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If HR is so powerless, why do we get blamed for everything?

On February 27, 2017, in HRExaminer, by Mary Faulkner

photo of Mary Faulkner, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

“Seriously – we have a lot of power in a business. We make sure people are in the right jobs and that their salaries match the marketplace. We ensure the business doesn’t screw up and their leaders aren’t sued or sent to jail (or make sure they DO get sent to jail).” – Mary Faulkner, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

Take a couple of minutes and conduct a brief experiment.

Go out on the internet and scan some of the headlines of articles talking about HR. Notice a theme? Chances are, you’ll see a number of headlines lamenting the inability of HR to have an impact, sit with the adults at Thanksgiving, to work “with the business.” There is talk of blowing up HR, or getting rid of HRIS, or questioning which department recruiting really belongs in. Because really, HR is a non-starter at this point – a holdover from a forgotten age.

But when something goes wrong, or we encourage a manager to make a decision that makes sense, we hear the always exciting, “HR made me do it” or “It’s HR’s fault.” YEEESSSSSS….this is power, people. We can stop anything we want from happening. In fact, we even make the laws that govern commerce and discrimination. WE CONTROL THE UNIVERSE.

All of those articles you find online have something to say – much of it is actually valid. HR does have a perception problem and we perpetuate it ourselves. We accept being brushed aside. We acquiesce to what “the business” wants to do…even when we know there is a better way. We think support means rolling over, and then we complain about it to our peers when we go to conferences.

Well, I saw that’s a bunch of hogwash. (Excuse my tough language, but my dander is up.)

Seriously – we have a lot of power in a business. We make sure people are in the right jobs and that their salaries match the marketplace. We ensure the business doesn’t screw up and their leaders aren’t sued or sent to jail (or make sure they DO get sent to jail). We talk to all levels of the organization and know what’s going on from the frontlines to the boardroom.

And yet we’re supposed to believe we can’t get anything done? Really?!

I think it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and we need to stop it. WE ARE THE BUSINESS, TOO. We all are. If we weren’t, we would be an outsourced consultant, get paid a hell of a lot more, and we wouldn’t have to be in so many meetings. (Note to self: look into becoming an outsourced consultant.)

Once we accept that we are a peer to “the business” and have a voice in helping make the right decisions for OUR organization, we can start focusing on how to wield our real power and influence. A few thoughts on that:

  1. Word choice matters: Because of the nature of what we do, it feels like HR has to say “no” a lot. Sometimes it’s because there are some esoteric laws or policies in place that people aren’t aware of. Sometimes it’s because we work with a bunch of children. Either way, we have to be able to say no without seeming like an obstacle. One recommendation? “Hmmm…we can’t do it that way, but I think there’s another option.”
  2. Get over title anxiety: I’m always surprised at how many people in HR seem cowed by executive titles. I agree that professionalism is always a good thing, especially in high visibility scenarios. But guess what? Executives are people, too. They have bad breath and hate traffic. They also have anxiety over whether or not they’re making the best decision. That’s what you’re there to do – help them make the best decision. Now stop bowing and just talk to them.
  3. Know the business needs your input: No. HR does not (typically) generate revenue. And HR doesn’t usually sit in the room and discuss product design or marketing messages. But it does support people who do that. It hires the people who do that. It builds systems that reward and recognize the people who do that. And you know – really good HR people DO weigh in on customer issues, marketing messages, and product design. You know why? Because HR understands how business brand drives company brand, which attracts and retains people. Don’t sell yourself short – you’re not an add-on. You play a role. Act like you belong there.

There will always be managers in your company who pass the blame on to HR because they can’t own a message. It’s easier to blame a “them” when the decision was really made by an “I.” When that happens, we have the opportunity to explain how decisions are actually made. And to assert ourselves as a key contributor to the business as a whole. And continue to coach, inform, cajole, and downright insist the people we work with use all available data to make a decision that doesn’t hurt the company and the employee needlessly.

And every once in a while, we can say, “See? Aren’t you glad you listened to me?”

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