Human Resources often gets a bad rap. You only have to watch popular movies to see HR portrayed as a stereotype; the cold , analytical and callous approach to people management like George Clooney in “Up in the Air”, the oblivious and inept HR manager in “Keeping up with the Joneses” (where Zach Galifianakis’ character is so clueless, he is the only one at a large weapons manufacturer with internet access because no one worries about him) or the soft, feelings oriented HR referenced in “Boss Baby” when the child is crying and the Boss Baby asked where HR is when you need them. Yes, it is fun to joke about HR but do you really understand the job itself?
Like every profession out there, the human resources field attracts a wide range of personalities and approaches but HR seems to draw more conflicting characterizations than most. I’m hoping to clear up some of the most obvious (to me) misconceptions about the profession of human resources or people management. (Disclaimer: these “misconceptions” and general HR practices are my opinion only collected from my own experiences when I tell people I work in HR and also discussions with my peers in the field. You may work with HR differently or have varying experiences in these matters that conflict with my statements. HR is a broad field and just like all professions, varies by location, industry and person. Specifics may vary depending on circumstances)
Misconception #1 – Human Resources is not necessary
You take that back! Okay, just kidding. Of course we are necessary. Salary and benefits (the total compensation paid to employees) is one of the biggest expenses that an organization has. Human resource professionals have evolved over the years to become business partners with solid financial acumen. Someone needs to be mindful of the management of your biggest expense. This expense may be managed by your financial or administrative department but as you grow and expand your business, you want a professional expert in that area to provide support and guidance. That is where HR comes in.
In addition to overseeing and monitoring the expense related to workforce, human resources will also keep you on the correct side of the law. It is our job to stay up to date on changes in employment and tax legislation, areas that often evolve. Additionally, we protect your organization by supporting corporate governance and the interests of your various stakeholders.
Outside of the numbers and laws, we have insights into human nature, motivation and performance management. Our job is to understand people. Your people are your most important asset! Many leaders are subject matter experts and have become leaders without focusing on people 101 (yet). Our job is to support and advise leaders and employees through their day to day interactions or on challenging issues including contributing to your short and long term plans.
Pro Tip: HR should have a strategic place at your leadership table. HR is no longer just the personnel department that staffs the secretarial pool and gives you an annual increase. HR professionals are just that, professionals. Human Resources designations require minimum requirements for knowledge of the subjects of HR (through exam based testing) as well as demonstrated experience in a number of areas. They need to have diverse competencies (in addition to our functional competencies) including; business strategy, professional practice, engagement, total rewards, labour & employee relations, health, wellness & safe workplace, learning & development, workforce planning & talent management as well as HR metrics, reporting and financial management.
Misconception #2 – We decide who to hire
Nope. Unless I’m hiring someone onto my own team, I don’t actually get to pick the person who is hired. I’m surprised by the number of LinkedIn connections or direct emails I get that are followed up with an earnest request for assistance with a job opening they’ve seen from my organization. HR needs to be impartial and unbiased (at least as unbiased as is possible barring the fact that we are human – see the article title). We use an applicant tracking software (ATS) that sorts through the resumes and narrows down the list to a manageable size. Following additional review for qualifications, we provide the resumes to the hiring manager.
We may make recommendations but the decision to interview, and then subsequently hire, comes from that manager. They are the subject matter expert, understand best what they need to make their team successful and will be the one to work with this person on a regular basis. During the recruitment process, we may advise and influence but at the end of the day, they select. Also, on a side note, I would never forward a resume from a stranger to one of our hiring managers as I cannot attest to their abilities, experience or qualifications. If you do send a resume to me directly, it will be routed to the ATS to go through the same process as everyone else (fair is fair).
Pro Tip: If you want a leg up on the competition at an organization, see if you know someone in the company that could refer you (but they should really know you and your work). We take our employee referrals seriously as they have a vested interest in our success and know our culture, if they speak highly of someone, we listen.
Misconception #3 – We decide who to fire
Again, we do not have that kind of power. HR does not sit around on a high throne deciding who should stay and who should go. Frankly, we’d much prefer to have everyone at our organization be successful, productive and satisfied at all times. Unfortunately, that rarely is the case when you are dealing with life and people.
There is considerable cost that goes into hiring, onboarding and developing employees. The last thing we want to see is someone unsuccessful in their role. That said, there is statistical data that determines the optimal percentage of healthy turnover in an organization for the right amount of growth and change. Sometime people need to leave, on their own or otherwise. When it comes time to part ways with someone, it is not an easy decision. Reasons vary but at the end of the day, your HR team should be there to help you (both the Manager and the departing employee) through the difficult time. Our goal is to provide assistance, guidance and dignity in that moment and following.
Are there times that we advise Managers to make difficult decisions? Yes. Our goal is to act in the best interests of the organization while balancing the needs of the employees. There are also times we advise the leader to continue to work with someone to improve and invest that time in a better outcome. At the end of the day, leaders have to lead. HR is there to help, not decide.
Pro Tip: HR advisors are people too. Never doubt that we put our own feelings aside to help you at that difficult time. I once had a co-worker tell me that if a termination didn’t affect you, there was something wrong with you. It does affect us and it is not a part of the job that we enjoy but as professionals, we take pride in how we provide support during that process.
Misconception #4 – We know everything about you
HR Professionals pride themselves on confidentiality and follow a strict code of ethics. It may surprise people to know that we do not sit around discussing employee issues with the entire team. We are very respectful of employee matters and only discuss issues with each other when it is necessary or if there is a learning to be shared (in that case, we do not name names). We very much limit discussions on matters around employee medical leaves, performance issues, personal problems or pending departures. This is done out of respect for our employees but also for our fellow HR team members who do not want to know your business. If it is not necessary for me to know something to be able to perform my job, I’d rather not know it if it is your private matters.
Pro Tip: We are not recording everything you say or do. If you make a funny, questionable joke in the elevator or bump into us outside of work in a bar, we do not immediately start a file on you. We’re human too. (Yes, there are exceptions to those but you know what I mean) We’re advisors, not court stenographers. It is only moderately funny when for the 300th time someone shushes a co-worker on the elevator and says “careful what you say in front of HR”.
Misconception #5 – We know nothing about you
Likewise, do not assume that we do not have a clue who you are. Even if you have no regular interaction with HR, we know who works in the organization. We clearly touch on your name with supervisors during annual compensation reviews, performance setting objectives and workforce planning. Although we may not see you on a regular basis; we helped hire you, provided you with your orientation information and manage your salary and benefits through the course of your employment.
Pro Tip: HR is not just for leaders. If you are not sure how to work through an issue with a difficult co-worker or how to approach your boss about something, feel free to chat with us. We are happy to provide some coaching or walk through approaches for you to consider or try. Wondering what your options are for further development or advancement, call HR. We support the people…all people.
Misconception #6 – We have no feelings
See “We decide who to fire” pro tip. When employees come to us, they are looking for someone who is going to help them navigate – be it about their salary or benefit questions, development and education requests or employee relations concerns. Employees want someone who is going to treat them with respect and dignity while balancing these competing interests. We need to remain impartial because our focus should be on you and not on how we are feeling. That said, we do care.
We are always working for the betterment of the workforce and our people. We want you to be happy and healthy and build a great workplace culture. Sometimes balancing those competing interests can be a challenge. Additionally when there is a crisis (as can happen anywhere) you want someone with a calm, cool head providing assistance, not someone weeping in the corner. Most HR people save those moments for later when they can be alone or take it home with them (clearly not ideal but shout out to HR professional’s families).
Pro Tip: I’d suggest hugging your HR person but we really are a 50/50 split on that and you don’t want to hug the wrong HR person or you’ll get that talk about ‘boundaries’. Instead, if there is ever a time that you’ve appreciated their efforts or want to acknowledge a difficult job well done, just say so. Positive feedback is always appreciated.
Misconception #7 – We are only about feelings
Hey HR, aren’t you the party planners? Yes, sometimes we are. Is that all we do? Absolutely not but we understand the value of celebrating successes, creating culture and embracing community. Lack of culture or a sense of community within an organization can kill it. Seldom will you hear someone say that they really love their company because they make so much money. Salary matters but that is not the only factor in employee satisfaction. Employees want to feel valued, supported and developed to reach their full potential along with that of the organization. Not many people want to take up the event coordination, fundraising exercises or volunteering opportunities but HR will because supporting the people means understanding all of their needs.
Additionally, sometimes great people stumble and fall. Sometimes life hands you lemons and you might struggle. Sometimes, you have trouble communicating with others. That art of human resources is understanding human nature. Sometimes, you just want someone who is going to be a good listener and offer suggestions. Or just be a good listener, period.
Pro Tip: HR can be all these things. We have degrees, designations, experiences, knowledge and wisdom. Just like any other field, you may find that not all HR professionals are the same but we do follow a general set of guidelines and principles.
The moment you start looking past stereotypes is when you can see the real value that HR adds to an organization. HR is a dynamic and diverse professional field. Roles and accountabilities vary but please know that we are just as invested in you, and the success of the company, as you are.