Human resources departments, which are also sometimes called “employee experience” or “people operations” teams, can have a bad reputation for not being someone an employee can trust.
Daniel Space, a senior HR business partner for large tech, media and entertainment companies, said the reason for negative assumptions about HR can be because employees often have very limited exposure to HR departments, and HR teams themselves do not do the best job of getting across what it is they actually do.
The “HR only exists to protect the company” narrative employees can hold, he said, discounts the variety of work within HR departments. These teams are also responsible for core benefits, compensation, immigration, morale, and training and development, things that do help employees.
“Obviously, HR teams are employed by the company. And so we’re here to help the company be successful. That said, that’s not mutually exclusive from the goal of what employees should also be working toward,” added Gianna Driver, chief human resources officer at Exabeam, a global cybersecurity company, who considers her role to be a bridge between employees and the company.
To clear the air about what exactly HR does and can help with, four HR experts weigh in on the biggest misunderstandings about HR’s role:
Myth 1: HR always sides with a manager.
“I always want to hold space and give empathy and sympathy that people probably had really bad [HR] experiences, but it is not this overwhelmingly ‘HR automatically sides with the managers and we’re just kicking back and downing beers together laughing as we figure out ways to screw with the employees,’” Space said. “Managers don’t like us either in many cases because we don’t allow them to do the things that they just want to do.”
There can be this wrongful assumption that an HR professional is automatically going to side with the manager in a dispute between them and an employee.
“I have a lot more managers that don’t like me than employees because I don’t do their dirty work for them,” Space said. “I won’t approve a termination that hasn’t been well-documented or that I think there’s some sort of bias. Or in many cases, if a manager’s exploiting or misusing their authority, I will challenge it. I have voted against managers in many cases.”
Part of managing is knowing how to communicate goals and expectations, and have hard conversations with employees, but some see this as HR’s job to handle.
“A lot of times managers will call HR professionals into a situation to help resolve conflict, and one of the first things that we do is we say, ‘Well… have you told the employee your expectations? Have you told them that you’re experiencing a problem? Have you documented anything?’” Driver said. “I can’t tell you how many times the manager is like, ‘Well, no.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, if you haven’t, if you’re disappointed and your person isn’t meeting your expectations but you’ve not clearly communicated your disappointment or your expectations, how are you truly giving that individual a chance to succeed and to meet your expectations?’”
Driver said in general she wished more people would seek first to understand their colleagues and assume good intentions of each other, because that would solve many of the miscommunications HR gets called to resolve.
“Nine times out of 10, if employees would approach work and interactions with their colleagues from a place of empathy and assuming the very best of intent, I think we’d actually avoid over 75% of the issues that we as HR professionals have to resolve and get involved in,” she said.
Myth 2: You shouldn’t air grievances with HR until an exit interview.
To be most helpful, HR experts suggests escalating to HR earlier than when you’re at your breaking point as an employee.
“Too often, we don’t hear about frustrations at work until an exit interview, when it’s too late. If you’re unhappy about something at your company, I’d encourage you to speak up and be honest about the changes that need to be made,” said Tracy Cote, chief people officer of StockX, an online marketplace. “This is the most effective way to help improve the work environment for yourself and those around you. We can’t fix what we don’t know is broken.”
Going to HR earlier can help HR departments identify systemic problems that can help your colleagues, too. “If people are engaging with us, we would have the perspective of knowing, ‘Oh, maybe this manager really is struggling because we’ve had four people not connected to each other approach us complaining about similar things,’” Driver said.
She recommended going to HR once you have noticed a pattern of behavior, such as a recurring issue of being disrespected by another team member. Going in earlier to HR also help you get a solution, such as being transferred into a different department without needing to quit, Driver said.
But it’s also helpful to understand the limits of what HR can do. HR looks at company policies for guidance on how to handle employee conflicts; if your complaint falls outside of that, going to HR likely will not be helpful.
Myth 3: HR is the place to go if you need to vent about a colleague.
Angela Karachristos, who is now a career coach but used to be a human resources manager, said employees can make the mistake of going to HR to vent about a co-worker’s work performance, personality, attitude or a romantic relationship gone wrong.
“In matters of conflict, human resources can be extremely helpful and effective in mitigating conflicts that are a direct violation of company policy or of the law, but HR is very limited in what it can do if the employee is not filing a formal complaint or seeking to launch an investigation into unlawful or unethical behavior,” she said. “Calling HR to vent or complain about a situation raises more questions about the complainer than the person accused of being annoying, especially if the concerns being raised have not been escalated to the direct manager first.”
When you do share your side of a conflict with HR, stick to narrating your own experience neutrally and don’t speculate on what the other person is thinking with language like “She’s obsessed with me,” Space recommended. “The moment you start speaking for someone else, your credibility starts to get tanked.”
Ideally, Karachristos’ advice to employees who are experiencing conflict with a co-worker is to document the issue, go to your manager first for resolution and then escalate to HR if that does not work.
“Following these steps will help you create a case for why this conflict is a bona fide problem, prove you made your best effort to resolve it through proper channels and show that, despite your best efforts, management failed to resolve it,” she said. “At that point, HR will have what it needs to address the manager and the employee involved.”