our HR director has gone rogue — and everyone’s afraid of her

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 worried about my own position. After about six months of what I believed was good performance based on feedback from my manager, the HR director came into my office one day and told me that my job was on the line due to “serious issues” with 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 this HR director. I feel I have 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. I’d also be curious to know what your take in general is on this situation: is this 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 dysfunctional about this whole set-up, which many of my colleagues believe?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 72 comments… read them below }

    1. AMG

      I was just coming to say that. I read the comments from the original post 5 1/2 years ago, and she said she was going to talk to her manager but no follow-up on what became of that discussion.

      1. Amber Rose

        That’s because they never found the body.

        I can’t be the only one who thinks this reads like a setup for a horror movie?

        1. Blue Anne

          “Gone rogue” makes me think of the HR director smearing black paint under her eyes and roaming the office, ninja-like, with a staple remover in each hand.

      1. Formica Dinette

        People sometimes give me a hard time about keeping all those emails–until I pull up that bit of information they desperately need that only exists in a single email from an employee who left the company three years prior. ;)

        1. Hlyssande

          Seriously. I have a pass from my boss regarding our email record retention policies for exactly that reason. I can’t say how many times I’ve been able to pull out an old email that had exactly what we needed in it.

        2. JessaB

          Yes, I am also an information packrat, data storage is always cheap and as storage methods change I always update (floppy discs, to smaller ones, smaller ones to CDR, etc.)

          I have been able to pull out 20 year old things that people need because I don’t bother throwing it away since it’s SOOOOO cheap and does not take up too much space to actually keep the information in question.

  1. lowercase holly

    has anyone else been able to sign up with Inc using Facebook? i’d rather do that than create a new username/password in order to read the article. is Inc just currently having signup issues or is it just me?

      1. BRR

        I wonder if it would be helpful to throw in something with your Inc articles about their viewing policy.

      2. Ad Astra

        You know, I’ve never had any problem accessing the Inc stories, but the stock art doesn’t show up for me! Not a real problem, but I do sometimes feel left out when people comment on the especially good ones. I have a feeling using a different browser would fix it.

          1. Ad Astra

            My guess is that there’s an ad blocker or something installed on my work computer. But I can still read the columns, so that’s good enough for me.

      3. YaH

        I’ve noticed that I can view the story the first time on Inc just fine, but if I try to reopen it it redirects me to the signup page every time after.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          If you’re outside the U.S. or using an ad blocker, Inc. may ask you to register in order to read more than one article there. That’s because they otherwise aren’t able to earn any revenue from those page views, which they’re of course dependent on.

  2. My 2 Cents

    I’m slightly confused on your response. You mention that she should wonder why this came from HR and not from her own managers and she should figure out if that’s their system to determine if this woman is rogue or not, but the OP says she did hear from another director that what she was about to hear from HR was not what the others were in agreement on, so it wasn’t the “company line”, which to me indicates that she did hear from her manager, or someone with authority that this isn’t how the company works and that it indicates that the HR person appears to be doing things on her own.

    I guess what I am saying is that it completely ignored the other information that she received from someone else in the company, which indicates a disagreement in management, and how she should navigate that system knowing that there is disagreement above her. How should OP handle that situation where she is receiving two different pieces of feedback from two different people who both think they are “in charge”?

  3. Biff

    This statement freaks me out: “I had been told confidentially by another director that something of the kind was about to happen and that he disagreed with the assessment.”

    If he disagreed with the assessment, he should have been present when the HR Lady showed up. Regardless of whether the HR lady is having tough conversations with employees or is just making up performance issues, the OP appears to be in the middle of a war taking place in this office. There’s no way, IMO, to succeed in those circumstances without developing some habits that will haunt you at a normal job.

    1. Harryv

      It also hints that it was the HR Lady who initiated the performance issue, not the director who is likely her manager. Craycray.

      1. Business Cat

        Or, even wackier still, the director could have been complaining about the performance issue to the HR Lady but didn’t have the wherewithall to discuss it with the actual employee. Then, when enough incidents had occurred that the HR Lady decided that action needed to be taken, the director “warned” the employee to make him/herself look like the good guy in the scenario. I say this because something extremely similar and dysfunctional happened at my last job and, given that the OP seems to feel that the HR Manager could be taking on managing responsibilities the other managers/directors are shirking, it could be plausible here.

  4. Anna

    I thought this was a really interesting letter, and a really level-headed response (I didn’t see it the first time around), but did you see the article just below it, on Linked In’s Bring Your Parents To Work Day? That is insane!

      1. the gold digger

        Employees who feel valued and happy are more productive

        Not according to my organizational behavior professor in grad school, who said that there is no research to validate this assumption. However – it has been a while since I took that class, so perhaps there has been research since then.

        (She said, “Slaves are very productive. And people who spend all day at work talking around the water cooler are very happy.”)

          1. Adonday Veeah

            And nobody told clued her in about what they were actually talking about around that cooler.

        1. Techfool

          I go to work to work, not chat. If I’m not working I’d rather be sleeping, or knitting, or reading, or dancing. Wasting time with colleagues is just a thing to do because there is nothing else. It’s way down the list of things I’d choose to do given free choice. Every now and then is okay but day after day is boring. The day whizzes by when I’m busy.

  5. HRish Dude

    HR should never, ever, ever, ever be able to make decisions on personnel. They especially should not be able to supercede the judgment of the manager.

    For one thing, we have no way of knowing who is a good performer and who is a bad performer unless that comes from management. I can’t even begin to count the number of associates who I assumed were fantastic that turned out to be all kinds of problem children.

    I’m thrown repeatedly by these situations where an HR person gets someone fired or refuses to hire someone. The only instances when someone has been fired for their interactions with me where because a) a person handed me a fake ID for their I9, b) a person pulled down their pants in orientation, and c) a person tried to steal the orientation computer in the middle of orientation.

    1. Biff

      I think when it comes to direct job performance that they shouldn’t be able to step in and make a decision for the manager, but in cases with inter-office issues or non-performance issues they may have to. For example, Dean is a new college hire and his manager thinks Dean is great! He’s knocking it out of the park. Dean is in a position that is tough to fill, train, and a retain. However, Dean is interacting inappropriately with Cody, who has severe development delays but is none the less a great mailroom clerk. HR discusses that Dean is mean with Dean’s manager, who doesn’t see the issue. I think then it’s okay for HR to take on the issue on their own.

    2. FD

      I have seen the fake ID before, with people not legally allowed to work in the US.

      But come on, you can’t just say those last two without providing details! I want to know about the person who tried to steal the computer!

      1. HR Caligula

        I’ve been involved in 15 years of mass seasonal hiring, the array of interested candidates is fascinating.

    3. Adonday Veeah

      Get back here RIGHT THIS MINUTE and explain this! My ability to sleep tonight is dependent on receiving details.

    4. HRish Dude

      Okay, I didn’t mean to leave everyone hanging:
      – The fake ID was a social security card that they had whited out the original name on.
      – Depantser wore scrubs on his first day. He was not working in a clinical job. In the middle of the orientation presentation on the dress code, he stood up and took his pants off. I cannot really explain it to put logic into it because it was as bizarre as it sounded. Also he was a manager. I actually kept it together until a stopping point and went back to tell the HR Director, he asked the people in the room and everyone confirmed and he was shown out.
      – For the laptop theft, we were on a 15 minute break. I stepped out of the room and came back. Apparently – in front of everyone still in there – this guy grabbed the laptop and put it in his bag and walked out. When he was confronted on it by security after they saw him walk out to his car with it, he said he was “trying to feed his family”. To me, it seems like having a paying job would have done better than stealing the laptop.

        1. Dynamic Beige

          Torn between wanting it to be commando or some kind of really bizarrely patterned underwear because that would be funnier. There must have been underwear because if he exposed himself, he could have been arrested not just walked out of the building — there would have been more furor.

      1. FD

        Thank you for the update.

        I am truly impressed with your ability to not loose it until the next break. I feel like this should have been the climax of a sitcom episode!

      2. Evan Þ

        So he took off his pants in the middle of a presentation on the dress code. I’m desperately trying to think up some reason that might make a bit of sense… did he think everyone needed a demonstration of what not to do? Did he suddenly realize his pants were violating some part of the dress code, and decide that taking them off was the best way to get into compliance?

        1. HRish Dude

          I honestly don’t remember everything else around it, but he was making some nonsensical point and then to just put a period on the whole thing VOOM no pants.

      3. knitchic79

        Was the pantsless wonder trying to sabatoge the job he had with you, to avoid backing out of accepting your offer? I mean that is completely bizarre behavior so that may put some weirdly rational spin on it. He maybe wasn’t “fired” per say and can now accept a better offer that came through after he accepted yours.

    5. Anlyn

      That’s some serious chutzpah, trying to steal an orientation computer right in the middle of orientation.

  6. HM in Atlanta

    My constant refrain regarding HR is this: However HR operates, if it’s good or if it’s bad, that’s what the company leaders want. HR has no special powers to control a company.

  7. _ism_

    Is this my old job? Wow, the HR director sounds just like the one where I recently quit. The only difference is she wasn’t tasked with giving performance feedback (but she gave it anyway, at her whim).

    The day my company rolled me over to a permanent employee I met with her to go over the benefits package and my options. I had some complicated questions regarding my health insurance situation at the time, and I had done a lot of research on my situation before coming to her with questions. She derailed every question with phrases like “you don’t need to worry about that, just sign this,” and when I stated again that I needed specific information to guide me in my choices, she ended the meeting and complained to my supervisor that I was an “argumentative know-it-all.” I ended up spending the rest of the day secretly calling the health insurance provider myself because HR lady shut down our conversation and gave me 24 hours to sign paperwork.

    And that’s just one example. Whenever my supervisor was out of the office, she took it upon herself to give me tasks and tell me how to do my work and made up rules that only applied to me. Part of my job was printing large (500 pages) documents and copying them on short notice. On the days my boss was out, HR lady insisted that I use the inkjet printer because my documents were “hogging the main printer.” Needless to say my 500 pages did not get printed those days and I took the heat for it later. She would also nitpick my clothing choices and food choices when my boss wasn’t there to overhear, even though I was following all the office rules. She purposely left me out of company directories and phone lists (her job was to update them), meaning I had to go sweetly ask her to please include me every single time a new list was published. It got to the point where I avoided talking or interacting with her for any reason and asked my boss to come with me anytime it was necessary to meet with her. One time I had to report sexual harassment, and I was absolutely floored by how much favoritism she showed to the male employee I was reporting. She didn’t even try to use PC language. I had other sexual harassment incidents later on and was afraid to report them anymore because of how my first report was handled. And she spent most of her day loudly on her desk phone having personal calls or gossiping with other managers about all the employees personal hardships and medical issues!

    My boss always said she had my back when going up against HR lady, but defended this lady in the same breath. “She’s an HR professional and she has been with the company for 20 years and she is very good at her job. I know she can be a pain and I’ll go with you if you need to meet with her, but she knows what she’s doing and this is how it’s always been here.” Etc.

    Ugh.

    I have a new job now.

    1. Elizabeth West

      She was a horrible bully and your boss was a wimp, and I’m glad you got out of there. I hope she got fired spectacularly after that (probably not, but we can dream).

      1. neverjaunty

        I imagine that some employee at some point filed a harassment lawsuit, and then HR lady became an enormous, enormous liability.

        Also, OldBoss is an ass.

          1. neverjaunty

            I once dealt with a lawsuit where we were deposing a corporate representative, and we learned ahead of time that many years earlier, she had been the HR head for her company – and dealt with a racial discrimination lawsuit by shredding the entire file of written complaints after the lawsuit was filed. As you can imagine, the jury in that case took a dim view of her destroying evidence and the plaintiff got a huge award.

    2. Mike C.

      I hate the “oh so and so is just a ~*~know-it-all~*~ complaint. That sort of open anti-intellectualism just makes me want to smack someone.

      1. _ism_

        Thank you. I hate to sound pretentious, and it was never a problem in previous locations. (I’ve spent my adult life in liberal college towns.)

        But I moved to the Methamphetamine Belt recently, and my last employer got a GREAT deal on me. I was desperate and had a very sketchy job history, but it was still apparent that I’m an intelligent and capable person. My boss even told me she had never considered looking for an assistant with college coursework, because all the people around here who decide to go to college… well, they leave the area and don’t come back. I’m an intellectual minority and I paid for it dearly.

    1. RVA Cat

      Based only on what we have in the letter, I’m assuming the “communication problem” was the Unacceptable Inability to Read the HR Director’s Mind.

  8. Dax

    Ha, ‘communication problems’ or ‘interpersonal skills’ are for when they give super-vague feedback that you can’t act on because you don’t know what they mean. Do you need to be more direct? Less direct? Use more authoritative language? Listen more? Change body language? It could be anything. How ironic that the HR director was herself unable to articulate the actual ‘communication issue’!

  9. frequentflyer

    Sounds like my current job (which I am leaving soon, yay!)

    So basically the HR Director has the power to reject promotions nominated by the heads of business units. Also, some VPs might suddenly be let go (we have a 3-month notice period, but they would be let go in a month) in a secretive, hush-hush manner, and the next thing we know, the new VP who comes in was previously connected to the HR director/CEO. Recently, a department was made redundant (hush-hush and within a month) and the portfolio and headcount capacity went to HR Director (so she has a larger portfolio and gained more control and influence). Once, a union guy made a random false complaint (with zero basis) against his head of department and the HR Director didn’t do anything to verify it, and just went on to hold a disciplinary hearing for the HOD, with a whole bunch of senior management and CEO present… the HOD was then proven innocent but so many people’s time was wasted! O_o Not to mention the reputational damage caused to the HOD involved…

    The backstory is that the HR Director and CEO are having an affair. We are a listed multi-national with revenue in the billions. Go figure.

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