Know the issue
Using a popularity scale of one to 10 with 10 beingwildly popular (Mickey Mouse, a free lunch, and after-Christmas sales) and onebeing wildly unpopular (telemarketers, Congress, and rush-hour grid-lock), wherewould you place human resources?
Many people who have been working more than 10 yearswould rate HR a two -- right in there with the IRS and members of the AmericanDental Association. Those people remember when HR worshipped the rules and theirfavorite word was "No." They have learned to work around HR if theythink about it at all.
Newer entrants to the workforce are more enlightened.They know that in many places, the paper pushing, picnic-planning policy policeof yore have gone the way of the T-Rex and the Dodo bird. That's because asbusiness has changed, HR has changed, too. Today's HR still respects the rules,but they jump right in to help solve problems and now their favorite word is"Yes." No wonder today's employees are more likely to rate HR an eightor nine.
Of course, a few holdouts of the old guard are lurkingout there and giving HR a bad name. How do you know whether your HR departmentis friend or foe? Here is a simple test: Do they understand your part of thebusiness? If no one in HR can tell you your department's turnover rate, howlong it takes (on average) to fill a job in your department, how much your departmentcontributes to the bottom line, or what your best performers actually doall day, then they are probably a foe. We encourage you to ignore them -- exceptwhen it comes to legal matters, or if you think you have a chance to turn theminto a friend.
Today's HR pros are business-focused. They help engineerways to make the business better, and to do this they have to under-stand thebusiness and all its components. This means that someone in HR can offer youmuch more than just accurate information about the vacation plan. She couldhelp you redesign jobs, create an incentive plan to drive up profits, or findan assessment tool to improve your hiring success. If someone from HR asks aboutyour business, is willing to hear about your business, or (best of all) worksalongside 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 investin a partnership with HR (assuming you have an HR function where you work),you're sure to reap sizeable dividends.
Identify your resources. Start by figuring out how HR is structured.In some cases, a central HR function serves the entire organization. Thedepartment has specialists in each discipline of HR, such as staffing, compensation,and benefits. In other organizations, each business unit or department hasits own HR function; they are usually staffed by HR generalists who havebroad knowledge in all areas of HR. Some large companies have a hybrid ofthese two models.None of these is the "right" approach. The onlything that matters is that you know who to go to for help. The ideal isto bond with an HR generalist who can either work with you directly or connectyou with the appropriate specialist. That person can also advocate for youwithin HR. If you can't identify a single person to work with, find a handfulof specialists and build relationships with them.
Teach a crash course. For anyone in HR to really help, they needto understand your part of the business and understand it almost as wellas you do. Offer to take your HR contact to lunch once a week and spendthe time teaching. Be willing to invest some serious time because your courseneeds 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 youplan to get there?
What happens in your department every day? What are your productionschedules, budgets, deadlines, productivity goals, and so forth? Behonest. Painting an artificially rosy picture won't get you the helpyou need.
Take a crash course. Invest some time learning about HR, too. Listento what your contact tells you about his job. And if you don't know, askthe 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, employeedevelopment) compare to those of your competitors? How do they compareto 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 whatdrives you crazy. Bring up HR efforts in other companies that you've heardabout and like or don't like. Then ask HR for the same feedback about youand 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 morethey 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 -- letthem 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 informationtied 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 expectequal attention to them all. Other departments need help, too! Identifyyour top concern and work with HR to resolve it. Getting one thing donewill 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, butdon't get too invested into a single course of action. Your HR partner maysee other options. Managers often request a training program, for example,when they face a challenge. But changes in hiring practices or even jobdesign may ultimately be the better solution. Respect HR's expertise.
Be willing to be a guinea pig. Perhaps you read about a cool HReffort in the Wall Street Journal. Or perhaps you had a great ideayourself. If you find yourself wondering, "Why don't we ...,"considervolunteering 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 theprogram is rolled out through the rest of the company.
If you have an HR function, you should always consult with them about:
Employee complaints (such as sexual harassment and discrimination)Check with HR before you take action.
No matter how great your partnership is, HR will sometimes say no.It doesn't mean they don't like you. Remember that one of HR's greatestresponsibilities is to protect the company from lawsuits. (As one HR executiveobserved, "The better we do our job, the less visible we become.")Employment law is complex; trust HR's counsel.
Real life examples
How would you like to have a binder on your desk thatwalked you through every stage of employee development for every employee youmanage? A binder that includes job descriptions, required competencies, aptitudetests, specific interview questions, tailored performance appraisal forms, andmore? A binder that gave you enough information that you could focus on day-to-dayoperations 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 morethan 3,800 jobs. The effort started as a small-scale attempt to identify corecompetencies 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 revenueare at stake. But how can a salesperson in Thailand get the information sheneeds to close a sale if the home office is closed?
At Buckman, the salesperson can get the informationanytime, from anywhere in the world. That's because HR has worked with managersto promote knowledge sharing. The idea is to take the axiom "two headsare better than one" and turbo-charge it with technology. Thanks to onlineforums, connected knowledge bases, electronic bulletin boards, and virtual conferencerooms, employees can tap into each other's knowledge and experience like nowhereelse.
At one time, Continental Airlines was the laughingstockof the airline industry. The carrier had been through two bankruptcies and therewas a revolving door in the executive suite. Passengers could expect poor service,late arrivals, and lost bags. No wonder employees tore the company patches offtheir uniforms at the end of the day; they didn't want anyone to know wherethey worked.
Then management teamed up with HR and took the airlinefrom worst to first. An incentive pay program, streamlined policies (to replacethe policy manual that management publicly burned), and aggressive communicationimproved every area of performance. Today, employees keep the patches on theiruniforms 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? Believeit. 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 arethe managers earning the greatest rewards. It works because HR partners withmanagers in the coaching process; an HR staffer is part of every department.
Get more information
- HumanResource Champions: The Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results,Dave Ulrich, Harvard Business School Press, 1997.
- HumanResources Kit for Dummies, Max Messmer, IDG Books Worldwide, 1999.