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Why execs hate HR … and 5 things you can do about it!

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in Centerpiece,HR Management,Human Resources

by Jathan Janove

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard an executive complain about HR …

Why the bad rap? Is it deserved? What’s more, how does HR change it?

Here’s how: HR professionals can build positive relationships with the C-Suite and management by following these five steps:

1. Just say ‘no’ to no

Too many HR professionals see themselves as compliance cops instead of compliance coaches.

Rather than saying “no,” HR should first explore what management is trying to accomplish. Even if you think you know the answer, ask for time to research and evaluate the issue. By doing so, you might discover options that will avoid a “no” answer. Moreover, resistance will be less if management understands you strived to find an alternative.

When faced with a challenging compliance issue, identify three options:

  1. Risk preferrer—high risk, high business advantage
  2. Risk averse—legally safest but substantial business disadvantage
  3. Risk neutral—cost of prevention weighed against likelihood and magnitude of the risk to be prevented.

You don’t need a calculator. The point is to identify options and evaluate each one according to costs, benefits and probabilities. That’s how to make decisions in the company’s best overall interest.

2. Avoid foolish consistency

Moses did not return from Mount Sinai with an 11th Commandment that said, “Thou shalt be consistent.” Sometimes, exceptions can and should be made. Use the analytic tools described above to assess each situation on its own merits.

I’m not promoting inconsistency. As an employment lawyer for 25 years, I’ve seen how it drives the litigation train. Rather, I’m speaking against the tendency to reason as follows, “This is new. This is different. We haven’t done it this way before. Therefore, we can’t do it.” If it makes strong business sense, there’s a good chance you can do it—and should.

3. Speak their language

I’m reminded of the HR director who complained that her boss, the company’s CFO, hurt her feelings. Instead of praising her for an employee benefit program she’d developed, he only wanted to know about costs and expected return on investment.

Had she wanted to get her boss’s support, she needed to speak CFO-ese, not HR-ese. That would have meant data, metrics and calculations to persuade him that the program would not only be beneficial to employees, it would make economic sense.

In addition, understand the business. Don’t act like the HR manager I once asked to describe the production process at her facility. In a tone of authority, she replied, “I have no idea … I’m in HR.”

If you’re the HR director of a car wash chain, figure out what financial data is important and become conversant with it … and wash a few cars.

4. Don’t forget, you are management

Many HR professionals see themselves as the employee’s advocate, like quasi-union representatives or corporate ombudsmen. This is misguided.

Never lose sight of whose side you’re on. Your ability to help employees will be in direct proportion to management’s perception that you are a loyal, trustworthy and supportive member of its team.

5. Become mission critical

In times of global competitive challenge, return on human capital resonates more strongly than ever with executives.

If you want them to see you as “value added” instead of “bureaucratic cost,” focus on the link between culture, employee engagement and ROI. Strive to create an environment where all employees come to work thinking about how they can do their jobs as effectively as possible and add value.

High-quality, desirable employees will want to work at the places with strong, positive cultures. HR is in the best position to promote such cultures.

Bottom line: For every complaint I’ve heard from an executive about HR, I’ve heard one from HR about executives: “They don’t respect or appreciate what I do.” “They don’t treat me as a strategic partner.”  “They won’t give me a seat at the table.”

The good news: If you adopt the approach I’ve described here, most executives will not only offer you a seat, they’ll actually sit up and listen.


Author: Jathan Janove is a management trainer, consultant and employment attorney. He is a shareholder with Ogletree Deakins in Portland, Ore., and author of The Star Profile: A Management Tool to Unleash Employee Potential and Managing To Stay Out Of Court: How To Avoid The 8 Deadly Sins Of Mismanagement. Contact him at jathan.janove@odnss.com.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

ETD September 26, 2011 at 12:44 pm

I’ve read this article and fundamentally agree with it. However, this is one aspect of the HR & Executive relationship that really isn’t addressed: Many Executives who are meticulous professionals in their own fields simply fail to accept that HR requires a similar level of professionalism. Many Executives simply don’t see the legal structure that HR works in as valid. I believe this is so because most manages and executives are actually “protected” from the implications of their own failed HR decisions. I have worked for several companies where a manager who makes a serious mistake with financial or technical consequences is immediately held accountable and expected to develop the solution or resolution to the problem. However, if that same executive ignores simple common sense practices when dealing with a difficult subordinate and, as a result, litigation or state/federal agency action occurs, the situation is immediately transferred to HR and the attorneys and that executive’s role is sharply diminished. In these organizations, HR’s role is to “resolve” whatever happened to ensure minimal impact on operations.

I have only worked for one organization that had a clear HR philosophy that placed responsibility on managers and executives as well. That organization placed high demands on their HR people, but you knew that the other managers were held at an equal level of accountability within their spheres of control. That made for the best environment


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