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Voice from the workplace: HR – who are they and what do they do?


Voice from the workplace

This is the second article in a series looking at problems experienced by an employee working for a government organisation and how HR can help to put it right. In this instalment, Jim Fischer discusses what should be done when HR does not have enough of a presence within their organisation.

Introduction by John Pope

In the previous article, I explained that I knew an intelligent and highly motivated woman of real calibre working part-time for a government organisation. This series illustrates what she has told me about the way her team works. As experienced HR specialists and managers looking at a problem from the outside, you will be able to spot what’s wrong and what should have been, or should now, be done.

The employee’s perspective: What does HR do?

I don’t know who is in charge of HR and I doubt if anyone in our department does. I don’t know what they are doing; perhaps they do come out of their offices, but we don’t see them. Each directorate has its own HR officer; I don’t know who ours is. We never see them, or hear from them, and we don’t know what they do. We had a newsletter with our payslips last month, stating that the head of HR was leaving after three years with the organisation; a photo of him was on the front – we had never met him, but now we know what he looks like. We have not been told who his replacement is. We probably won’t ever know.

We do know that we can have training and can ask for it when our ‘team leader’ does our SRD, but it’s often not actioned by the time the next SRD is done. And that brings us to SRDs. How does a manager appraise a member of staff when they don’t see them at work? Do they ask the member of staff how they think they are doing? Do the other members of the team say what they think about each other?

I have known my SRD to take less than five minutes, not in a private room and with no pre-SRD form. It feels like a paper exercise, that has to be done within a time-scale, is never planned ahead and is landed on us at a moment’s notice. The same old things are gone through, not much change from last time, and when we come out the boxes have been ticked until the next one.

And what about Investors in People? HR are in charge of it but nothing seems to happen.

Jim Fischer responds

All of us HR practitioners have a very clear view of what HR is about and can reel off a definition which captures in a nutshell what we do. My favourite is ensuring our organisation has the right people with the right skills, rewards and development rewards to deliver the organisation’s current and future aims.

We also know that every HR person has to support both employees and managers and that inherent in this is that we are caught in the middle of conflicts of interest. We also know that juggling the current needs of the organisation, reviewing future business strategy and keeping abreast of complex legislation is a highly time-consuming task.

We know that HR can be a difficult and demanding job. However, we have been carefully selected and undergone professional training so we should be able to handle the tasks which are put before us and, in the process, win the confidence and recognition of employees and managers in our organisation. In addition, in recent years, we have won the much prized seat at the top table.

Yet, despite all of this, HR is frequently unknown, misunderstood and, at worst, derided in many organisations.

“Involve employees in finding solutions to problems. It is interesting how much their understanding of HR improves if they obtain an inside view.”

So what can we do to raise the profile of HR in our organisation? Most of HR are doing the right things in the right way, but do need to raise their game. Here are some key questions that every HR practitioner needs to keep in mind.

  • Are you visible to the employees and manager who you support? If not, go out and meet the people you are serving. This will involve time away from the desk, and may require some travel, but it is amazing what a positive impact meeting the HR person has on employees. Do this regularly. Look for opportunities to attend meetings where you can meet employees.
  • Are you in touch with your employee’s views? Use opportunities of meetings to ask employees about the issues which concern them. Seek feedback on HR policies and practices which have been instituted recently. Follow this up with questions to an employee survey or, better still, organise occasional focus groups. Involve employees in finding solutions to problems. It is interesting how much their understanding of HR improves if they obtain an inside view.
  • Have you got the HR fundamentals right i.e. salary policies, appraisal schemes, disciplinary procedures, basic training programmes, recruitment polices? These need to be clear, correct and properly delivered. You can do little if these are not in place and working well.
  • Are you clear about the strategic issues facing your organisation? I am not comfortable with the word ‘strategic’ as it implies long-term plans and little action. I prefer to refer to the key HR issues and delivery plans that are required to make your organisation effective. You can identify these by carrying out a review of your organisation’s HR capability. This can be done at any level in the organisation, and such a review will identify the important HR issues that need to be addressed. There are organisation capability assessment techniques available, but the key is to keep it simple. One approach would be to work with your management to establish business objectives over the next five years and then, by rigorous questioning and discussion, identify the skills, the number of people at each level, and the training, development and HR processes you need to achieve these objectives.
  • Are you fully linked into the management thinking about organisational changes? You need to be able to advise them on the direction of change and support them with implementation so that the change process goes as smoothly as possible.
  • Are you alert to the weaknesses in the organisation and are you dealing with them? These could be poorly performing employees or an ineffective manager. It could be underused capabilities at any level in the organisation. Identifying and assessing these issues and recommending how they should be handled is a vital task.
  • “Building trust is very difficult to do. It means sticking to your principles and doing what you promise you will do.”

  • Are you maintaining your integrity? Building trust is very difficult to do. It means sticking to your principles and doing what you promise you will do. This is not easy to achieve whilst having to meet the needs of both managers and employees, but will ultimately create respect in you and the function.
  • Are you creating space for yourself? Not an easy task, especially if you have a demanding manager who is expecting you to drop everything to deal with his or her problems. So managing your managers is important if you want to address all the issues in the function.
  • Addressing these questions, and handling the answers, will go a long way in raising the profile and respect that the HR function deserves.

    HR Zone would like to know how you would deal with this situation. Please post your experiences, views and comments below.

    Jim Fischer is a highly experienced HR professional with almost 40 years service with a leading FT 100 company. He now runs his own consultancy What Next?, which is focused on helping people to identify their natural talents, interests and motivations and match these up with a rewarding career. He can be contacted on [email protected].

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