And another thing

When we canvassed company directors’ opinions of HR two years ago, the results were largely favourable. But do employees see HR in the same light Stephanie Macdonald goes undercover to find out

Few professions worry about their image as much as those in HR. Even the name comes under constant scrutiny, with perpetual anguish over whether the profession is responsible for "personnel", "human capital" or "human resources".

HR people are often concerned "to see ourselves as others see us", but this can be a painful process. And what makes a perfect HR department? One recent

survey implied it would be one filled with Dale Winton clones. This camp celebrity was voted "the person most suited for the role of personnel manager" in a survey by HR consultancy People First. Tycoon Richard Branson came second.

Of course, such a survey can be seen as lighthearted, but it also points to the underlying tensions in being a HR

professional. You and the business may be promoting an image of HR exploiting technology, implementing Intranets and maintaining an objective view of the business and all those in it, but do employees expect you to be empathetic and warm-hearted, maintaining a reassuring presence as an antidote to the age of e-mails and Intranets?

And HR people, with the emphasis very much on the "human" side, are needed and wanted, as a parallel survey also run by First People found out. It discovered that employees see the HR department as crucial to an organisation’s success.

"Whereas personnel previously ranked alongside finance and IT, battling for the "least-popular department" label, HR today has the support of 97 per cent of employees and is highly rated as integral to a company’s success," claims director of First People, Gayle Taylor.

So it seems that employees want a HR department, but is your department the one they are looking for? Should you be spending more time researching what they want and adjusting accordingly? We asked employees from a variety of businesses what they thought of their HR departments. The results make painful reading.


Simon is a line manager for a major manufacturer

I meet up with our HR department once a month when it attends a monthly review meeting as part of the executive managers’ team. The purpose is to address tactics and strategy associated with people development. But a representative of the HR team is available on an everyday basis if required.

I’d say that on the whole the HR department is easy to contact and helpful. The opinion among other line managers is that the department is very supportive on a case-by-case basis and provides direction. However, problems and misunderstandings do arise, particularly when we get to the big issues. For example, on a strategic basis the policy they set is not always understood in terms of achieving the declared aims.

And I have come across cases where the HR department has created unnecessary subsidiary problems, which in themselves are harder to resolve than the problem we started out with. For example, some parts of our redundancy programme have been conducted very clumsily, with individuals who applied for the voluntary scheme having to wait five months before being told that "their applications were unsuccessful, but that they would have to move into another role anyway". This deviated from the understood process and caused employees a lot of stress.

Confidence in the HR department really comes under threat when the junior officers are told to implement a policy which has complex ramifications. Their limited experience prevents them from understanding the subtleties, or unravelling the mess.

There seems to be a communication gap between the HR strategists with their big ideas and those at the coal face who have to do the work.


Gillian has just retired from a local authority due to a stress-related illness

I lost my original job in a reshuffle but my employer, the local authority, sort of pushed me into continuing to work for it. The job I was offered was a job-share in the personnel department. I was very depressed after losing my original job but the design of the new position made it worse. I was sharing with an ambitious girl who was half my age and who was always away on courses. She was keen to progress, and I don’t blame her, but her studies meant she didn’t work her full complement of days, leaving a backlog of work for me to deal with.

Although I was based in the personnel department no one noticed that the job was getting me down, and when I asked for more help I was the butt of some sarcastic comments. My stress levels increased because the physical working environment was terrible – very hot and dusty with the sun pouring through the windows. Every time I asked if we could draw the blinds or open the windows, I felt that I was making myself unpopular.

Things came to a head when I had a panic attack at work. I returned after a few days’ leave but then had to leave my desk to be sick.

The personnel manager kindly took me home and her attitude towards me changed. She became more helpful and solicitous and encouraged me to take sick leave. While I was away she would visit my house and brought me flowers. However, she then asked me to visit my local authority’s doctor, which I did (although I felt that I was being spied on) and the two decided that I had to see a counsellor. I don’t believe in counselling, as I was brought up to deal with my problems on my own, and I refused.

After a further bout of sick leave, with the manager keeping in touch, we reached a mutual decision that I had to go and I took early retirement. The manager was helpful in getting my package sorted out and in explaining the details of my pension. However, if they had acted sooner and noticed that the job-share did not work, I might still be there. Why aren’t personnel departments trained to spot problems before they happen?


Mark is a business manager for a finance house

I feel that our HR department has no real power as it needs board-level sign-off for pay. It is not involved with the business and just chases managers with a set of procedures.

My impressions were proved correct when I was facing a staff retention crisis. I manage CIMA qualified accountants, a group which is prone to being poached by outside competitors, yet my people had not had a pay rise for two years.

They also found out that they were under-paid compared with other departments within the company. I was already under-resourced and faced a mutiny because key people realised they were being underpaid and threatened to leave. When I asked HR to help me keep them, they put the ball back in my court.

It didn’t know the going rate for CIMA-qualified staff in our location (even though we have a building full of them) and told me to research salary information. Neither did the HR department understand that CIMA people are continually bombarded with job offers and while I was juggling my job and the research on pay, the main players in my team were threatening to leave.

Once I had given HR the information, it took two months for it to come back with revised salaries, which is ridiculous.

One of the personnel managers told me that she leaves the building on time because she is efficient. I told her that the rest of us see the department as 9-to-5ers. They think that they are intellectual and strategic; we have nicknamed them the "school room" because they like to implement petty rules.


Judy is a call-centre supervisor with a building society

My employer has some wonderful policies for people juggling family commitments and promotes flexible working, but I wonder why it can’t deal with day-to-day problems. I work part-time and share a lot of responsibilities with another supervisor, but she is very unpopular partly because she brings her complicated home-life (she has young children) and love-life to work (she was married, had a lesbian relationship and has now left that for a man in our building).

My staff refused to deal with her because her domestic pressures meant she was acting erratically. I took the issue to our manager, who consulted the personnel department. In my opinion, disciplinary action and formal support were needed, but the answer returned from personnel was "to get back to work".

Their suggestion was that we should bond with a team-building exercise. My poor manager was told to book us all onto a themed weekend. Surely there should be some common ground between us to build the team on, and the differences should be sorted out with both sides putting their point of view? My manager was told that the responsibility "rests on the line manager" but, as he says, he doesn’t really know the procedures. Personnel should get out of its ivory tower and sort this out.


Julie works in a head office function for an oil company

The Intranet means that I don’t have a lot of contact with our personnel department. I think that this has a good side – if I have a query, I can research the answer privately. So, for example, when I was thinking about the life/work implications of becoming pregnant, I was able to look up the policy on maternity leave in privacy.

The personnel department has been reduced in numbers and I no longer have a contact in head office – if I want to talk to someone I have to phone an office in Scotland and talk to someone unfamiliar with my situation.

This has become relevant to me because I am on maternity leave. I hope I will remember to contact them 21 days before my return date to confirm my intentions, but I would have felt better if there had been someone there who knew me and whom I knew was keeping an eye on my affairs. In this respect I think that the remoteness is a disadvantage.

However, I am cynical about HR departments in general because of my experience with a previous employer. We were going through a voluntary redundancy programme and there was little clear information. The staff were emotional because they did not know what was going to happen. When they asked the HR department, they got the reply, "We don’t know what is happening to us either", and they were emotional too. This attitude was unprofessional.


All names have been changed

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