Last Updated Feb 22, 2011 11:34 AM EST
"HR catches a bad rap because no one talks about the good things they accomplish," says O'Donnell. Put simply, however, HR has a vested interest in you -- money. "It costs an average of 130 percent of a person's salary to replace them. Recruiting costs money, time and energy," says O'Donnell. Plus, if they found you, they want the kudos that come with seeing you rise through the ranks. So think of HR as your own personal at-work therapist. Although we don't advising lying on their couch. That would just be awkward.
Your first step? Develop a rapport. "Start with a thank you to them after you are hired and then say 'I'd like to stay in touch with you,'" says O'Donnell, who said a quarterly coffee break or monthly emails will do the trick. Once you've formed that relationship, I promise it will be useful, and maybe even save your career. Here's why:
1. They know what your boss is like, and they can actually do something about it. "The HR person is going to know your manager directly and also know the history of the position there, including salary and any issues the previous employee had with that manager," says O'Donnell. Not only can they advise you on how to deal with your particular problem but they can take action--even letting our manager go--if necessary. The mistake is waiting until your exit interview to divulge your difficulties.
2. They can help you stop small problems from snowballing. Is your manager asking too much about your personal life, or scheduling one too many one-on-one lunches, but nothing blatantly bad has happened -- yet? Get thee to HR, stat. Best case scenario: They can help you set boundaries with him or her. "Then, six months later when that manager says 'This sexual harassment suit came out of the blue,' HR can say 'Actually she spoke to us on this day and we've been tracking this situation,'" say O'Donnell. Get possibly sticky situations on paper and you'll protect your job.
3. They can save your butt if you get sued. On the flip side, your other worst nightmare is probably getting sued yourself by a subordinate or colleague. If you're worried something you said or did was misconstrued, go to HR, ASAP. "A lot of people don't understand when there is a scenario that could get litigious, part of your ability to fight any allegations is to show you made an effort to get them resolved. Cover your bases," says O'Donnell.
4. They can get you a better job at your company. If you love your company but hate your particular position, HR wants to know before you jump ship. "You're giving them a heads up that you want to stay at the organization, which they will love. Someone else may come and say they want to move into your position and they can then move the players around," says O'Donnell.
5. They can help you get a promotion or save your job. If you take the time to update HR on your progress -- including your recent successes and what you're hoping to do more of -- they can be your advocate come promotion time. "When review time comes and I see a harsh review that doesn't seem fair, I'd know enough in terms of what they'd been doing to say 'Wait a minute now, why the sudden issue? Who's the problem?'" say O'Donnell.
6. They can help you motivate a dud. If an underling is under-performing, HR can give you tips to motivate him or her, and record the problem. "They can guide you on how to set guidelines, and set you up to properly fire the person if they don't meet your goals," says O'Donnell.
Clearly, HR can be your hero in hiding at work, but there are two situations in which you should never go to them. The first: You expect only positive feedback. Remember, they are a mediator, not your mother. The other is if your HR rep and your manager are BFFs. If you see them packing up for a weekend camping trip with their spouses or stepping out for their weekly tennis game, it's likely their loyalties lie elsewhere. "Do your homework. If this particular individual doesn't seem responsible and like they can keep your dealings confidential, seek counsel outside the company," says O'Donnell.
Do you use your HR department? How are they helpful (or not)? Log in below and share your experience. For more, follow @MWOnTheJob on Twitter.
More on MoneyWatch: