If you've ever felt that HR is the unsung hero in the workplace, the results from SHRM's recent State of the Workplace survey will come as no surprise. When answering the question, "What is the ideal role of HR?" the No. 1 response from HR leaders and professionals was to "Create a positive employee experience." The No. 1 response from employees, however, was to "Keep the company out of legal trouble."
"For HR and a place like SHRM, this is really an existential question: Is what I'm doing in HR important?" asked Mark Smith, director of HR thought leadership for SHRM Research.
One possibility, Smith posits, is that the survey gap simply illustrates that employees may not have a realistic view of what HR handles aside from an individual worker's occasional HR interactions, such as legal training, a briefing on benefits or a payroll inquiry. While HR might conduct a salary survey and push for adjustments to create more competitive compensation, for example, it's typically the employee's manager who doles out the raise—and gets the credit.
"Some of it comes down to who is seen as being responsible for that," Smith said. "To the employee, it's a manager thing or a leadership thing, and they don't know that HR had a big role."
Smith pointed to another item on the list that demonstrates a similar disconnect. HR professionals and leaders rated "Improve manager effectiveness" as the No. 2 HR priority, while employees ranked it as No. 7.
"That's so far down the list for employees that it's practically nonexistent," Smith said. "They just don't see HR's role in that."
Liz Ryan, a veteran HR leader who's the CEO and founder of the Human Workplace content and consulting firm, sees the survey results as something troubling about the effectiveness of HR.
"The fact that there's this vast gulf in the understanding of the role between HR practitioners and employees is a message that's like a customer satisfaction survey," Ryan said. "This is the real employee engagement survey. When your own co-workers who you are here to serve are saying, 'That's not how we see the function,' that's a message."
Ryan suggests that much of the disagreement about the HR role can be attributed to another group operating in the workplace and not included in the survey—management. While HR might well be advocating for something workers also want, there's no guarantee senior management will approve.
"The No. 1 complaint I hear from HR people is, 'I want to be about culture and make our company an amazing place to work, but I get pushback from management,' " Ryan said. "HR is hard, and the hardest part is managing that tug of war between what management expects and what employees expect and experience."
Ultimately, the gap in the understanding—or misunderstanding—of HR's role derives from the larger influence of how senior management wants to treat the organization's workers.
"It really stems from what … senior leadership's view [is] of the relationship they're aiming to have with their employees," Ryan said. "Right now, we see companies ordering people back to the office for five days, and they've never put forward a business case for that. They just want you back to the office. That's an indication that there's a lot of bad blood and rancor between employers and employees."
Another factor between the HR ideal and the HR reality is the perception of HR that's been fostered in the media, including career advice writers warning readers to avoid HR at all costs and how HR practitioners are portrayed on screen, noted Christopher Collins, professor of HR studies and director of graduate studies at Cornell University's ILR School.
"Whether it's Catbert, the HR director from the Dilbert comic strip or the HR guy from 'The Office,' HR is always portrayed as being there to prevent the company from being sued and make sure we're compliant with the law," Collins said. "We've not done a great job around branding HR and what we do. The narrative on 'what is HR' often is, unfortunately, in some people's minds what they've seen or watched on TV or read in the newspaper."
Another source of confusion could be caused by the increased use of technology and all the new titles assigned to HR staffers implementing specific initiatives that can seem separate from the traditional HR role
"Employees may see their career path come from a centralized function, such as a center of excellence, and they don't think of that as HR," Collins said. "Part of it is a lack of awareness by employees about what we do, and we haven't been great about communicating what we do. I just don't know how much your typical line employee thinks about HR."
Lastly, perhaps HR practitioners might want to simply accept that, as a supporting player, HR functions much like a plumber: If you're doing your job right, nobody should notice.
"When HR is at its best, we're leading from behind rather than in front," Collins said. "If it's about our own glory, then we're in trouble as HR leaders, rather than trying to make our leaders and company look good, which reflects on us well in the long run."