Despite HR’s best intentions, professionals may sometimes find themselves getting a bad rep for being the company police or having a role that ranks low on the business’ list of priorities. How can HR shake off such ill-conceived associations and get on with work?
You may have been lucky in your career to have avoided negative HR stereotypes, one of which is that of being a “Toby Flenderson” of the organisation. Flenderson is a character from the hit US TV show, The Office. Airing in the early noughties, the mockumentary depicts the everyday lives of employees in a small-town office at a fictional paper company.
Flenderson is the office’s HR representative. He occasionally joins employees for business matters but is mostly seen enforcing the head corporate office’s policies and mediating conflicts between employees.
He is frequently depicted as being an annoyance to employees and the male version of the company’s ‘Aunt Agony’ – and nothing more. He is often unable to solve employees’ problems and only good at filing complaints for documentation purposes.
One episode showed him having a difficult time implementing the company’s reviewed sexual harassment policy. He was off to a good start engaging staff at a brief seminar on the topic, but it was inappropriately interrupted when the office manager Michael Scott walked in with a blow-up doll as a joke.
Throughout the series, Flenderson is always shown at loggerheads with Scott, as HR attempts to enforce corporate’s policies and essentially play buzzkill for Scott’s impulsive ideas. This was summed up by Scott’s outburst at a company event: “Why are you the way that you are? Honestly every time I try to do something fun or exciting, you make it not that way. I hate so much about the things that you choose to be”.
Even though the characters are exaggerated for the sitcom and may not be 100% reflection of real life, the writers picked out HR stereotypes that need to be avoided – especially today as HR goes through a transformation and work towards a more strategic role in the organisation.
Reel or real?
In real life, most HR professionals have shared with HRD that they’re proactively finding a way to get their voices heard in the boardroom to make greater impact on the organisation.
HR is no longer just about carrying out administrative duties and being on the passive side of just pushing what “corporate” tells you to do. However, that doesn’t mean that the sector is exempt of bad eggs that reinforce an undeserved negative rep.
The biggest headliner this year being the HR scandal at global ride-hailing company Uber. Uber’s toxic culture was in the spotlight after a former staffer sued the US-based firm for claims about discriminatory practices following sexual harassment complaints.
Former Uber engineer Ingrid Avendano alleged that she faced “blatant retaliation, including denial of promotions and raises, unwarranted negative performance reviews” and even a threat of termination, after she approached Uber’s HR to file sexual harassment complaints.
Another case involved the major misconduct scandal at The Weinstein Company, where old HR records showed the department’s failure to take necessary action and protect employees following explosive sexual harassment allegations.
Instead of nipping the problem in the bud, members of the board and the accused of the company went through years of settlements to silence complainants.
In this case, the HR team at the company’s New York and London offices were simply called “weak” by the New York Times, as their inaction pushed employees to withdraw their complaints and pursue an independent investigation outside of the company.
“Reclaiming my time”
Both examples have suggested one common underlying factor, that of HR’s inability to freely enforce its “voice”, either due to an existing toxic culture or being overpowered by other leaders, such as board members.
How can HR reclaim his/her crucial place in the organisation and be heard? Be it in the case of addressing misbehaviour or implementing its own strategies.
“First thing to understand is when you’re implementing a policy [or strategy], no matter which function you’re in, nobody likes a policeman – so why do you want to be a policeman in the first place?” said Virendra Shelar, general manager of global human resources strategy at OMRON Asia Pacific.
Shelar believes that the biggest challenge with HR is that most start with outlining a policy, instead of first building their reputation at the company and gaining a network of support.
“When I first start at a company, I tell myself I’m not even going to touch any policies, be it local, regional, global – nothing at all,” he said.
So what does Shelar focus on first? He approaches business leaders and check with them on the following:
- What is HR doing that they believe needs to stop?
- What is HR not doing, but need to?
- What is going to have the greatest impact on the business and bring in revenue?
“Once HR starts thinking about what the business wants, that’s when your reputation and connection with the business improves. Then you will find lesser challenges with implementing any HR strategies,” he said.
In his case, the company mentioned that talent management was their greatest challenge – they didn’t know who to retain, promote or fire.
“So I asked them, ‘If I do this for you, will you support me?’ The business leaders said, ‘Yes, absolutely’. After that when I went in [to present] any HR strategies, there was no resistance whatsoever,” he said.
Shelar explained that all it took was the implementation of the “plain vanilla” version of talent management systems, showing leaders how it worked and ensuring it produces results. After the business is convinced that HR can deliver results and help it to clear any major road blocks, you will build a strong reputation as a key strategic partner.
“The point is to understand the business and then they will be supportive and even give HR the free hand to ‘do whatever you think is important for the company’,” he said. “My idea is to gain the reputation from the business leaders and if I don’t get [in that circle] I won’t have a job. Only then can I finally look into HR policies.”