How to Find a Company That Values HR

Martin Yate By Martin Yate July 31, 2018
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How to Find a Company That Values HR

Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.  

I started a new job about three months ago and quickly realized it is a terrible fit for me, for several reasons. My biggest concerns are that HR professionals are not respected or valued for their knowledge and expertise. Many of the individuals making decisions on HR matters [at this company] are long-time employees who are engineers by trade. They aren't open to new ideas, and I've found that they tell me what they want me to do rather than let me bring in an actual HR perspective and do my job.
I can focus on the positive aspects until I find a position better suited to me, but I'm concerned about running into the same issue in the future. I need to figure out how to find a company that values its HR professionals as true business partners rather than as obstacles to move around or as administrative professionals who do whatever you tell them to.
Do you have any suggestions for finding companies that view HR as a strategic and valued partner? What questions can I ask in the interview process to get a feel for the HR culture? 

It's amazing but true that there are still companies―and managers―who do not recognize the enormous value an HR function can bring to a company. You most often find them among long-established small and midsize companies that have hobbled along without a properly functioning HR department. Now even these enterprises recognize that they must have a functioning HR department or pay for the costly mistakes that will occur without one, so they hire an HR professional and imagine that now all their concerns are satisfied and all human-capital problems will magically evaporate.

The problem is that such companies also often have low employee turnover, resulting in staff and management that have established a way of doing things. It's a caste system that stubbornly resists change, especially when it's apparently being forced upon them by some newbie outsider.

All too often the owners of such companies recognize that HR will need to make drastic operational changes, but they fail to make it clear to long-established managers that the way things have always been done is no longer acceptable. To survive, the old ways must go, and managers must fully support necessary change; failure to do so will result in declining productivity and may expose the company to potentially crippling legal costs.

The result of this failure is what you have experienced: You have the title and the responsibilities but not the support necessary to make change happen. In this situation you are doomed to failure and will likely get blamed for it despite your best efforts.

You are far from alone in this situation. I faced these exact issues when I tried to establish an HR function at a division of a publicly traded company. Life was hell until I quit, but looking back, those days of misery taught me, as they will teach you, some incredibly valuable professional life lessons. 

Read the Writing on the Wall

It's time to move on, and you naturally don't want to repeat this soul-withering experience. Take these steps to research companies, prepare for interviews and develop questions to evaluate your next opportunity:

  1. Research the history of the company and company ownership. D&B Hoovers has a database of about 18 million U.S. companies and could be a good place to start.
  2. Do LinkedIn searches using the company name, looking for people who have worked at that company in the past. Connect with them and ask for their input on quality of work life and management style and if managers appeared to have had any formal management training.
  3. Visit sites like Glassdoor and Vault, where visitors are encouraged to comment on current and past employers. Don't let one negative comment put you off, but if you see a pattern, then you have cause for concern. 

While other people's opinions are valuable, it is always best to make important decisions based on firsthand evaluation rather than secondhand hearsay. In short, find out what you can, but no matter what you hear, I still recommend getting an interview and doing everything you can to get a job offer. There's a reason for this: You will probably change jobs 12 or more times over the course of your professional life, and of all the skills you'll need to survive and prosper over the long haul, the most important one—your ability to turn job interviews into job offers—is likely also your weakest because most of us have so little experience doing it successfully.

Always go to an interview when you get the chance, and no matter what you've heard about the company, give it your best shot while watching for parallels with your current job. You'll build important professional survival skills, and you aren't obliged to accept an offer unless it's the right fit. An offer you reject is still good for your sense of self, and it shows you are improving a critical survival skill.

You can also ask questions that demonstrate knowledge and engagement while also answering questions pertinent to your concerns:

  • "How long has the HR department existed? What are its goals? Are you satisfied with the results? What are the biggest problems you see with your current HR function?"
  • "What is the average tenure of your management team? What portion were promoted from within, and what portion were recruited?"
  • "In what ways does the company encourage managers in the development of their management skills?"
  • "What management training is provided to existing management? How are management skills evaluated, both with existing managers and new hires?"
  • "The first responsibility of a manager is to get work done through others, so effective selection skills are critical to any management function. How many of your managers have had formal employee-selection training?"
  • "Is your current management team up-to-date with employment laws regarding selection and daily interaction with reports?" If yes, "Can you tell me the content, duration and frequency of management training?"
  • "What portion of your management team would you say see HR as a helpful business partner, and what portion see HR as an annoyance?"

By asking questions like these, you gain the knowledge you need about what the job would be like, demonstrate that you are knowledgeable and engaged with the job's deliverables, and polish your skills at turning a one-sided examination of skills into a two-way conversation between professionals with a common interest—and that is one of the tricks of turning interviews into offers.

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to YourCareerQA@shrm.org. We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.

Packed with practical, honest, real-world guidance for successfully navigating common HR career challenges, Martin Yate's new book, The HR Career Guide: Great Answers to Tough Career Questions (SHRM, 2018), is available at the SHRMStore. Order your copy today. 

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