OH and HR: Working together

Human resources may once have been associated with ‘tea and tissues’, but today’s HR function is far more commercially focused and integrated with business strategy. That means HR’s expectations of any service provider are high, and they include flexibility, versatility and responsiveness.

Here are some of the key requirements of working with HR:

Understand where HR sits in the organisation:

Increasingly HR is becoming a centralised unit, acting more in an advisory capacity to line managers who are expected to carry out the core day-to-day HR activities such as managing absence. However, there are still a wide range of organisations where the HR function itself carries out such activities, although in some instances they are outsourced (for example, recruitment). Establishing your relationship with HR and understanding its place within the organisation will enable you to pitch advice at an appropriate level, understand the route for escalating issues, and deal effectively with complaints.

Understand HR timescales:

Often we hear that it is not the delay that causes the issue, but the lack of communication and understanding of the timescales that HR have to work to. HR does not want to have to chase reports – HR managers, like the rest of us, already have enough to do. OH needs to understand that many of the timescales that govern HR actions are policy-led. The fastest way to lose a tribunal case is by not following your own policies, and that includes making sure that certain actions are completed within agreed timescales.

The pressure from line management to put ‘bums on seats’ – particularly in those sectors where staff turnover is high, such as call centres and logistics – means that HR will often pass that time pressure on to other service providers.

Establish a clear set of service level agreements – that way, everyone will understand the timescales, and appropriate measurements of service can be designed.

Keep audit trails:

It is important to establish and maintain good audit trails, where copies of all correspondence are easily accessed, appropriately filed and referenced. Files should be made of all telephone conversations. It is not unknown for several members of an HR team to be involved in a single case, or for OH to receive conflicting information and instruction.

Write reports in clear English:

You may need to use medical phrases, but at least provide a layman’s definition. Ensure that reports are well presented – remember these reports might see the light of day in a tribunal. Reports full of inaccuracies, typographical errors and poor grammar are an indication of sloppy work, and a reflection on your OH team as a whole.

Offer definitive recommendations and conclusions:

HR does not want to pay you and then have to make up their own minds on what action to take. If you cannot provide definitive recommendations and conclusions, explain why and when you feel you might be able to. Remember HR professionals are coming to you for your professional advice to progress a case.

Offer reasonable and appropriate advice:

While is it not the place of OH to decide what a reasonable adjustment may be, we still need to provide reasonable and appropriate advice. That may mean discussing redeployment, graded returns, return-to-work plans and other alternatives with HR. It may also mean picking up the phone and discussing the actual aspects of the individual’s job.

Communicate well:

OH cannot work effectively in isolation and often finds itself as the link between the GP, HR, management and the employee. It is important that OH advice is passed through to line managers. Often case conferences are an essential tool to ensure communication, information and the management of expectations by all parties.

Say ‘no’ to breaches of confidentiality:

HR and management need to respect confidentiality of medical information, and the limits of disclosure. Ensure that these parameters are established at the beginning of the contract. You may still find yourself in the position of having to respond with a firm ‘no’.

Build in the ‘value added’:

Value added services can make the difference between continuing to be the service provider of choice, or the client finding a new provider. Value added does not need to be costly or complicated. It may be something as simple as updating or providing additional information it may be something mutually beneficial, such as meeting with managers to establish what makes a good referral or it may be going that extra mile with extremely difficult cases, such as an employee with a terminal illness.

Geny Foster, MSc SHRM, FCIPD, is a director of the Commercial Occupational Health Providers Association (COHPA) and managing director of Medigold Health Consultancy.


COHPA is a not-for-profit membership association representing occupational health and related service providers. The association offers employers a free service advising on health at work issues. It has helped hundreds of organisations, covering more than quarter of a million staff, to find the providers and solutions that meet their needs.

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