Confessions of former HR professionals

Do you view HR as the enemy, doing recognizance for Corporate? Or do you see your HR rep as Michael Scott did Toby--someone who tries to suck the fun out of the office? While human resources teams can often lubricate sticky work situations and help build strong office relationships, they're often viewed less generously by staff.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the comments section of a story I posted a few months ago, 4 Things Never To Share With HR. But is such distrust really warranted? How do HR folks themselves view their position on the corporate ladder, and the criticism they might face? I asked four career experts -- all former HR professionals -- about their past professions (the good, the bad, and, at times, ugly). Here are their candid responses.

What was the most challenging part of your job?

"The single hardest part about working in HR is having to let someone go. When I worked in HR at JP Morgan, our loyalties as HR managers were with the company. We viewed our "client" as the business manager who ran the division we supported. But even so, giving someone the news that their position has been eliminated is never easy. I think that is perhaps a big part of why I work on the other side of the table now and coach job seekers, helping people launch careers." -- Christine P. Bolzan, founder of Graduate Career Coaching

"I enjoyed my years in HR, but there were some challenges. Too much work, delivering termination messages, supporting management decisions that didn't always seem right, eliminating benefits to save costs ... all come to mind. [For example,] there was a time when we had to implement a reduction in force ... and eliminate a number of positions. I knew that the company couldn't survive if we didn't tighten our belts (thereby protecting others' jobs), but it was extremely difficult to deliver that message to employees who had been productive members of our team and were losing their jobs through no fault of their own. The decision-makers appeared to be callous, uncaring and disloyal. That was not the case but the perception." -- Sharon Armstrong, author of The Essential Performance Review Handbook, Stress-free Performance Appraisals and The Essential HR Handbook.

"Being a great HR leader is highly dependent on working for a CEO that truly appreciates the value of people. You want to work for a CEO who believes having an expert to lead HR is just as important as having a financial expert who can lead finance or a marketing expert who leads marketing. Without this core belief and confidence by a CEO, then the job is tough and undoable." -- Rusty Rueff, Glassdoor Career & Workplace Expert and Board Member.

6 surprising ways that human resources can help your careerHow NOT to fire someone: 5 common mistakes
4 things a manager should never say

What was the most rewarding part of your job?

"It is tremendously rewarding to hear from former clients who are thriving in their careers. I enjoy being in touch with former intern applicants who some 20 years ago interviewed with me nervously on their college campus and today run a hedge fund or their own consulting practice." -- Bolzan

"The little things come to mind first...announcing a promotion for a deserving employee, approving training that helped the person grow professionally, awarding bonuses, increasing salary ranges before reviews. Lots of good things." -- Armstrong

"To me, the greatest satisfaction in an HR career was having an impact on the success of the business and on the lives of the people in it." -- Clinical Professor of Management John Millikin, Ph.D., of the W.P. Carey School of Business.

When you were in HR, how much of your loyalty was to the company? And to the employee?

"I love this question. When I was in HR, I tried to maintain that balance ... representing management but keeping the employees' needs in mind. If you do it right ... no one likes you! Each party thinks you're in the other camp." -- Armstrong

"I didn't see these as separate loyalties. If I was loyal to the company, then I was loyal to the employees and vice versa." -- Rueff

"The question of loyalty is not an 'either/or,' but both! Your role is to help align the needs of the business with the needs of the people in it. Part of this may seem to pit you at times against the pure short-term financial interests of the firm, but in the long run, your role includes ensuring that the needs and the value of human assets are considered in overall decision-making. This is sometimes a fine line to walk and a real challenge." --Millikin

There is a perception that HR is 'spying' on employees, and reporting back to management. How accurate is this?

"That perception seems to thrive in environments where there is no trust. I'm sure there are managers out there who try to find 'gotcha' moments. But fortunately, those numbers are low and dwindling. I really believe that. Managers need to clearly explain their roles to employees. It is their job to monitor performance, give feedback, remove barriers, create an environment that is conducive to work, keep their eye on the goals, etc. Once their role is clarified and there can be ongoing workplace conversations about work and performance, this trust will build over time." -- Armstrong

"To assist an employee with a problem with his or her supervisor inevitably involves getting both sides of the story. After all, misunderstandings are frequently two different perceptions of the same facts. We taught our Employee Relations managers to ask an employee with a concern how (s)he wanted it handled. If the employee wanted us to deal directly with the supervisor, we could do that. We would remind the employee that this course of action could change his or her relationship with the supervisor and make it more adversarial. We spent much more time coaching employees on how they could be effective in handling their own problems without HR becoming directly involved. We would also look for patterns of supervisor behaviors that we would then use to coach the supervisor on how to become more effective without naming individual employees who may have communicated concerns." -- Millikin

What is something that would surprise people about HR professionals?

"Most of the HR professionals I'm had the privilege to work with or meet have really cared about the employees in their companies. I understand that wasn't always evident, but it's true. If you get to the point in HR when you enjoy the tough things you have to do, it's time to get out of the profession." -- Armstrong

  • Amy Levin-Epstein On Twitter»

    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.

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