Is It HR's Job to Protect Employees ... or VPs?

Last Updated Sep 27, 2010 8:38 PM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,
Are all HR people required to suck up to the managers and ignore the hard-working employees?
I worked for a large corporation for over 9 years (and thankfully I am not there anymore). My team had a difficult manager, she was basically a micro-manager and very secretive. We complained about her to HR with valid complaints about her managing skills. Guess who got written up as "difficult" employees? We did! So after the first time, we gave up and suffered under her regime (never got promoted or anything despite glowing reviews from coworkers and managers -- she did everything to keep her employees from advancing).
After she left, our vice president came to visit (his office was in another city); he noticed how our work quality and morale had improved since she left. He then realized the problem was the old manager and asked us why we didn't say anything about her. We told him we reported her to HR. He was furious that HR never told him about the employees' complaints about her. So of course, the HR person got all snippy with us.
In the future, do I go to the boss instead of HR? Are there any HR people who actually care about employees' valid concerns? Or is their job simply to shield VPs from all complaints? Is your job basically to suck up to the VPs?

There are so many problems going on here that I hope I can address at least a few of them. First of all, there are good HR people and, well, evil HR people. Frequently people can't tell the difference between the two because what HR people do all day is somewhat of a mystery. (Hint: it frequently involves meetings, but there are rarely donuts at these meetings, so I'm not sure why we keep having them.)

HR's job is not to suck up to managers, VPs, employees or even customers. HR's job is to help the business succeed. Which can mean that sometimes the good employee gets ignored -- because it doesn't help the overall business. If HR is working on something that will have a bigger impact than your inept manager, the other project will get priority. Also, HR is not perfect (although we tend to think we are). Our reporting structure can also blur our understanding of what is best. If, for instance, HR reports to finance (not unusual, by the way), the head of HR's boss will be a finance person. And that person is going to see success in terms of dollars, not employee morale.

Good employee morale (in my opinion) will lead to better finances down the road. But, it's that "down the road" thing that's difficult. If your manager was meeting her financial targets, HR has little incentive to "fix" a problem that the finance people don't even think exists. We can argue that your department would begin to exceed financial targets if the management problem was fixed, but we can't guarantee that, nor can we promise instantaneous improvement. Changing management styles and learning management skills can take a long time, and in the mean time, it looks like we're not doing anything. This bothers our financial friends.

But HR isn't the only problem in this story. There were 3 individuals and one group who behaved badly in this story. Here is what should have happened:

  1. The VP should have noticed his manager wasn't managing properly. Now, before we jump all over him, I will say that it can be extremely difficult to manage at the VP level of a large corporation. But that is why VPs for large corporations get paid a lot of money. If it was easy, we could all be VPs, but it's not, so we're not. He should have been having regular meetings with this manager and he should have had relationships with her direct reports as well. When you have multiple layers reporting up to you, you need to keep in contact with more than just your direct reports. This relationship would have given him an opportunity to find out about this manager's failings a long time ago.
  2. The manager should have been a better manager. Well, duh, you say. Of course she should have. She didn't recognize her failings because if she did, she would have fixed them, or at least that's the theory. My theory is that some people know they are mean, nit-picky, or have any number of other flaws and revel in that. I don't know about this woman, but I do know that she felt that whatever she was doing worked. This is why she kept doing it. If she wanted to be a good manager, she should have sought out a mentor, asked for feedback from her direct reports and her superiors, perhaps taken a leadership development class and helped her people to get promoted. She didn't. She was a lousy manager and we're all glad she moved on, except for the people who she manages now, because surely they exist.
  3. HR should have listened and followed up. Now, HR does not have the role of playground supervisor. When you and your coworkers went to HR to complain, you expect her to run over and say, "Bad, bad, manager. Time out!" But, it doesn't work that way. HR's job is to help the business. So, she should have figured out how to help the business in this situation. Anytime an employee comes to complain about a bad manager, an HR person is likely to start with the assumption that the person is exaggerating the problem. After all, I've been the recipient of hundreds of phone calls where people complained that their performance rating was too low, but not a single call where someone complained that it was too high. Everyone thinks the problem is with someone else. However, if multiple people are coming with the same complaint, you really need to investigate. But, the first step of that would have been to bring this to the attention of her boss. Why? Because it's not HR's job to run in and solve the problem, it's our job to help managers manage so that the business can run properly.
  4. You (and your coworkers) should have gone to the manager directly, then the VP, and if that didn't work you should have quit. I hear the cries now about it's a difficult economy and finding a job is not that easy. Yes, that is true right now, and it was true last year. But, you were in this job for 9 years. 9 years! You said you're gone now, but even if you left yesterday, you were in this situation in 2001 and 2002. Do you remember the economy back then? It was fabulous. It was a job seekers market. Why on earth didn't you leave? Did you ever go to her and say, "Sandy, I'm having trouble seeing what the big picture is here. I'm working towards X, but then I find out that Y is really the goal. Can you help me figure out how best to meet your objectives?" And when that doesn't work, then you go to the VP HR.
Where does HR fit into all of this? Well, it's not bad that you went to HR, and your HR person behaved poorly--after all the problem didn't get fixed and you got in trouble. But, HR should be brought in by the VP to help the manager manage better. But, HR must do this on the manager's manager's authority, not her own. We can't waltz in and fix everything. It's not HR's job to manage all the people. It's our job to help the managers manage.

And, even though it may seem like it, it is not our job to suck up to anyone. Except perhaps the intern that's willing to pick up donuts for our meetings.

Photo by gcoldironjr2003, Flickr cc 2.0