What’s Your Company’s HR Temperature?

by Sharlyn Lauby on February 16, 2012

Plan more parties. That’s what the company said when I asked them the biggest challenge facing human resources.

Years ago, I was interviewing for a director-level position. During the conversation, I asked what the biggest challenge was facing the company’s HR department.  Everyone told me the same thing. Employee morale was low and we needed to hr, human resources, customer service, employees, training, customer, departmenthave more employee parties.  So, I’m thinking “I can do parties. In fact, I plan great parties. I’m the one you need.” And several interviews later, I was offered the job.

Once I started work, I noticed something odd. I would be in my office, working away, and when employees came into HR…they came to my office.  No one else’s office.  Only my office.  It didn’t matter what the request was for.

Employee with an insurance question – my office.

Supervisor wanting to talk about promoting an employee – my office.

Manager to discuss employee cafeteria ideas – my office.

After two weeks of this, my boss called me in to ask how I was getting settled in.  Not sure how he would take my answer, I said “You guys told me that what was needed around here were more parties. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say there’s a problem in the human resources department.”

His reply? “I’m glad you figured it out.”

He went on to explain that human resources “didn’t feel warm”.  Not that the thermostat was broken, but the people working in the department weren’t friendly and helpful. They viewed employees as a disruption to their day instead of a customer within the organization.  Ultimately, HR had to change. And after several months and unfortunately, a few personnel changes, employees were utilizing the entire HR department. Not just one person.

I remember my boss coming by months later, faking a glance at the thermostat and saying “it was warm in HR”.  We all smiled.  To this day, every time I walk into a business, I’m reminded of his “temperature” comment.  Because you can really tell – the companies with HR departments that get it and those organizations that don’t.

So, I’m curious. When was the last time you stopped and thought about the temperature at your HR department?  Would people say “it’s hot in here” or ask for a sweater?

Image courtesy of IronicDiatribe

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@coccohr February 16, 2012 at 7:17 am

Thank you for making us think and reminding us that we play a key role in shaping our company’s culture via our “temperature”

Michael Brisciana February 16, 2012 at 9:00 am

Sharlyn,

Excellent, insightful post! I can share a related story from my own experience …

… I worked for several years in a corporate HR group that was, on the surface, very high performing (i.e., we developed high-quality programs, processes, and policies) — or, at least we thought so.

… The only problem was, we thought we “knew better” (or were more insightful or forward-looking) than everyone else (this included upper management as well as our HR colleagues “in the field”). Unfortunately, this attitude wasn’t well concealed (i.e., the truth always wills out).

… Not surprisingly, most of the organization didn’t exactly rush forward to embrace our new programs, processes, and policies — even though they were, objectively, “good” answers (best practices, etc.).

… Even less surprisingly, a few years later, the organization found that it could get along better with just the HR people “in the field” and let the whole “corporate HR” team go.

I’ve tried hard over the years to atone for my part in the arrogance — it is certainly a lesson hard-earned. Moral of the story … the “right” answers don’t count nearly as much as people knowing and believing that you’re trying to help them find the right answers FOR THEM. For myself, I think that’s one key part of HR showing that they “know the temperature” of the organization and are trying to serve it.
Michael Brisciana recently posted..Coaching Lessons from Super Bowl XLVI

Brendan February 16, 2012 at 11:20 am

The HR department was one of the reasons why I was glad to leave a previous employer. Everyone – including the HR director – knew that they just did not get stuff done.

When they hired me, they expected me to drive 75 minutes 1-way to obtain a packet of standard forms. I eventually made the drive and found no one there at my appointment time. Those forms included some time-sensitive procedures (criminal and medical clearances) of the sort that I could have been working on had HR simply mailed the packet to me at the time of hire, which was a solid 3 weeks before the job started.

I’ve seen other HR departments that resembled cactus patches – hate to go in and bother anyone. In those, the department insisted on using HR professional jargon, which I don’t understand and which doesn’t matter to me – then they’d be angered by repeated questions.

A third type, that I have unfortunately also seen, is the department in which HR staff think that being meta-employees makes them authorities on the qualifications and needs for all other employees. It’s as though expertise in the policies, procedures, and statutes governing employment somehow conferred expertise in all jobs in that agency. Supervising the process of my employment doesn’t make you my supervisor.

Sorry, guess that I have just seen it done a lot of wrong ways.

Leah Railey February 16, 2012 at 2:06 pm

I liked your post. I was recently hired as the “warm fuzzy” side to HR. I’m old enough and experienced enough to know that is one of my strengths. I guess it’s working because my boss recently told me that people were talking about me… how happy they are I’m here, etc.

Sharlyn Lauby February 16, 2012 at 4:18 pm

@CoccoHR – Thanks for the comment!

@Michael – Thank you for sharing your experience. Knowing your audience is essential.

@Brendan – Wow. I certainly hope at some point you get the chance to see a good HR team. Trust me, there are lots of terrific HR pros out there. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

@Leah – Thanks for the comment. I agree – it’s important to know what you bring to the party.

Keeping things confidential February 17, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Important message here! Great topic, Sharlyn.

Kind of a dirty little (not so secret) secret about general perceptions of HR. Practically no one in my personal life EVER expresses any respect whatsoever for their own HR department or any HR people they encounter. Sadly, based on some of the stories I hear, I can’t quite blame them…

I too had a position where I was the only one in the HR department that had visitors. Not necessarily for the same “warmth” reason you referred to, but a slight variation.

On at least a few occasions, employees that I had only minimal contact with or perhaps never even met came in to see “me” because they were told by others to speak with “me and ONLY me” to handle their sensitive situation. The rest of the time, I didn’t really notice that my office was busier than my peers…

While it was personally flattering to have a reputation for being approachable, trustworthy, objective, fair and a source of solid support, it was unfortunate that certain other individuals in HR had drastically different images.

Another time when I was still fairly new at a different company, I briefed my boss (head of HR) on several routine matters that were in the works and/or already handled. The next thing I know one of the department heads that I had been assisting on some things as his HRBP, became infuriated with me and went ballistic because he didn’t want my boss informed, aware, involved “AT ALL EVER” with anything to do with his area. Whoa!

Needless to say that was awkward. Even though I told that person I was merely keeping my boss informed of my work load, activities, etc. (as a new employee) without any intention of them taking any actions on those things, the department head clearly wanted nothing to do with my boss.

Fortunately, I was able to build their trust and comfort with me back up, but I made it clear that it wasn’t realistic for him to expect me to avoid those types of communications with my boss. By then it made sense why they had such a strong reaction, but I still needed to manage the delicate balance of information flow.

Both examples had far bigger cultural dysfunctions from the top, so there was only so much I could do to create credibility for HR.

Sharlyn Lauby February 20, 2012 at 4:07 pm

Thanks for sharing. Confidentiality is a big thing. It’s tough when you don’t feel you can share confidential information among the senior leadership team. I’ve been in similar situations where I knew I needed to tell the CEO something … but also knew the CEO was terrible at keeping secrets.

Joshua Westbrook February 20, 2012 at 8:09 pm

Nice article. Defintely sounds like you had an HR problem.

I would like to point out that sometimes managers/supervisors don’t like to go to HR because they get the answers they need as opposed to the answers they want. This typically happens when HR is changing from a transactional focus to a more strategic/transformational focus.

Helping managers to see the value of performance management, as oppose to non-confrontation and inconsistency, or the value of owning the recruitment of their people and using HR to own the processes can be difficult.

Change for the better isn’t always about telling people what they want to hear, atleast initially, but eventually managers/supervisors should see and feel the value of this HR transformation.

Sharlyn Lauby February 21, 2012 at 10:50 am

Thanks for the comment Joshua. Years ago, I worked with an employment lawyer who always asked the question, “What would you like to do?” – I found it very refreshing and started using it when people came to my office. Amazing how one question could change the entire conversation.

Ian McIlveen February 22, 2012 at 8:09 am

After working as an Engineer on the shop floor within my company, HR was the last place you would have wanted to progress to, with us going through 7 HR managers in 5 years this did not help to promote the HR office. Funny enough I am now working within this HR office, I am reporting to our New HR manager( No8), who has remained employed here for now 3 years of which I keep reminding him off!! But its clear why he is here, like you say Sharyl if you want to be approachable, then you have to learn how to manage your door, he is total customer/team focused which has seen our HR reconised, not just by its workforce, (Union Inc) IiP, EFQM awards, but also within our global company, as delivering a service our Employees want. So our Temperature is neither in , Fahrenheit, Celsius or Kelvin scale, but in a HR scale of welcomingly accessible

Sharlyn Lauby February 22, 2012 at 11:17 am

Nicely said, Ian. Thanks for sharing!

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