is this HR director out of control or just doing a job no one else will do?

A reader writes:

The division that I’ve recently joined has an HR Director who seems to be extremely powerful due to the strong relationship she has with the head of our business unit. About three months into my job, I was warned by two colleagues on different occasions that I should never challenge this woman and should be very wary about any information I gave her, since it wasn’t just my survival that depended on her but that of others too. What I’ve subsequently seen has made me believe that this was excellent advice, especially when a colleague I really looked up to told me that she would be leaving mainly due to this woman’s influence on her future in the company.

Recently, I have become very worried about my own position. After about 6 months of what I believed was good performance based on occasional feedback sessions scheduled with my manager, this HR Director suddenly came into my office one day and told me that my job was on the line due to “serious issues” highlighted in relation to my communication style. The only reason I didn’t faint with shock was that I had been told confidentially by another director that something of the kind was about to happen and that he disagreed with the assessment. Thankfully I seem to be working through the situation, but my fear is that this will happen again, especially since there seems to be a history of people being pushed out in this way by the HR Director in question. I feel I have very little control of the situation, since it is impossible to make changes – assuming these need to be made – if I’m only told about them by the time they are judged to be such “serious issues” that I’m about to lose my job.

I’ve never been in a situation where HR could make decisions about people almost unilaterally, which is the case here, and would be grateful for advice you’d give me. I’d also be curious to know what your take in general is on this situation: is this lady someone who is generating a lot of fear and suspicion simply because she’s doing a really difficult job – giving feedback that perhaps other people should have given – or is there something really dysfunctional about this whole set-up, which many of my colleagues believe?

I think your last sentence raises something really insightful, and is something that a lot of people in this situation wouldn’t think to ask themselves: Is she a punitive tyrant who pushes out good people, or is she raising legitimate issues that no one else is raising? (And kudos to you for being open-minded enough to consider that.)

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that either way, something isn’t being handled correctly here. Either:

1. The HR director is some sort of out-of-control rogue whose assessments are not rooted in reality, and as a result she is pushing out good people. And for some reason the company is allowing it. This is a dysfunctional set-up. Or…

2. The HR director’s assessments of people are accurate and presumably formed with the input of their managers, and for some reason the company has charged her with being the messenger whenever there’s a serious performance problem. This is a bad set-up too, because funneling all serious feedback through the HR director is (a) unfair to employees, who aren’t hearing feedback early on or from their own managers, and (b) unfair to the HR director herself, who’s being forced into the role of the office dragon lady by having to be the bad cop while everyone else gets to play good cop.

Ideally, managers would be making assessments of their own people, with the HR director providing guidance if needed. And managers would be delivering feedback to their own people, with the HR director pushing them to do so if they avoided it. If the HR director felt there was a serious problem with an employee that wasn’t getting addressed, she’d take it up with their manager and they’d resolve it from there (with the manager ultimately delivering any message that needed to be delivered to the employee).

So the big question for you is: Where is your manager in this situation? Thus, the very first thing you need to do is to sit down with your manager and talk about the feedback you received from the HR director. You’ll have a few different goals in this conversation:

1. Find out why you heard this message from the HR director rather than from your manager. Is this actually the company’s system? Or is something else going on?

2. Say explicitly that you very much want to hear feedback directly, early on, so that you’re able to incorporate it immediately, rather than only hearing about something once it’s become a serious problem. Ask directly if your manager is willing to do that going forward. (And pay attention to body language and other cues here; you really want to get a good sense of whether or not your manager is likely to continue to wimp out when it comes to having awkward conversations in the future.)

3. Talk about what you’re doing to respond to the concerns the HR director relayed, and ask to check in with your manager on them again in a few weeks, so that you can get further feedback about where you stand.

From this point forward, since you know that your manager is willing to be so hands-off about feedback that you may not even hear about something until it’s considered a serious problem, be proactive about seeking out feedback. Check in with your manager regularly and ask for feedback on how you’re doing, and about this communication issue raised by HR in particular.

And if you do start to get the sense that the HR director is some sort of out-of-control rogue whose assessments aren’t based in reality, and that your manager is unwilling to assert herself on your behalf, then I’d get the hell out of there, because that’s a dangerous situation to be in. But for now, keep the open mind that you currently have, talk to your manager, gather information, and be proactive. Good luck!

{ 15 comments… read them below }

  1. Margaret*

    From this line, "I had been told confidentially by another director that something of the kind was about to happen and that he disagreed with the assessment," I think we're hearing that, rather than the HR Director passing along negative feedback, she is the one making the harsh judgment.

  2. FrauTech*

    I feel like something else is going on here. The HR Director wouldn't be arbitrarily going after "good" people. So either you've personally offended her or you are somehow a threat to her.

    Otherwise there is a shadow operator here who is too cowardly. That person could be your manager. Just because the OTHER director told you what was going to happen, doesn't mean that other director is actually standing up for you or not part of the one or two people that might be trying to get you out of there. Even if there was no obvious provocation, the HR director wouldn't be doing this if she wasn't acting on somebody else's behalf or acting in her own best interests. That's what you need to figure out.

  3. Anonymous*

    Margaret wrote what I'm thinking. Something's up with that woman, especially if the other director isn't in agreement with her evaluations.

    In going along somewhat on the lines of what Frau Tech wrote, I wonder if the HR Director just has an unspoken personality conflict with the OP – whether the OP offended her or not. It just happens.

    I wonder if it would be any good to start looking elsewhere in the meantime. I really don't want to be around people who tell me occasionally that everything is fine only to have someone come in at a big evaluation saying there are serious problems.

  4. Anonymous*

    >The HR Director wouldn't be >arbitrarily going after "good" >people.

    Really? You've never seen this happen? Hah. I have to chuckle at the naivete.

  5. Charles*

    Whatever the reason is for the behavior doesn't matter, AAM's advice of:

    "get the hell out of there"

    is the only thing that the OP really needs to do. It sounds like a very no-win situation.

    Some managers do "arbitrarily" go after decent people. Often times it could be for simple jealousy. How dare that "uppity" newcomer shine better than me! I've seen it too many times to know that it really happens.

  6. Brian*

    You might consider documenting all of your performance related conversations. If comes down to it, you may need some documentation to prove that you made good faith efforts to improve or respond to feedback to get unemployment compensation.

  7. Chrissy @ Eat Your Career*

    I'm inclined to think that this HR person is getting a bad rep for having to handle the performance issues. And AAM brings up a good point: Where IS the manager? Getting the HR director involved on the first discussion of a performance issue? That's dramatic. And I totally agree with Brian. Document, document, document. You can't overdo it in a situation where you feel like you're being wronged.

  8. Anonymous*

    I don't have a clue why you're getting mixed signals so I'll ask what's published about your work? By that I mean – your reviews, any type of feedback in writing. Use the most recent & go back looking for specific items that could indicate a trend or effective counter argument.

    Use what's published as a starting point to either grow to or counter the criticism. If a counter is indicated, BE CAREFUL in forming your reply – these things are best done in person, softly, inquisitively, can you help me because I'm getting mixed signals, manner.

    In any event – be careful in your counter. At all levels of employment there are people that like to abuse power.

  9. Emmy*

    This is great feedback, thanks.

    Brian's suggestion to document everything is especially useful. One of the concerns I've had all along is that we don't have a formal review process; a written review process is something this HR Director hasn't wanted to implement. Her argument is that informal feedback works best for our area, but this approach makes me kind of uneasy: if nothing is written down, the goal-posts can always be moved.

    I've also been thinking through 'Ask a Manager's' original response to my question and decided I'm going to have a conversation with my manager pretty much along the lines suggested. Alison, it's a shame you can't come and consult for us (-; it would probably do this division a whole lot of good.

  10. Anonymous*

    Woa! Relying on oral feedback only? Really? That screams dysfunctional right there. Honest people are willing to put their name on to their words.

    I had a corrupt HR manager too. And yes, everything was oral. One of the techniques I learned was to follow up oral conversations with an e-mail factually stating what happened in the conversation. It was always done nicely – "Hi, XXX, Just want to thank you for meeting with me. Just to ensure we are on the same page, we discussed Y and Z. You stated that… Please let me know if my understanding is incorrect. Thanks so much" I then sent it to her and BCC'd myself. At that point I had date-time stamped documentation of the conversation (sent through the company e-mail system, and therefore "discoverable evidence"). I printed a copy and saved it.

    The HR person hated it. In one case she was so enraged she sent a seething reply, essentially admitting that she had threatened me. It wasn't long after that she was demonted.

    My career at the company has since taken off. Its a great company, it just had really bad HR people in key positions.

  11. Anonymous*

    Wow, and HR professional NOT advocating for a documented performance management system? BIG RED FLAG. I've seen this before at companies like Netflix. Sr Management abdicates it's responsibility and gives HR free reign. The fact that others warned you on the way out is all the proof you need. You can document all you want but you're toast. Get Out Now!

  12. Anonymous*

    I'm in HR and I'm a big, big fan of written documentation on just about everything, even following up on oral conversations with a clarification email.

    Just be careful of those managers that don't want to ever put anything down in writing, especially when it's about something that clearly should be documented. If someone is reluctant to document their decisions in writing they�re probably making bad, questionable, or unethical decisions and they probably know it. I�d be worried about working with/for these types of people.

  13. Anonymous*

    In my current company, we unfortunately have the same situation. The HR favors ethnic groups of her own kind. The entire company acknowledges this clear discrimination but nobody wants to speak up. I happened to see that on a day-to-day basis because I see her doing unfair favors on few members of my team, and thus I being the team leader I questioned her and guess what since then the HR lady has made my own life very difficult. I have been with this company for so long and really like the science but do not know how to handle this uncomfortable situation with HR. Please advise.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You need someone in a position of authority to handle this. And if everyone knows and they’re not taking action, they’re a bigger problem than she is.

      Alternately, you could bring a discrimination complaint, but that’s not something everyone wants to take on.

  14. Anonymous*

    Unfortunately, the HR lady is very close to the person with the highest authority in the company. I did tried bringing this issue to the person with the highest authority but as expected no action was taken. Once the HR lady found it out, she made my life even more miserable. It is very sad to see that how these people completely exploit the power they have within the company.

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