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Know Who Thy Customer Is

Jim Witschger is a guest columnist for Work Views.

December 1, 1999
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, The HR Profession
A fundamental principle of business is the adage "know thy customer." This makes obvious sense for the sales and marketing people because they have goods and services that must be offered to the appropriate markets. Their success is directly proportional to how well they identify and then meet the needs of their customer.

You may be wondering how this applies to HR, and I will say that it is just as vital and just as critical not only to your personal success as an HR professional, but to the success of the overall organization you work for.

Thus, we begin with the question: Who is the customer for the work performed and services offered by the HR staff? If your answer is "the employees, of course," your answer is wrong. The correct answer is "the management staff." Here s why:

By the time an organization is large enough to support one or more HR professionals, there will be a firmly established managerial structure in the organization.

For the most part, the managers in this structure are paid to manage their employees and these employees are their full-time responsibility.

If the organization follows the rule of thumb for staff size, the ratio of employees to managers will be less than 10 to 1. If the organization follows the rule of thumb for HR staff, the ratio of employees to HR staff will be about 100 to 1.

Now, if the organization has agreed that 10 to 1 is an acceptable ratio for effective staff management, then it is safe to say that the organization cannot expect HR to effectively manage HR issues at the employee level at a ratio of 100 to 1.

The fundamental flaw is an assumption that HR is responsible on a daily basis for employee level issues.

The flaw is not in the numbers; companies do not need one HR professional for every ten employees. The fundamental flaw is an assumption that HR is responsible on a daily basis for employee level issues. Granted, there will always be grievances to contend with and delicate employee relations issues, but is it the duty of the human resources staff to answer every employee question about vacation hours, benefits enrollment, and the sick time policy? The answer is a resounding ‘No .

A closer look at those ratios will show that the ratio of employees to managers is just about the same as the ratio of managers to HR staff. This is not a coincidence or a quirk; this is a compelling fact of organizational dynamics? Managers are paid to manage employees at a ratio of 10 to 1. HR staff members are paid to assist managers from a human resources perspective at a ratio of 10 to 1.

An organization with the premise that HR serves the employee at the employee level has asked the HR department to make up for a less-than-adequate management staff. These are strong words, but let s look at it carefully. The management staff is paid to manage employees on a full-time basis. It makes sense then that the management staff should be fully prepared to answer questions about the benefit plans, policies, and available sick or vacation time for the employee.

A manager who continually defers these questions to HR has actually decided to defer part of the management of that employee to HR. This deferment does little to enhance the manager to employee relationship, but rather sets up a "dual manager" relationship which will inevitably lead to confusion and miscommunication. The best management staff is that staff which effectively handles the highest percentage of issues (including HR issues) without deferring responsibility.

I shall contend that for every overworked, harried, and bedraggled HR staff member, there is an organizational premise that HR serves the staff at the employee level (i.e. the employee is your customer). At the ratio of 100 to 1, what else can result but a continual overload of work. At a ratio of 100 to 1, you cannot be effective in meeting the HR needs of the organization.

The HR needs of the organization are not solely your responsibility any more than winning a football game is the sole responsibility of the quarterback. Each member of the management staff must play their part.

Taking a careful look at your own organization, what do you see? Do you have an effective management staff that partners with you in meeting the human resources needs of the employees? Or, are you the classic overworked HR staffer holding the whole HR mess together with bubble gum, paper clips, and your personal labor commitment? Whatever you see, it reflects who you see as your customer.

Now, knowing that your customer is the management staff and knowing that you must serve your customer well, what does your daily schedule look like? How much time is devoted to handling employee issues that should be handled by the respective managers? How much time is spent personally assisting the management staff? Are you locked in a "catch 22" dilemma: too much time fixing employee issues, not enough time to address management issues?

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