How to HR?
August 4, 2018 7:17 AM   Subscribe

My company has never had HR before, and our new HR lead scheduled 1 on 1 introductory meetings with everyone to get a sense of the company culture and how everyone is feeling - what's working, what's not, etc. Is there any way to *honestly* engage in this meeting with positive outcomes?

From everything I've heard and read, "HR is not here to help you, they are here to help the company" and exist solely to make a file on employees/enforce company policy. I have no claims of harassment or discrimination or issues with benefits or rights or anything of that nature.

I do have a lot of thoughts and feelings on:

1) The company culture - it is very negative-focused, so everyone is generally just upset all the time. Upset clients, upset coworkers, everyone is just stressed and sort of frazzled and demanding of each other in the worst way. It kinda sucks!
2) My position, which doesn't seem to have a lot of focus - It was a unique role that was invented by an old boss and now has been inherited by a new boss (who I can't get a read on) boss doesn't seem to understand it or why it exists. This is stressful and makes me feel like my security at the company is unstable.
3) My new employee, who is struggling to get on their feet after many months. The company rushed me into making a hiring decision and while I picked the best candidate, it led to a fairly unqualified hire.

This stuff leads to a pretty poor quality of work life. I am on the lookout for a career switch of sorts and chatting with the occasional recruiter, but it's taking a while, so I am putting my head down and making the best of my current situation while I'm here as I could still realistically be around for another year (unless I get let go or something).

As a part of this "making the best of it" initiative, do I even broach any of these topics in some fashion with HR when they ask me if there's anything I find frustrating? Will any conversation with HR improve the above? Or do I shut up and smile and say "nope, everything is great! Nice meeting you!" and keep in mind that HR is not actually here to solve for the above grievances, they are here to enforce policy, harassment/discrimination claims, etc.

Is there anything else I should know? Does HR play weird tricks into making you think they are "here to help" and "be a sounding board" when really they're just evil arms of the corporation making records of everyone? Is there a reason they'd want to meet 1 on 1 with everyone upfront rather than letting people schedule meetings with them? I kind of view them like the cops - here to help, but not really. Correct me if I'm wrong.
posted by windbox to Work & Money (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
HR is good, you're assuming some bad intent that almost certainly isnt there in a new HR department (or really, any HR department). Ultimately they work for the company, but 90% of the time, your interests as an employee align with the company's interests. 1+3 are HR issues you should be frank about. 2 you gotta talk to your boss about.
posted by so fucking future at 7:27 AM on August 4, 2018 [5 favorites]

here to help, but not really

You're not wrong. If there's that one guy who is (a) The Problem, and (b) not an essential part of management1, then maybe HR can fix that. But generalized malaise? That's not gonna get fixed; all that will happen is that the expendable people who are closer to the "see something? say something?" line will be put on a track to get rid of.

If you're already looking for your exit, smile and shut up. It's not your job to fix somebody else's broken company, and if they can't even tell that it's broken, they don't deserve to have nice things.

N.b. I'm not saying all HR people are bad and evil. Just that there are many more motivations and interests at play, and if you're not used to incorporating those into your "what will happen?" analysis, you are fairly likely to be disappointed by the results of whatever you decide to do.

1 The guy may not be "essential" in the "can't operate without" sense. He may just know where the bodies are buried, and not have an insurmountable stake in not burning the place down.

posted by spacewrench at 7:38 AM on August 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

They've been hired for a reason, and your company now thinks that it needs HR.

So it stands to reason that there are things that are not right currently that a good HR person would be able to improve in the future. I agree that elements of these problems you've listed are things that you can talk . With 2, you might stick to comments about written job descriptions not being clear, or there being issues with handover between line managers - elements that are structural rather than specifically about your boss. With 3, you might talk about the support in hiring (or managing performance) you would hope to have from HR.
posted by plonkee at 7:41 AM on August 4, 2018

This exact thing happened to a friend recently--a medium-sized, post-start up company hired their first HR person, who met with everyone.

This is a great opportunity to talk about how you have a direct report who's struggling and you need to figure out the best way to handle it--that is literally what HR is there for. And they'll want to improve the hiring process, too.

The company I mention above hired the HR person specifically in regard to concerns about culture, and part of what she ended up doing was guiding the executives on what informal culture things were affecting morale. Express your concerns as constructive--you're frustrated, but the attitude to take is concerned about the company. You see these things and you believe they're hampering the company's growth. This is good information to have, and if you keep your own malaise out of it and talk about how you perceive the culture overall, you're mostly just giving her data.

I see other good advice in the crossposts, so I'll just emphasize that your goal is not to talk about YOUR feelings (except about your direct report), but about your observations about the company. My friend was in the position of loving the company very much and wanting it to succeed, but seeing where management was missing culture problems (or at least how to solve them). She gave HR info on that in a collaborative way and a lot of great changes were made very quickly.
posted by gideonfrog at 7:47 AM on August 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

I would wait until you have the lay of the land. As a cautionary tale: I didn't know this until long after I started, but our company's HR person (an outside consultant) is very close friends with the head of the company. The consultant isn't "evil" by any means, but she also isn't someone you should EVER complain to or be anything less than deferential toward, because it will get back to the CEO and the CEO will take it seriously and personally.

For what it's worth, my advice is to into the HR "get to know you" meeting with the sole aim of getting to know the HR rep. Be fairly circumspect until you know the rep and her role in your company better.
posted by rue72 at 8:07 AM on August 4, 2018 [10 favorites]

I would think of a way to phrase the issues in a sort of positive way. For example, taking your first item, say something like, “I think we would benefit a lot if we worked on developing a culture that communicated with each other and with clients in a positive and supportive way. I think right now people are struggling with that,” and for the second item, “I’d like to take some time in defining my role to have clear metrics and goals, so that my boss and my reports can be certain about how our chain of command fits together.”

Basically, instead of framing it like, “We don’t have this and it sucks,” frame it like “It would be great if we could achieve this, and I think it would result in XYZ benefits.”
posted by Autumnheart at 8:38 AM on August 4, 2018 [7 favorites]

I think that, were I in your shoes, I'd go in and be excited about having a new HR team be an opportunity to develop role descriptions and leveling, in the specific context of your struggling new hire, or for you, or in general -- things like is the company calibrating hiring so everyone's on the same page, and leveling expectations so that you know what specific things you need to focus on for your role or for your employee's career development. Building role expectations is a very constructive thing to do, that HR should be well positioned to work with you on, that could help both of you directly -- and it might get some of the negative things (like your uncertainty, or your employee's) fixed without you having to actually express the negative.
posted by sldownard at 8:48 AM on August 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

I would spin things as positively as possible and say nothing negative about co-workers, the culture, anything. The thing is that if this new person is any good, they'll be able to immediately see the negative culture as soon as others open their mouths; they won't need you to point it out. Also, if you point out the negative culture, then in a way you're part of the problem, no matter how you phrase it, because there you are complaining about something.

As far as the new person is considered, you're great at your work and you're a positive addition to the organization. Anything else makes you look like a person who can only find problems and does nothing to solve them.

I have never had an experience where HR could actually help me or others, so take this with a grain of salt.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:06 AM on August 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Agree with rue72 that I would treat this as an opportunity to learn about the new HR department.

"Hi, it's great to meet you! We've never had an HR person before. Yeah, I really don't know what to say. You've probably had more experience with these conversations than I have. Maybe you could start by telling me a little about what you do or want to do or want to think about doing?"

And then I would listen and ask follow-up questions and try to keep the conversation about HR.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:47 AM on August 4, 2018

HR's core role is hiring, termination, compensation, benefits, and legal compliance in these areas. It is unlikely the new HR hire's first priority is going to be a cultural shift - that is hard and takes a long time. They can help you revise your and your report's job descriptions to match your jobs or the company's desired jobs for you, and that's discrete and measurable and relatively quick.

It's also a good idea to ask the HR person what their goals are first, so you get an idea of what's coming down the pike. Try to get them talking more than you do.
posted by momus_window at 9:51 AM on August 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

I feel like the issues you cite are really things to take up with your manager rather than your HR person. If you're already working on them with your boss then you could tell the new HR person about them in sort of a general, "here's what things are like" kind of way, but otherwise I would start with my super and only go to HR if I had an interpersonal problem that my super couldn't resolve, or if I had issues/questions around compensation or benefits.

I'd also be cautious about starting any relationship with any coworker, especially a manager, by bringing them a bunch of complaints. Not a good first impression—you want your HR person to like you, so that they will feel inclined to help you when you need them. An HR manager is a good relationship to cultivate in any office setting. Maybe it would be better to look at this meeting as an opportunity to start building bridges with somebody who you really want to have on your side.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:58 AM on August 4, 2018

The role HR plays in an organization has varied in my experience, and I agree that gaining an understanding of the purpose of this new department can help you determine how to approach these conversations.

I do suggest a more solution oriented, rather than problem listing, approach (if it appears they are able and willing to initiate change, and if such change would make you want to stick around). For example, can you point out specific ways in which understanding of your position could be strengthened?
posted by sm1tten at 10:32 AM on August 4, 2018

I'd focus on things HR can actually do something about - especially a new person will not want to start by badgering your new boss about your unease. So this would be:

#1 - possibly organising a communication workshop or an activity that people would find fun (party on company time? volunteering? company trip?) to promote coherence and good morale. The tricky part is finding something most people will enjoy.
#2 - I don't think written job descriptions are a thing in the US, but organisation charts are, so tell them that developing one would help you clarify your role in the company and how your functions relate to everyone else. This is something HR should come up with anyway so that during hiring they know what a person in a given position does and what skills they should possess.
#3 - on top of discussing hiring practices and performance assessments, if their role includes assisting with personal development/trainings, you can ask for training or coaching on personnel management. If there was no HR before, I'm betting you didn't get any. I'd actually start with this, this is a classic HR problem that will make the HR person feel useful.

They're not your counselor or therapist, so don't justify your asks with complaints - just mention those as things that would be useful to you and the company as a whole.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:12 PM on August 4, 2018

Having been an employee and now a manager, yeah HR is there for the companies interest for sure. I get a world of different advice now that I’m a manager.

#1 you can sort of talk about, in a positive “gee i love this place and what would make it better is if $actionable change by upper management” but ultimately they (HR) won’t solve culture. Dont do any whining or complaining.
#2 is your boss’ problem; don’t bring it up
#3 is this person your direct report? you can lean on HR for management advice, but tread lightly unless you want to make this person look like they need a performance management plan

Basically HR is not interested in complaints, they are interested in You making the change you want. They won’t fix anything. They will keep an eye on the troublesomes. No one can snap their fingers and fix company culture; that really comes from top down.

Does HR play weird tricks into making you think they are "here to help" and "be a sounding board" when really they're just evil arms of the corporation making records of everyone?

HR is super friendly for a reason. Treat them as any other negotiating partner and not a friend and you’ll do fine. Put another way, it’s a work relationship to manage like any other; you need stuff, they need you, strike a balance.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:19 PM on August 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have actually had decent experiences with HR before, but they have mostly been for things where they explicitly provide employee services. “Help me sign up for health insurance correctly” or “the paperwork for this contractor got screwed up, can you fix it”. If I had a new HR person come in who wanted to meet with me, my first thought would be to talk about improvements to the benefits plan.

I will agree with everyone above that HR is not going to (1) fix the company culture or (2) clarify an oddly-defined job role. With respect to (3), you mention you were rushed into making a hiring decision, so they could probably take feedback on how to make the hiring process better.
posted by fencerjimmy at 3:36 PM on August 4, 2018

> HR is good, you're assuming some bad intent that almost certainly isnt there in a new HR department (or really, any HR department).

I disagree with this in the strongest possible terms. I am not saying all HR is evil or that there are no good HR people; of course there are, just as there are good cops. But HR, like the police, are not your friend, and thinking they are can only lead to tears. I have never known a company where interacting with HR in difficult situations was of actual help to employees. Don't be hostile to them, just wait and see how things develop and what they might actually be useful for. And if the company culture is negative-focused now, I can pretty much guarantee HR is not going to improve it. Tread warily and keep looking for other work.
posted by languagehat at 5:29 PM on August 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

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