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How to Get the Best from Your HR Department

Too often, I hear leaders and staff in all kinds of organizations express a lack of confidence in their human resources departments.

For many senior executives, this lack of confidence is actually a lack of respect. They criticize HR for not understanding the business or not being strategic.

There’s also a lack of respect for HR lower down in organizations, but there it comes from a lack of trust. Employees say things like: “HR is not your friend here,” or “I know whatever I tell them will end up being shared in the wrong place” or “They never do anything to make the situation better, anyway, so why bother?”

Both ends of the hierarchy see HR as failing in crucial ways for:

  • Trying to maintain control through policies and procedures
  • Ignoring operating problems because they don’t have a framework for recognizing or resolving them
  • Preventing practical exceptions that could make a real difference to some people, and
  • Creating processes that raise people’s expectations about empowerment, but can’t deliver, because they’re not coordinated with the actual power structure.

As one executive said, “HR is so busy protecting that it feels like the only kind of thinking they do is defensive.” Even many chief human resources officers express disappointment in the lack of business acumen and the inability of HR candidates to turn strategy into action.

But it doesn’t have to be that way! HR can gain real, effective influence by learning what’s actually going on, and then taking pragmatic steps in screening, hiring, and continuing development.

Screen Candidates Based on Reality

Seek HR candidates who’ve had actual business experience. Probe to see if they’re interested in — and comfortable enough to discuss — the current state of business or world events. Ask about their prior experiences: Do their anecdotes demonstrate as much fondness for people as for policies and procedures?

If candidates have been working in HR, ask for examples of people who trusted them — and get references from those people, both managers and senior leaders.

Once Candidates Are on the Inside

Be sure to articulate and reiterate the organization’s mission, vision, and values to provide context for the developmental work to follow. Share examples of how those concepts play out in day-to-day life, and draw contrasts with other organizations to point out your organization’s cultural and strategic differences.

Draw out HR staffers to identify any tensions between the organizational context you’ve set and the HR policies and practices they consider most important. After conducting careful situational evaluations, can they can craft appropriate exceptions to typical policy? If they truly understand the business’s needs, they’ll know why carve-outs are sometimes necessary, such as the differing requirements for call center personnel, who work 24/7 rather than main office people, who have flex time Monday to Friday.

When it comes to employee relations, look for additional evidence of situational understanding and activism rather than sympathy. Emotional support for employees’ plight won’t matter if HR professionals don’t know how to get things done. Review past company actions, both good and bad, regarding people who were bullied or abused at work, or had problematic home situations, health problems, or other challenging conditions. Can HR partners find thoughtful accommodations to help employees be successful? Can they think of new things to try when old approaches don’t work?

Your company may not be the right place for HR staffers who don’t provide flexibility for structural aspects of the business model, adapt to the cultural norms you’ve made explicit, or provide practical and compassionate solutions for employee problems.

Keep Development Going

Many people go into HR because they want to help people; the majority haven’t studied business and may not know how business actually gets done. But HR business partners lose credibility when they aren’t conversant with their business’s struggles and strains, or if their business acumen and leadership abilities don’t match those of their operating-side peers.

So give your HR professionals plenty of opportunity to learn about the business and the industry, and to work with peers on projects throughout the company rather than merely being on call when HR problems arise. Include HR people in meetings with decision-makers to observe discussions and see how the business’s various aspects fit together. Consider cross training, to help HR professionals learn how departmental jobs are done and functional executives learn about HR principles and goals; facilitate discussion about how the two sides can support each other to reach corporate goals.

HR succeeds when the business succeeds — in both satisfying its marketplace and managing itself well internally. Make it your responsibility to help HR business partners develop their skills and strengths so you can trust them and the work they do.

Onward and upward,


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