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Can This Marriage Be Saved

August 1, 1999
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George Bernard Shaw famously observed that the United States and England are separated by the same language, but he might as well have been talking about HR and line managers.

Officially, of course, HR has arrived as a strategic business partner. Throughout this spring’s busy conference season, the conversation focused almost exclusively on working with the line: how to make it work, how to measure HR’s contribution, how to communicate success, and so on. The question is no longer if but how, and it’s all discussed in the somewhat self-congratulatory tone used by people who have arrived.

Unofficially, the story is very different. Away from the office, I hear a lot of frustration about HR from line managers. As soon as people find out what I do for a living, it becomes license to unload all their pent-up frustration. Adjectives like "irrelevant," "clueless," "unresponsive" and "bureaucratic" are among the kinder terms that I’ve heard.

These are painful conversations. After all, I know HR’s potential, and I’ve spent my professional life advocating for HR. Yet there’s such conviction in the stories I hear that I know I should listen carefully. In some cases, I have to agree that HR really does seem clueless, out of touch with reality and far from being any sort of partner, strategic or otherwise. More often, I think communication (or the lack thereof) is the issue. But I frequently struggle to figure out the real issue.

Consider a conversation I had at a Fourth of July barbecue. A good friend, who works in a large hospital, had nothing good to say about HR. She explained that her department has been short a staff member for several months. Because of the vacancy, everyone else has been working long hours, and now some are threatening to leave. And although the department is under pressure to meet the demands for tests ordered by physicians, they are falling behind.

HRhas been silent. The job remains unfilled. Calls to HR aren’t returned. Interviews haven’t been scheduled. The only visible activity has been to post the job in the cafeteria. Given the highly technical nature of the job, however, existing employees don’t have the requisite skills.

After many weeks of waiting for help, the department staff members did some networking with employees of other hospitals and gathered résumés. They sent the résumés to HR, and again heard nothing. Neither did the candidates. Now the department is doing its own interviewing, all the while cursing about HR.

This is partnering? Clearly not. But I hope it’s a matter of overload in HR because of the current labor market. My friend was genuinely surprised when I explained how tight the job market is, and how hard HR must work to fill jobs. She said she can understand the challenge, but can’t understand why no one in HR is taking the time to explain the situation. She now has no expectations of HR, because none have been set for her.

I confess that even I began to feel that HR, in this situation, is not a partner at all. By definition, partnering is a mutual relationship—it demands communication. If HR is to really succeed as a strategic partner, then it must help set expectations. Without open dialogue, where’s the evidence that HR isn’t clueless?

Workforce, August 1999, Vol. 78, No. 8, p. 8.

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