The Price of Confidentiality

There comes a time (or several) in every HR Professionals life where they will be asked to breach confidentiality.  Sometimes it comes because management thinks they “own” you and so you can give them any information they ask for (and sadly, some HR Professionals are owned by management), other times it comes because employees feel you know the secrets of the organization and so they try to get information from you.  It is imperative that the HR Professional know where their own boundaries are and what they feel is ethical and what is not.

For me one key moment came when my company asked me to give up the names of employees who came to see me.  They wanted a list of names as well as the nature of their visit….and I refused.  Now I get the importance of understanding the pulse of your company and recognizing where the pain points are so I have no problem giving them that information, but giving names crosses a different boundary.  To me, employees at all levels of the organization must be allowed a safe place, and have a right to expect confidentiality.  There are times when, legally, I need to speak on their issues or investigate and I make these times clear to the employees but even then, I handle it with as much discretion as possible.  One of the critical elements that makes a HR Professional successful is that they have the trust of the employee base – all levels, including executives.  So I refused to give them the list choosing instead to stay true to my ethics and not erode the trust I had with those who came to me for help.  And the company chose to release me.  Tough conclusion?  I suppose.  But for me, I know that I did not compromise my own character, my own ethics, and I can live with that.

Oh, and don’t forget…

I can picture it now…a heavy duty meeting with a new client, the company oversells and promises that we can staff by 140 new folks in a week, backslaps when the client leaves after signing the new contract, small talk about the upcoming football game starts and someone shares their nacho recipe…and then, as they are turning off the light one of the leaders says…”oh, and don’t forget to tell HR”.

It is amazing to me how little we are brought in to decisions that, quite frankly, can not happen without us and yet that was the case this week with my company.  Assumptions are made about HR all the time without regard to what it takes for us to do what we do.  I get that there are a lot of misnomers about our department and many just don’t know what it is that occupies our time but when you are thinking that you need 140 new people to do the job you just promised a client, why would you not think about HUMAN resources?

Did my team pull it off?  yes they did!  Why?  Because for the last year they have been nuturing relationships with our vendors, because they sat down and came up with a tremendous strategy, and because, quite directly, they are very smart and very talented.  Will the company recognize those efforts?  Probably not…because I assure you that there will be another backslapping meeting of promises where we are again an afterthought.

Tuna Fish

One of the greatest lessons I learned in HR started with a can of tuna fish.

I had an employee come to see me once in absolute hysteria.  While I was trying to calm her down I was calculating in my mind how I could take care of her, call 911, and keep the office from panic.  All of this was going through my mind because obviously something horrible had happened to her.  I was thinking – was she raped? attacked? did she just lose someone?  There had to be something.

Twenty minutes after she entered my office and I had mapped out my plan she was calm enough to tell me what happened…….

” My co-worker” she sobbed “opened a can of tuna fish at her desk and she knows” more sobbing ” that I hate the smell of tuna fish”.

I was floored and it honestly did take me a minute to composed myself. A can of tuna fish? Seriously??

I caught my breath…and then said directly that there had to be more than a can of tuna fish to elicit the reaction she was showing.  It took about another twenty minutes and she revealed that she was in an abusive marriage and that she had caught her husband sexually abusing her ten year old daughter the night before.  We called the appropriate authorities and I set her up with a victims advocate through our EAP.  All totaled, the situation did take up an entire afternoon.

Two things came from that can of tuna fish.  One, never assume you know what is going on with an employee or take at face value their reactions – trust your gut.  And two, we in HR walk a very fine line between helping and getting too involved.  Human Resources is a department where you hear the worst of the worst with what is happening with the employees of a company.  I have known of deaths, cancers, abuse, addictions, abandonments, evictions, you name it.  It is a natural reaction, in most of us, to want to help.  For the HR professional, however, how you help and how involved you get in situations can be tricky.  For most of us we rely on our company’s benefits, like the EAP, Short Term Disability or FMLA as ways to provide assistance.

In the end, one of the greatest things we can provide is compassion and empathy.  We do keep some professional distance or we wouldn’t survive this profession.  We should also, though, do our due diligence to ensure that we are providing the services to help our employees balance the many demands of the work place and all that life itself presents.

Sometimes tuna fish is simply tuna fish….other times, it may be the door that opens into something much more.

Human Resources: Resolutions or Roadblocks?

My first job out of my undergraduate program was in HR.  The market had crashed and I was fortunate to get a job as a temp in an established HR department.  I asked my boss at the time exactly what it was that HR did and she said “we solve employee problems for the business”.  So, with that, I thought of my job as one of problem resolution.  When I got back into HR after being in the mental health field, I walked into a room of business leaders and one said – “here comes Hard Roadblocks”.  So which one are we?  Problem solvers or roadblocks?  I think the answer, actually, is both.

What an HR department is to a company depends on two things. How the business utilizes the department and the philosophy of the HR professionals themselves.  Some companies still see HR as administrative “personnel” where all that is done is the necessary paperwork for new hires, benefits and payroll.  On the other end of the spectrum are the companies that see HR as strategic partners, asking for input and the human perspective on many business initiatives.  Most departments fall somewhere inbetween – providing the necessary administrative input while being asked to the proverbial table for at least some brainstorming sessions.

What largely determines how HR is perceived in the company is the HR Professionals themselves.  In all honesty, I don’t always like my peers in this industry.  Some are way too friendly, wanting to be friends with everyone and make people feel good (tell tale sign are those that say they are in this business because they like people).  Others seem to think this profession is like a police department, setting down rules and enforcing them.  Unfortunately, many also don’t understand business so, though creative, they design programs and try to roll out policies that have no relationship with the business or their needs.  These approaches make being in HR a constant fight to gain the trust and respect of both the business leaders and the employees.  And these approaches are why we are often seen as “roadblocks”.

For me, Human Resources needs to be one of the most neutral places within the company.  We need to be keenly aware of business and the bottom line and we need to be patient and understanding, while still being consistent, with employees.  This is not an easy position to hold.  Too often, management thinks you work for them and are often offended when you support the employee perspective.  Or employees feel you are their advocates and so often do not understand or “will never go” to HR if you enforce a policy that they may find unfair.  One area I fight this regularly is terminations – I will not sit in on one unless it is my department that is the cause.  Managers want me to deliver the difficult news but I refuse feeling it vitally important for me to keep my neutrality.  I ensure that due dilligence has been done and that the termination is justified but that is as far as I will go and this often has me at odds with leadership.

So back to the question – HR is both.  We are the consistency keepers, making sure there are processes and policies to follow which often is perceived as roadblocks for business leaders trying to push something (or someone) trough.  We also should be creative thinkers coming up with ways to resolve issues and bring results that are good for employee and business alike.  Harmounious Resolutions…Hard Roadblocks…Human Resources

Being Passionate: Does helping employees mean you are hurting business?

I was told the other day by the leadership of my company that I am too passionate about helping the employees. Let me set up the scenario:  as often is the case, our company wanted to close early on the Friday before a holiday weekend to let our folks start their festivities or get on the road before all the traffic.  This is a pretty standard gesture made by many companies.  Unlike other companies I have worked for, however, my company did not want to make non-exempt employees “whole” for the day and pay them for the hours that they would miss given the early closure.  Penalizing your hourly employees, often the lowest paid in the company, didn’t seem right to me.  It was the decision of the business to close early, not the decision of the employee, and so I argued that we should pay them for the full day.  And with that, I was told that I was too passionate.

A little about me – I have always fought for the underdog.  When in school I would come to the defense of the student being picked on, or help the teacher no one liked.  When I worked with the mentally ill, there were always battles to fight – from the perception of many in society that these were “throw away” people, to the view of the shop keeper that they were dangerous.  So it isn’t a surprise to me or anyone who knows me that I stand up for employees when I think a company is doing them an injustice.

I also am a business woman and I have a very strong sense of business operations and logic.  My company argued that they were in a cost saving time and to pay employees for time when they were not producing was costing the organization.  This is a concept I could put my arms around if the company weren’t hemoraging in more significant ways – to not pay for those two hours is like focusing on a hangnail when a major artery is cut.  Secondly, and one of the hardest parts for any Human Resource professional to convey to a business, the cost will ultimately get you loyalty amongst your employee base – and loyalty will save you money with lower turnover and higher production.

Caring about employees does have some upfront cost.  Making sure salaries are in line with the market, ensuring that your benefits are healthy and reasonable, having a work environment that is comfortable, and helping morale by not punishing hourly employees with gestures like early departures, does have an upfront cost.  But the end result is profoud – a work force that not only wants to do their jobs but wants to do it well above expectations, and a work force that brags about your company when with friends or in social settings which provides the organization with the best marketing in the world.

There are times when my “passion” is geared more to the management side of the table and when it is so placed there are no complaints.  Regardless, I will continue to speak when I feel there is an inequity, and fight the fight when I feel it needs to be fought.  That is who I am.