5 things you should know about HR

What the hell happens in HR anyway? What kind of power do they really have? Are they your advocate? A proxy for your manager? Do they keep confidences? Whose side are they on? Here are five important things that you should know about HR.

1. HR isn’t there to be your advocate. HR’s function is to serve the needs of the business; its loyalty and responsibilities are to the company. Now, in some cases, that means advocate for employees against bad managers, because it’s in the best interests of employers to retain great employees, identify and address bad management, and stop legal problems before they explode. But plenty of other times, what’s best for the employer will not be what’s best for the employee, and the best interests of the employer will always win out. That’s not cynicism; that’s simply what HR’s mission is.

2. HR isn’t obligated to keep what you tell them confidential, even if you request their discretion. HR staffers aren’t doctors or priests, and you shouldn’t assume confidentiality when talking to them. If HR reps hear information that they judge needs to be shared or used to address a problem, their job obligates them to do that. In fact, in many cases they would be being professionally negligent – or in some cases, even breaking the law – if they didn’t act.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you can never talk to HR in confidence. But you should work out the terms explicitly beforehand – and should stay aware HR is still required to report certain things, like harassment or illegal behavior, even if they agreed to confidentiality before hearing your report.

3. HR knows things that they aren’t telling you. Whether it’s that major benefits changing are approaching, or why some departments get significantly more resources than yours, or who in the organization is essentially untouchable, or who is on their way out, HR learns things in the course of their work that they’re not allowed to relay to you. If an HR rep who you normally know to be responsive is stonewalling you or seems resistant to explaining something, it’s possible that they’re simply not allowed to share something confidential. (That said, if you’re regularly not getting what you need from HR, consider pushing back or talking to a different rep.)

4. HR’s job is to support the company’s managers, not to dictate how they operate. Some companies give HR more power than they should – such as letting them control how other departments hire or make promotion decisions. But in general, if you’re a manager and your HR department is creating obstacles to your work (for instance, making it harder for you to hire great people or hire as quickly as you need to, or making it difficult for you to address performance problems forthrightly), you should push back. Escalate the situation, or find an ally higher up in the organization who can overrule HR or push for different procedures.

5. Your HR department might be great, or it might be awful. Some HR departments are tightly synced with the company’s culture and goals and do excellent work – ensuring, for example, that managers are well-trained, benefits are strong and well-administered, and salaries are benchmarked to industry and market norms and increased when needed, and are a help rather than a hindrance to the company’s managers. Others, though, focus more on holding office parties and then get in the way when managers need to hire, give feedback, and handle sticky personnel issues. A good HR department can help a company get more done. A bad HR department will just get in the way.

But there’s a huge amount of variation in HR, so don’t assume that what was true at a company you worked at previously will be true at your next.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. blu*

    #6 HR takes direction from the senior leadership like any other group in an organization. Just because HR has to implement/follow a policy doesn’t mean they came up with it.

    1. WWWONKA*

      I have seen with my own eyes the corruption of managers that is overlooked by HR. I am a firm believer that HR departments are there to protect the company and are the biggest WASTE of time if you have a complaint

      1. blu*

        I’m sure that does happen and also proves my point. HR is not some independent all powerful governing body. HR is one of a number of groups/departments in an organization that all roll up to senior leadership. As Alison said “HR’s job is to support the company’s managers, not to dictate how they operate.” If managers are being allowed to operate in a corrupt way, it’s their managers who are letting them do it. It sounds like your organization had a troubled culture across the board that can’t just be put on HR.

  2. Joey*

    #4. I would have said “if they’re creating obstacles that don’t make sense…”. Obstacles aren’t necessarily bad if they have a net benefit.

    #6. HR will be your best friend if you’re doing a good job and your worst enemy if you’re doing a bad one.

    1. Anonymous-2*

      #4) I agree with Joey and just to elaborate, sometimes hiring managers don’t understand that certain “obstacles” are there to help protect the company from lawsuits. Putting every candidate through the same, fair, interviewing process can help protect us from someone claiming that they were discriminated against. I am not saying that the obstacles at every company are due to this. Some may be due to bad, or lazy HR people, but sometimes it is a compliance thing… talking to an HR rep in your department before causing drama by going to higher ups to complain is probably the better route. Then if you determine that it is because HR has some crazy policies that make no sense and are road blocking you from your dream candidates, then take that to senior management. An example is that the other day one of our managers wanted to skip the skills test that we put our technicians through as part of our interviewing process. His reasoning was that he wanted to scoop this tech up before someone else did and thought that we could skip the time-consuming skills test. Although, I completely understood his logic there, allowing this candidate to skip the skills test, while requiring other candidates to take it is definitely something that could cause issues. To make matters worse there is a female candidate who would be potentially starting at the same time as the male candidate. Imagine if while they are talking during training about the skills assessment and figure out that the female had to take it while the male was allowed to skip it… We were able to explain it to the hiring manager and come up with a plan that worked for him while also maintaining our standards.

      1. Joey*

        A managers “HR won’t let me….” is frequently HR’s “I need you to be consistent with the rest of the organization.”

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        The problem, I think, is that HR often functions as a blunt instrument and wants everything to be the same across the board, when there are other, more nuanced methods accomplishing the business’s goals without any significant legal risk.

        1. Joey*

          Absolutely. Crappy HR folks think consistent equals never once deviates or that there’s only one means to an end.

          1. EngineerGirl*

            Crappy HR thinks “same” is the same as “equal”. As in treating everyone exactly the same (irrespective of anything) is treating them equally.

        2. SarahMarie*

          Good HR people know what guidelines are in place for a legitimate business or legal reason, and which are flexible given the circumstances. In an organization with a healthy communication flow, it wouldn’t be this “us against them” mentality. Managers and HR folks would work together to accomplish the same goal, which is; to do what is best for the business.

  3. VictoriaHR*

    Thanks for this. I see it on Reddit all the time: “HR is the reason I didn’t get hired blargh!” Um, actually, no. We just carry out dictates from on high.

    1. SarahMarie*

      I get that all of the time from candidates too. The hiring managers choose who to hire, but unfortunately I am the one who has to communicate the bad news to candidates.

  4. Anonymous*

    HR can override my manager’s permission to work from home at my job, but then the owner overrides HR, making the policy really unclear. Apparently its in the handbook though that WFH is possible with permission from your manager. I got permission, but was told 2 hours into the day of working that I was going to have to use a PTO day by HR. I went to work even tho I was told to not drive due to meds.

    Did I mention that the handbook is unfinished, and no I can’t read it until its finished?

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I read “WFH” as “WTF,” and then I read the last line of your comment. And thought “WTF?!”

    2. Jamie*

      Unclear policy is no reason to make a decision wich affects the safety of others sharing the road with you. So you drove medicated even though you shouldn’t have because HR wanted you to burn a PTO day? If you had hurt someone driving under the influence of medication it would not have been HRs fault.

      And how can you quote a handbook you haven’t been aloud to read?

  5. Jessa*

    regarding number 2 – a lot of people know this, but the truth is a lot of young people do not, they’re so used to hearing on TV that certain kinds of things are confidential. I strongly believe that any person that does NOT have a duty to keep x confidential ALSO has a duty to ANNOUNCE that when faced with someone with the OBVIOUS to them mistaken presumption that they DO. (the old “I may be a lawyer but I’m not YOUR lawyer,” bit.)

    1. fposte*

      The thing is, you often can’t tell the person assumed that until after they’ve told you the information, and then it’s too late.

    2. Rob Bird*

      I agree. I believe people take a lot of things for granted and don’t ask for clarification. They just expect HR to keep things confidential just because I asked them to.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If the HR person is hearing something that’s very useful to the business to hear, I don’t think they’re really obligated to cut in and give a confidentiality warning before letting the person go any further. Their mission is to support the business, after all.

  6. Mike C.*

    I’m currently going the rounds with HR over a promotion already approved by my managers. These are only reviewed quarterly and while my paperwork was turned in on time, it missed the spring review because HR lost my paperwork.


    I’m sorry, when I hear “HR” I think “gross incompetence”. I know not all HR folks are like that, just the ones I have to deal with.

    1. Joey*

      I’m not suggesting this is your HR, but I’ve seen HR fall on the sword when HR paperwork needing an approval is fumbled by a CFO or CEO. Happens more than you think.

      Of course if your HR sucks at other stuff they’re probably just sucky all around.

      1. SarahMarie*

        I have paperwork that has been awaiting our VP’s signature for over a month now. However, I am the one fielding calls and e-mails from angry employees wanting to know why “I” have not approved their raise.

      2. Mike C.*

        This could be the case, it’s just an excuse that’s incredibly difficult to hear when your own job deals so deeply with records management and other quality/regulatory issues. If I “lost some paperwork”, I’d be screwed.

        1. SarahMarie*

          My expense reports get lost by accounting on a regular basis. I am now just in the habit of scanning and e-mailing everything so that if it gets “lost”, I can just e-mail them a copy. Not sure if this is an option for you, but it works for me because if it is in e-mail form, they can’t tell me that they lost it or didn’t get it. When people lose my stuff, it is frustrating.

            1. SarahMarie*

              LOL how does one lose digital documents? I am sorry, your HR team sucks. I feel for you.

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      I have to agree; most of my experiences with HR have been really bad – and that’s across multiple companies. I think part of the problem is that HR mistakes can have big and acutely painful consequences. Lost paperwork can be a BFD when it involves your paycheck or benefits.

    3. LV*

      I also have to agree with you, unfortunately. I’ve had terrible experiences with HR as well, especially with the payroll people (the pay office is often part of HR in my area – I’m not sure if that’s a universal thing).

      I had an entire paycheque withheld a few weeks ago, with not even a pay stub to show why this had happened, and when I contacted the pay office to ask what was going on, I got a vague and very poorly-written email saying there was an “issue” with my pay and they were “investigating.” A few days later I got another email saying that they still hadn’t figured out what the “issue” was and that they would be withholding my pay until they fixed it! How is that an acceptable way to operate?

  7. Rebecca*

    My experience with HR has been less than positive, especially regarding payroll. I got deleted from the payroll system once (no explanation, just an “oops, sorry, we’ll mail your paycheck”). Good thing I had an emergency fund. I asked for an additional amount to be withheld for federal withholding. HR changed the withholding to that amount.

    So basically, after reading the article, there’s no one to advocate for the employee. Great.

        1. Joey*

          Nope, not a union either. They’re looking out for their own interests, too. Yes, their interests align more closely with yours. But in the end they won’t compromise their own interests for the sake of yours.

          1. De Minimis*

            Although I’m generally pro-union, I have worked in that environment in the past and I agree that you cannot always count on them to help…they tend to choose their battles. Also, many times they operate in a way where you get compensated after the fact for management breaking the rules, so nothing really changes, you just get paid a couple of months later if there’s something going on and you file a grievance.

        2. Laura*

          It’s really too bad that unions have gotten such a bad reputation, because they have accomplished many things that benefit all of us.

          For me, and I think many other people, what irks me about unions is this whole notion of not being able to get fired no matter how incompetent you are. If they could get past this mindset, I think they could accomplish much more that would benefit everyone.

          1. chikorita*

            Blame it on sleeplessness, but I kept reading “unions” as “unicorns” in your comment… had a minature giggle fit when I read the first sentence as, “It’s really too bad that unicorns have gotten such a bad reputation, because they have accomplished many things that benefit all of us.”

          2. Joey*

            This is a function of looking out for their own interests.

            Unions challenge “no brainer” reasons for firing people because:
            1. That’s what they’re obligated to do by way of collecting dues.
            2. Its in their own interest to keep dues paying members employed.
            3. Its in their interests to show other union members how valuable they are.

  8. SarahMarie*

    We are not all evil. I swear! A lot of us go into this field because we are good at communicating with people and enjoy what we do. There are bad employees at every company and some of them (Based on these examples) are in HR. It is just like the hiring manager who never gets back with me after she interviews a candidate, or the finance associate who always loses expense my expense reports, or the admin who takes forever and a day to get back with me on her manager’s availability… every organization has these people unfortunately and if your organization has them in HR and they have a lot of power, I feel for you!

  9. Ed*

    I was a little shocked when I got my first tastes of management to hear things spoken between managers and HR that were clearly “expected” to be confidential, even though HR was under obligation to do so. That was later confirmed when I became really good friends outside of work with the HR manager at a previous job. She explained to me that HR often advocates for employees but only because it is good business, not from a sense of obligation. And when a good employee gets in an argument with a manager that is a known jackhole? The manager will always get the benefit of the doubt (unless a pattern emerges) so don’t bother with HR unless you have a legitimate complaint and preferably some proof.

    I remember she also told me why HR doesn’t proactively get involved with bad managers – chain of command. Unless that manager reports to her or the president asks her to step in, she is crossing a line by getting involved. She often knew exactly what steps a manager could take to avoid/correct a problem or retain an employee but her hands were tied unless the manager asked for advice. So when employees got frustrated and wondered if HR was aware their manager was horrible, the answer was often yes.

    Personally, it has always been my belief that if your boss is a jerk it’s time to look for a new job. The only time I would go to HR is if my legal rights are being violated somehow or I know for a fact someone else is being sexually harassed.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The only time I would go to HR is if my legal rights are being violated somehow or I know for a fact someone else is being sexually harassed.

      I agree with that. (That said, I don’t really think any of what you described is horrible — HR works for the business, not for the employees.)

  10. Tony in HR*

    Regarding #2- I always tell my employees “What you tell me will stay in this room unless it involves a policy violation or something illegal.” I keep what I can confidential, but there’s so much people thinks is confidential that I have an obligation to share.

    In general, I see my position as the middle ground between the company and the employee. Yes, the company will win out in some cases, in others I have a lot more wiggle room than you might think, and in yet others I have to pass it on and it’s out of my hands.

    Don’t be afraid of your HR, but keep in mind that we’re not the moral crusaders for you just the same as we’re not always the blunt instrument to come down on you.

    1. Yup*

      It’s great that you appreciate and respect confidentiality in that way, because I imagine that it really opens up communication with employees in a way that can be really helpful to you getting to the bottom of weird situations or understanding the nuances within a given department.

      And I agree with your point about HR not being moral crusaders. I think a lot of people mistakenly view HR as an ombud who can make independent recommendations. A strong HR rep will push back on bad company policy because it’s in everyone’s interest to do so, but they’re not there to elevate your every complaint or resolve your every dispute.

  11. Elizabeth West*

    I love how the article says “What goes on behind the closed doors of HR?” And here, Alison says, “What the hell happens in HR anyway?”

    Perfect example of considering audience and tone. :D

  12. April*

    HR (as a department/function) operates the way the company wants it to operate. So, if your HR team’s operation is a common obstacle, that’s because the company wants it to be (whether it’s the CEO or the owner). If the company didn’t want it to be that way, they would have different HR people with different styles. In my experience, a crappy HR team = a company that doesn’t value its employees. Strong HR people will self-select out of this environment, and then you’re left with the dregs of HR.
    (Confession: I’ve been in HR for 20+ years, and I don’t care if you took a 73.7 minute lunch, and I don’t make interview decisions – how should I know if you have the right skills?.)

  13. workinmom*

    Its horrible because HR often PRETENDS to be.on employees side. And naive or new folks don’t know.hr.is not their advocate.

  14. Sophie*

    Slightly off topic, but my pet peeve of HR is that they often have completely incorrect understanding of what is legal and illegal.

    I’m an employment lawyer and often have to deal with a client’s HR officers after the client receives a complaint from a former or current employee. Often HR officers have a very twisted and completely incorrect interpretation of the law, which is primarily based on urban legend. All of the HR officers I’ve encountered have to be told several times that they are incorrect, and some of them still don’t believe it. Sorry, but I’m a lawyer who practices in employment law all the time – you’re wrong.

    1. Joey*

      Either that or they just don’t agree with your interpretation. Frequently that’s what it comes down to- you get legal advice from a lawyer. Its not a guarantee to keep you out of legal trouble. Its an opinion based on the law (or should be) that might be conservative, risky, or any shade of grey in between.

      I hope you don’t make a habit of implying that your interpretation is legally right and theirs is legally wrong. Because there are few things in the legal world that every lawyer and judge interpret the same way.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Since Sophie mentioned urban legends, I read this as being stuff like “it’s illegal to give detailed references,” “we have to warn people in writing before we fire them,” and other things that are categorically untrue.

  15. Laura*

    #1 I had to learn the hard way when I received an absolutely horrible and downright libelous review from an absolutely dreadful manager. We had butted heads right from the start and my days were numbered.

    This guy was hands down the worst manager I’ve ever had and he was an outright bully to me and most of my direct reports. In addition to that he was completely incompetent. I could write pages and pages about how bad a manager this guy was.

    It all culminated with his review of me, which was nothing more than a laundry list of everything he didn’t like about me. After reading it I could picture, in my mind, how he must have been practically rubbing his hands together as he prepared it.

    I went to HR. I had proof that some of his claims were outright lies. I had legitimate questions, such as why was he allowed to accuse me of all this bad behavior, but then refuse to provide me with even one concrete example of what a rotten employee I was? Many people had been to HR to complain about him – his terrible management style, his incompetence, even the way he sexually harassed some of his female employees.

    And what did HR do? Nothing. Nothing at all. It was not in their best interest to escalate anyone’s concerns to management, so they didn’t.

    1. Joey*

      I’m not saying this happened to you, but frequently there are casualties before and/or when a company does something about a crappy manager. This can mean people are unfairly fired, disciplined, reviewed, and or generally treated. Because depending on how bad the manager is they generally wait for clear evidence of wrongdoing before something is done about it. And you generally won’t know if a company is doing anything about a crappy manager until it gets to the point of termination.

      And nearly always it IS in a company’s best interest to get rid of a crappy manager.

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