HR

Why bad HR is a reflection of bad leadership

‘If HR is harsh, if HR is petty, if HR is political, if HR is not to be trusted, then replace HR with the CEO…HR is a manifestation of what leadership believes their relationship with employees should be,’ said one former VP of HR.
article cover

Saturday Night Live/NBC via Giphy

4 min read

Spend enough time Googling “human resources” and you’ll find yourself confronted with an ugly truth: HR has an image problem.

The internet is rife with invective towards HR departments, including Reddit threads that detail HR horror stories. Many surveys have also reinforced the perception that employees have a loathsome view of HR. The trope has also endured in pop culture: Toby Flenderson, the misanthropic HR manager from The Office, was routinely harassed and vilified by boss Michael Scott because, as he said, Toby’s “job is to make the office lame.”

This image isn’t the result of a coordinated smear campaign financed by NBC, but it’s also not totally unwarranted, industry professionals who spoke with HR Brew explained. Traditionally, HR departments have worked in concert with company leadership, serving as messengers and enforcers of corporate policy, whether employees liked it or not.

“HR is obviously an instrument of management, so the image is not unfounded,” Liz Ryan, a former VP of HR and the founder and CEO of the consultancy Human Workplace, explained.

To win the trust of their employees, two industry professionals who spoke with HR Brew explained, HR teams need to actively engage with their workforces and impart an air of humanity, even when delivering bad news. And if professionals find that task difficult, it might be a sign that management is actively working to stymie HR’s efforts to work in its “highest and best form,” Ryan said.

Expectation vs. reality. Even as the HR profession has evolved from its bureaucratic origins and become more involved with organizations’ business decisions, an image of the paper-pushing HR manager with unwavering loyalty to the CEO has remained for many workers. There is a reason for that image, Ryan said, but it’s really only partially HR’s fault: “If HR is harsh, if HR is petty, if HR is political, if HR is not to be trusted, then replace HR with the CEO…HR is a manifestation of what leadership believes their relationship with employees should be.”

What does it mean for HR to operate at its highest form? It involves getting many things right, Ryan explained. Good HR insists on “their organization being an amazing place to work in terms of…salary, benefits, working conditions, and the quality of leadership,” she said. There is also an imperative to get talent sourcing right, she added, through “a recruiting engine that is fast, but also really warm and really human.”

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.

Amber Warren, HR director at Lap of Love Animal Hospice, told HR Brew that it’s hard for good HR to function under bad leadership. “You can almost tell the quality of an organization’s leadership by how long they’re able to keep their HR people…whatever they decide, we have to execute.”

HR rebrand. The onus is on HR teams to sway their employees’ perception, but that isn’t always easy, said Warren. “We’re definitely actively rebranding ourselves and truly working on things like employee engagement and advocating for employees. But I imagine it’s just going to take time for people to see and trust us again…it’s kind of sad to be at the Christmas party and nobody wants to hang out with you.”

What’s required isn’t so much a wholesale rebrand as it is a tactical approach, one that involves communicating to leadership what HR can provide if given the right leeway, Ryan explained. “Business leaders don’t understand what HR can be,” so departments have to communicate their needs, including more opportunity to advocate and connect with employees. “You have to have the confidence to say there’s a right and a wrong. This stuff is not fuzzy.”

If HR’s efforts to enact change are thwarted by management, both Ryan and Warren advised quitting in favor of an organization that allows HR to function at its best. Warren recalled a previous position that she left due to the constraints management placed on HR: “I realized very quickly into my tenure with that organization, this doesn’t align with my values and who I am. So, I left eventually.”

But before making a massive decision like leaving a job, it’s important to be a human first, and HR person second, Warren said. For her, it paid dividends: “Once I stopped being so perfect on the outside and [started] relating to people about my personal life and being more vulnerable and real with people, they understood me a lot better.”

How could you hate someone like that?—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.