently underfunded the department and then openly voiced disappointment about HR's poor performance.

Many of us enter HR hoping to provide a neutral yet caring environment where we can help people and the organization. However, remaining objective and professional becomes tricky as we try to support employees and management simultaneously. Employees' sad personal situations are emotionally draining. Also, the constant exposure to employees at their worst and the negativity from multiple levels of the organization can be tiring. We may even grow cynical toward the organization and the very people we thought we could help.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Management Studies study found that "HR managers in the 'real world' have to live with overlapping, conflicting and sometimes confusing roles, [which] … create intense emotional challenges for the practitioner, a point that HR [management] models tend to ignore but if acknowledged, could develop our understanding of role realities."

Are we losing HR talent when we fail to address this in our profession? Misti Vignola, a former labor relations director for the municipality of Anchorage, Alaska, learned it was critical to regularly mentor her HR employees.

"We had a lot of turnover. Political aspects, constant negativity, lack of support, unreasonable workloads and lack of respect for HR were too much for some. I was one of them," she said.

How can we help our profession in this area? Humor was one way our team dealt with the emotional turmoil of the work. Sharing HR experiences with colleagues can also relieve some of the pent-up emotion. Tom Swenk, HR director for the city of Farmington, N.M., said, "I've found great resources through members of our local Four Corners HR Association, particularly with members who share some similar core beliefs."

When counseling HR professionals, Linda Link, a mental health therapist with 40 years in private practice, found that clients "struggled with feelings of anxiety, depression, feelings of being out of control, misunderstood and even victimized." She believes this struggle is akin to compassion fatigue experienced in other helping professions, such as law enforcement, medical and social work. To address this, she suggests regular counseling to set boundaries, training in stress reduction and relaxation techniques, interventions and debriefings.

The emotional aspect of our work can no longer be the untold story of HR. We can address it in multiple ways: training, mentoring, support groups, counseling, education or certification. Acknowledging the emotional turmoil and providing coping skills to address it are essential. After all, aren't we, too, the "human" in human resources?

Janet Hebbe is an HR consultant and adjunct instructor at the San Juan College Workforce Development Center in Farmington, N.M.


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