Human Resources should make things better, not worse

Many times when there is a workplace problem, we are directed to the Human Resources Department. I used to do a workplace Q&A column for a major newspaper, and “go to HR” was often my first piece of advice. Yet, all too often, employees would tell me that going to HR made things worse. I’ve seen it myself and written about it – HR departments that forget their purpose and may actually harm, rather than help, their employees.

Here are 5 warning signs that your HR department is failing.

1.     They Have a “Us vs. Them” Mentality. It is clear that human resources professionals often have to be the bad guy – enforcing workplace policies, reprimanding employees, and the like. It’s an unpleasant, but necessary, part of the HR job. All too often, however, HR departments will develop an adversarial relationship with employees, seeing their jobs as primarily one of “policing” employees’ bad behaviors. Over-focusing on the negatives, and ignoring the positive elements of HR work (e.g., providing support, encouraging a positive organizational climate, etc.) leads to a dangerous “us vs. them” mentality that can be destructive.

2.     You Do Their Work. You know an HR department is failing if you find yourself doing things like writing your own job descriptions (without HR input), having to create policies and procedures (without HR guidance), or having to constantly correct HR errors. In one organization, a middle manager had to share the company’s affirmative action policies with the HR Director who did not know that the company was an affirmative action employer.

3.     It’s All About the Money. Many of the decisions made in human resources departments have important financial implications. When financial concerns take the place of doing the right thing – such as rewarding a deserving employee with a promotion or raise – it is a sign that the HR department has their priorities screwed up.

4.     They Forget Who They Serve. A sure sign that differentiates good from poor HR departments is the way they approach employees. If there is a “how can I help you?” attitude, it’s a good sign. If HR personnel treat you like you are the problem, it’s a bad sign.

5.     You Avoid Them Like the Plague. All too often when I’ve advised employees to take problems to the HR department, they tell me “they won’t help me,” or “they will make things worse,” or “the HR department is the root of the problem.” Ask employees and managers what they think about the HR department and if they refer to employees there. When people routinely avoid the HR department, it is proof positive they are not doing what they should be doing.

The very best companies have HR departments that are proactive, engaged, and concerned with all employees’ welfare. They play a key role in making the workplace better.