Using a popularity scale of one to 10, with 10 being wildly popular (Betty White, a free lunch, and after-Christmas sales) and one being wildly unpopular (telemarketers, the IRS, and rush-hour gridlock), where would you place human resources?
Many people would rate HR a two—right in there with the Wall Street power suits who flew to Washington in their private jets to ask for a Federal bailout. And, honestly, there are some people in HR who deserve that reputation: the paper-pushing, picnic-planning, policy police who are relics of the Mad Men era of three-martini lunches and secretaries “named” Honey.
Fortunately, many HR professionals today are more enlightened and more effective. They jump in to help solve problems and they work as partners, not opponents. How do you know whether your HR department is friend or foe? There are two simple tests. The first is look at where HR reports. If HR reports directly to the CEO then the department is more likely to be a true business partner, looking at employees as assets to be developed and working to help employees reach their potential. On the other hand, if HR reports to the CFO then the department is likely to see employees as a cost center to be controlled, and you’re far less likely to find a true partner.
The second test is to consider how well they understand your part of the business. If no one in HR can tell you your department’s turnover rate, how long it takes (on average) to fill a job in your department, how much your department contributes to the bottom line, or what your best performers actually do all day, then they are probably a foe. In such cases, we encourage you to ignore them—except when it comes to legal matters, or if you think you have a chance to turn them into a friend.
Today’s best HR pros are business-focused. They help engineer ways to make the business better, and to do this they have to understand the business and all its components. This means that someone in HR can offer you much more than just accurate information about the vacation plan. She could help you redesign jobs, create an incentive plan to drive up profits, or find an assessment tool to improve your hiring success. If someone from HR asks about your business, is willing to hear about your business, or (best of all) works alongside you in your part of the business, you’ve just found a valuable partner.
The trick is then getting the most out of that partnership. As with any successful relationship, it demands give and take. But if you invest in a partnership with HR (assuming you have an HR function where you work), you’re more likely to rate HR an 8 or better. Here’s how:
• Show your respect. It will be difficult – if not impossible – to have a good working relationship with HR if you have no idea what HR does, if you only contact HR to whine or complain, or if you expect HR to clean up your messes.
• Identify your resources. Start by figuring out how HR is structured. In some cases, a central HR function serves the entire organization. The department has specialists in each discipline of HR, such as staffing, compensation, and benefits. In other organizations, each business unit or department has its own HR function; they are usually staffed by HR generalists who have broad knowledge in all areas of HR. Some large companies have a hybrid of these two models.
None of these is the “right” approach. The only thing that matters is that you know who to go to for help.
• Teach a crash course. For anyone in HR to really help, they need to understand your part of the business and understand it almost as well as you do. Offer to take your HR contact to lunch once a week and spend the time teaching. Be willing to invest some serious time because your course needs to be thorough:
• What do you see as the primary purpose of your department?
• How is your department’s success measured?
• Where is your department excelling and where is it failing? Why?
• Who are your star performers? What sets them apart?
• Who are your poorest performers? What sets them apart?
• What are your biggest frustrations and challenges?
• What do you see as your key strengths?
• Where would you like the department to be in a year? Why? How do you plan to get there?
• What happens in your department every day? What are your production schedules, budgets, deadlines, productivity goals, and so forth?
Be honest. Painting an artificially rosy picture won’t get you the help you need.
• Take a crash course. Invest some time learning about HR, too. Listen to what your contact tells you about his job. And if you don’t know, ask the following questions:
• How does HR function every day? How are priorities set?
• What expertise does HR have to offer?
• Who do they see as HR’s key customers?
• What makes them say yes or no?
• How is HR’s performance measured? How do they win or lose?
• Which HR programs or initiatives do they think are working best? Why?
• What challenges does HR face? (Budgetary? Staffing HR? Time?)
• How do HR initiatives in your company (pay rates, benefits, employee development) compare to those of your competitors? How do they compare to the average company in your area?
• Put your cards on the table. This relationship—like any other—demands honesty. Share how you really feel about HR, pro and con. Explain where those feelings come from. Are they based on bad experiences, successes, or hearsay? Talk about what you appreciate about HR and what drives you crazy. Bring up HR efforts in other companies that you’ve heard about and like or don’t like. Then ask HR for the same feedback about you and your department.
• Keep HR in the loop. Once HR has a solid understanding of your department, they need to stay current. The more they know, the better, and the more they can observe firsthand, the better. There are lots of ways to do that:
• Invite your contact to shadow you for a day or parts of days—let them watch you and your department in action.
• Invite HR to sit in on your staff meetings.
• Send HR copies of key memos, status reports, and other information tied to department milestones.
• Plan regular lunches or meetings with your HR contact.
• Choose your battles. Don’t drop 15 problems in HR’s lap and expect equal attention to them all. Other departments need help, too! Identify your top concern and work with HR to resolve it. Getting one thing done will give you a sense of accomplishment and boost everyone’s credibility.
• Don’t jump to conclusions. It’s great to go to HR with ideas, but don’t get too invested into a single course of action. Your HR partner may see other options. Managers often request a training program, for example, when they face a challenge. But changes in hiring practices or even job design may ultimately be the better solution. Respect HR’s expertise.
• Be willing to be a guinea pig. Perhaps you read about a cool HR effort in The Wall Street Journal. Or perhaps you had a great idea yourself. If you find yourself wondering, “Why don’t we . . . ,” consider volunteering to pilot a program. You can team up with HR to develop a program, and then test it in your department. Together you can work out the kinks. If it works, you’ll get the benefits and you can enjoy the acclaim as the program is rolled out through the rest of the company.
Real Life Examples
How would you like to have a binder on your desk that walked you through every stage of employee development for every employee you manage? A binder that includes job descriptions, required competencies, aptitude tests, specific interview questions, tailored performance appraisal forms, and more? A binder that gave you enough information that you could focus on day-to-day operations and helping employees solve problems?
If you worked at Valspar Corporation, you’d have one. That’s because HR has created those binders for every one of the company’s more than 3,800 jobs. The effort started as a small-scale attempt to identify core competencies in the manufacturing department and spread from there.
Salespeople at Buckman Laboratories International, Inc. make big sales pitches—pitches in which million of dollars in revenue are at stake. But how can a salesperson in Thailand get the information she needs to close a sale if the home office is closed?
At Buckman, the salesperson can get the information anytime, from anywhere in the world. That’s because HR has worked with managers to promote knowledge sharing. The idea is to take the axiom “two heads are better than one” and turbo-charge it with technology. Thanks to online forums, connected knowledge bases, electronic bulletin boards, and virtual conference rooms, employees can tap into each other’s knowledge and experience like nowhere else.
At one time, Continental Airlines was the laughingstock of the airline industry. The carrier had been through two bankruptcies and there was a revolving door in the executive suite. Passengers could expect poor service, late arrivals, and lost bags. No wonder employees tore the company patches off their uniforms at the end of the day; they didn’t want anyone to know where they worked.
Then management teamed up with HR and took the airline from worst to first. An incentive pay program, streamlined policies (to replace the policy manual that management publicly burned), and aggressive communication improved every area of performance. Today, employees keep the patches on their uniforms and share in the airline’s newfound profits.
Employee teams setting goals and measurements for themselves? Employees teams managing themselves while managers act as coaches? Believe it. It’s a profit-driving reality at GE Fanuc Automation of North America, Inc. More than 40 work teams are proving it can be done and the best coaches are the managers earning the greatest rewards. It works because HR partners with managers in the coaching process; an HR staffer is part of every department.