Corner Office: How HR Can Help Your Team

Using a popularity scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being wildly popular (Mickey Mouse, a free lunch and after-Christmas sales) and 1 being wildly unpopular (telemarketers, Congress and oil companies), where would you place human resources?

Many people who have been working more than 10 years would rate HR a 2 — right in there with the IRS and members of the American Dental Association. Those people remember when HR worshipped The Rules and their favorite word was "No." They have learned to work around HR if they think about it at all.

Newer entrants to the work force are more enlightened. They know that in most places, the paper-pushing, picnic-planning policy police of yore have gone the way of T. rex and the dodo bird. That's because as business has changed, HR has changed, too. Today's HR still respects the rules, but they jump right in to help solve problems and their favorite word is, "Yes." No wonder today's employees are more likely to rate HR an 8 or 9.

Of course, there are a few holdouts of the Old Guard lurking out there and giving HR a bad name. How do you know whether your HR department is friend or foe? There's a simple test: Do they understand your part of the business? If no one in HR can tell you your department's turnover rate; how long it takes (on average) to fill a job in your department; how much your department contributes to the bottom line; or what your best performers actually do all day, then they are probably a foe. We encourage you to ignore them — except when it comes to legal matters or if you think there's a chance you can turn them into a friend.

Today's HR pros are business-focused. They help engineer ways to make the business better, and to do that they have to understand the business — and all its components.

That means that someone in HR can offer you a lot more than just accurate information about the vacation plan. She could help you redesign jobs, create an incentive plan to drive up profits, or find an assessment tool to improve your hiring success. If someone from HR asks about your business, is willing to hear about your business or (best of all) works alongside 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 invest in a partnership with HR (assuming there is HR where you work), you're sure to reap sizeable dividends.

Take Action

Identify your resources.

Start by figuring out how HR is structured. In some cases, a central HR function serves the entire organization. The department has specialists in each discipline of HR, such as staffing, compensation and benefits. In other organizations, each business unit or department has its own HR function; usually HR generalists who have broad knowledge in all areas of HR staff them. Some large companies have a hybrid of these two models.

None of these is the "right" model. The only thing that matters is that you know who to go to for help. The ideal is to bond with an HR generalist who can either work with you directly or connect you with the appropriate specialist. That person can also advocate for you within HR. If you can't identify a single person to work with, find a handful of specialists and build relationships with them.

Teach a crash course.

For anyone in HR to really help, they need to understand your part of the business — and understand it almost as well as you do. Offer to take your HR contact to lunch once a week and spend the time teaching. Be willing to invest some serious time, because your course needs 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 you plan to get there? What happens in your department every day? What are your production schedules, budgets, deadlines, productivity goals and so forth?

Be honest. Painting an artificially rosy picture won't get you the help you need.

Take a crash course.

Invest some time learning about HR, too. Listen to what your contact tells you about his job. And if you don't know, ask:

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, employee development) compare to those of your competitors? How do they compare to 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 what makes you crazy. Bring up HR efforts in other companies that you've heard about and like — or don't like.

Then ask HR for the same feedback about you and 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 more they 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 — let them 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 information tied 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 expect equal attention to them all. Other departments need help, too! Identify your top cencern and work with HR to resolve it. Getting one thing done will 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, but don't get too invested into a single course of action. Your HR partner may see other options. Managers often request a training program, for example, when they face a challenge. But changes in hiring practices — or even job design — may ultimately be the better solution. Respect HR's expertise.

Be willing to be a guinea pig.

Perhaps you read about a cool HR effort in the Wall Street Journal. Or perhaps you had a great idea yourself. If you find yourself wondering, "Why don't we…" think about volunteering to pilot a program. You can team 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 the program is rolled out through the rest of the company.

Stay Out Of Jail

If you have an HR function, you should always consult with them about:

Hiring Discipline Termination Employee Leave Workers' Compensation Employee Complaints (such as sexual harassment and discrimination). Check with HR before you take action.

No matter how great your partnership is, there are times HR will say no. It doesn't mean they don't love you. Remember that one of HR's greatest responsibilities is to protect the company from lawsuits. (As one HR executive observed, "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 that walked you through every stage of employee development for every employee you manage? A binder that includes job descriptions, required competencies, aptitude tests, specific interview questions, tailored performance appraisal forms and more? A binder that gave you enough information that you could focus on day-to-day operations and helping employees solve problems?

If you worked at Valspar Corp., you'd have one. That's because HR has created those binders for every one of the company's more than 3,800 jobs. The effort started as a small-scale attempt to identify core competencies 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 revenue are at stake. But how can a salesperson in Thailand get the information she needs to close a sale if the home office is closed?

At Buckman, she can get the information anytime, from anywhere in the world. That's because HR has worked with managers to promote knowledge sharing. The idea is to take the axiom two heads are better than one and turbo-charge it with technology. Thanks to online forums, connected knowledge bases, electronic bulletin boards and virtual conference rooms, employees can tap into each other's knowledge and experience like nowhere else.

There was a time when Continental Airlines was the laughingstock of the industry. The carrier had been through two bankruptcies and a revolving door in the executive suite. Passengers could expect poor service, late arrivals and lost bags. No wonder employees tore the company patches off their uniforms at the end of the day; they didn't want anyone to know where they worked.

Then management teamed with HR and took the airline from worst to first. An incentive pay program, streamlined policies (to replace the policy manual that management publicly burned) and and aggressive communication improved every area of performance. Today, employees keep the patches on their uniforms — 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? Believe it. 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 are the managers earning the greatest rewards. It works because HR partners with managers in the coaching process — an HR staffer is part of every department.

Get More Information

Human Resource Champions: The Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results, Dave Ulrich, Harvard Business School Press, 1997. Human Resources Kit for Dummies, Max Messmer, IDG Books Worldwide, 1999, www.workforce.com.

Bob Rosner is the co-author of The Boss's Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2001), along with Allan Halcrow, former editor of Workforce Magazine and Alan Levins, senior partner of San Francisco-based employer law firm Littler Mendelson. Rosner is also founder of the award-winning workingwounded.com. He can be reached via fax at (206) 780-4353, and via e-mail at: bob@workingwounded.com.

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