Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Anti-Personnel Department

Why are so many Human Resources Departments viewed with suspicion by the employees?

The HR Department should be a primary advisor on - and conduit for - employee concerns and yet it is portrayed in the popular Dilbert comic strip in the form of Catbert, the evil HR Director that enjoys inflicting misery upon on the workforce.

Here are some possible reasons for the bad reputation:

  • Outlawyering the lawyers. Many HR professionals imitate aggressive defense attorneys and then carry that to an extreme. Instead of being a trusted advisor that can speak truth to management, they choose to become paralegals for the defense of shabby management practices. They focus on winning instead of doing the right thing.
  • Absorbing critics. It is not unusual to find Equal Employment Opportunity and Labor Relations offices tucked within the HR Department. That is a mistake because it sacrifices the objectivity of those offices and robs HR of the benefit of some internal sources of constructive criticism.
  • Seeing employees as adversaries. After time, HR professionals can become like street cops who've heard all of the lines. Employees are regarded as nuisances instead of customers. The employees quickly spot that attitude.
  • Playing "gotcha" with departments. The other departments see HR as less of a consultant and more of a cop. HR spends sizable amounts of time telling departments what they've done wrong instead of helping them to succeed. An adversarial climate develops.
  • Playing favorites with rule enforcement. When an HR Department makes rule exceptions for upper management, the rest of the organization becomes cynical and HR is seen as an opportunistic fixer.
  • Guarding turf. What is good for the organization becomes secondary to what is good for HR. I've seen HR departments restrict supervisory access to management advice solely out of a fear that HR would lose control of the information pipeline.

The above items change only when HR professionals choose to move from an advocate to a consultative role. It is a major shift, but once made the positive results rapidly accumulate and the anti-personnel department reputation disappears.

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