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Not just another HR story

By Lynne Curry  bio

Which do you believe?

You can’t trust anyone in HR: they’ll get you talking, look sympathetic, but then turn everything you say over to management;
HR is a luxury we don’t need when we need all our budget resources to pay the employees who produce;
HR = a partnership for managers, employees & organizations;
HR = lots of talk + little action.

Forty years ago I leapt off the cliff, deciding to create a business that offered employers and employees assistance in handling employee challenges. The last thing I wanted to do was to offer traditional HR, which I understood to be focused on compliance and paperwork. Then I found out what HR can be and do for employers—but doesn’t always.

How HR shoots itself in the foot

In many organizations HR has minimal impact. Supervisors don’t let HR know about problem employees until they’re ready to terminate them, when HR intervention earlier might have made a difference. Senior managers rarely invite HR to the table to discuss strategy. A significant number of employees avoid HR, distrusting what might happen if they air their grievances.

Some HR professionals contribute to this problem. They falsely promise but then break employee confidentiality; it only takes one betrayal for the “don’t trust them” word to spread.  They fail to balance organizational interests with employee advocacy, when HR needs to serve both groups. They act as if HR certifications trump real-world experience and talk over supervisors and employees who leave conversations with HR thinking “you don’t get it.”

The HR we need

True HR is real-world. True HR focuses on what organizations need in terms of its people and how HR can help employers achieve success—by making the right hiring decisions, helping managers motivate and retain productive employees and by fairly removing the wrong employees before they destroy others’ morale.

HR professionals can vet applicants by creating recruitment ads that draw the most qualified candidates, assess them against organizational needs and by conducting reference and background checks that spot problems.

HR can create the skills-training programs needed to keep managers and employers working at the highest levels and can teach managers and supervisors how to best motivate, appraise and retain employees.

While employees still value basic health and retirement benefits, they also want more individualized, flexible benefits.  HR can design the right compensation, benefit and incentive programs that fairly reward high performers without breaking the bank.

HR can help senior management assess the organization’s pulse by administering employee surveys, 360-degree reviews that assess each manager and grievance channels that allow employees to voice concerns.

If employees deserve termination, HR can investigate the supervisor’s claims to ensure fair decisions have been made and can provide departing employees outplacement.  HR helps organizations avoid risk with EEO compliance, safety and OSHA compliance, workers’ compensation administration, drug testing, policy creation and enforcement and other risk management processes.

Finally, HR can partner with senior management to forecast organizational needs and strategically develop the organization’s future structure –if senior management sees them as a viable partner.

The balance: organizational interests & employee advocacy

To do the above, HR needs to fairly balance employer and employee needs. Some HR rookies so eagerly strive to please management that they fail both employees and their organizations; after all, management needs to hear what they’ve done wrong to make it right. Also, employees aren’t widgets, and HR serves no one if it forgets H in HR.

What happens when employees don’t bring issues to HR because they don’t think HR does anything?

When employees don’t trust HR to solve problems, they disengage, vote with their feet or negatively impact other employees. How can management fix what they don’t know exists?

As just one example, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently noted that three-quarters of those with sexual harassment allegations hadn’t brought their complaints forward. As a result, these long-buried complaints allowed anger to fester, allowed potential harassers to create problems for others even as they secured promotions, and resulted in defamation against some potentially falsely-accused employees. We see the result all over the media.

HR’s future

Some “old-style” thinkers believe HR departments need to focus on administering payroll and employee benefits, processing hiring decisions made by others, and managing terminations, layoffs and Department of Labor paperwork. All true, but HR needs to move beyond these boundaries.

Nothing shows the problem that results from employers and HR sticking their heads in the “HR is only compliance and paperwork” sand more than the #MeToo movement. Thousands of women and men aired long-buried painful stories, igniting anger that swept through many workplaces. Others, feeling unfairly targeted for behavior they believed acceptable, fought back.

Employers need HR’s help to address these complaints, many of which take aim at senior managers and others that organizations hope to retain. HR needs to do more than fairly investigate these allegations; it needs to help organizations overhaul themselves at the cultural DNA level. HR needs to make it safe for targets and witnesses to come forward, to ensure that no one is above the law and to hold managers, supervisors and employees accountable for creating and maintaining a respectful work environment for everyone.

While harassment issues are glaringly obvious, they represent only one area in which HR needs to exercise interventionary muscle. Our workplaces, like our larger world, appears to be coming apart, with escalating amounts of workplace violence and polarized groups who shout at rather than talk with and listen to each other. A truly effective HR may be the one group most suited to help organizations address these needs.

Lynne Curry, PhD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” and “Solutions,” which has great articles on how to remember names & 60 real-life workplace dramas with practical solutions. Both have 4.8-star ratings on

Curry and her group regularly work with law firms and medical practices and hospitals, providing HR on-call, training, expert witness work, facilitation, strategic planning, investigation, mediation, and executive and professional coaching. You can reach her at or or via LinkedIn or Twitter @lynnecurry1.

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