The HR department is often seen as a listening ear and a place for people to go whenever they want to chat with someone. Sometimes it can become a place where people dump all manner of complaints and problems. This can take many different forms, such as an employee venting to HR about all their problems when they’re having a hard day. The issue might be work-related or perhaps it’s a personal problem. There are also times when leaders dump on HR. When a difficult conversation needs to be had with a member of their team, it’s often easier for them to ask HR to have the conversation for them. While the HR department should be a safe place for employees and leaders to talk about real problems in the workplace, becoming the workplace dumping ground can quickly become a big problem for the following reasons:
1. It’s a major time-waster. The HR department has better things to do than mediating between employees because “so-and-so is eating fish for lunch and it’s smelling up my cubicle”. For the most part, small issues like this should be dealt with at an individual level. When HR intervenes it only takes their time away from other more important things and balloons the tiny issue into a big problem when all it would have taken to resolve the issue is a quick conversation between two people.
Another common issue is when employees bring their personal problems to work. There is certainly a time and place for discussing personal problems at work (i.e. when they significantly impact your ability to do your work), but the HR department shouldn’t be the listening ear for all personal problems.
2. It can promote distrust within the organization. When employees are frequently having meetings with HR and the managers have no idea why or don’t receive any feedback, distrust of HR can quickly spread through the organization. It is important that HR communicate effectively with managers to keep them in the loop (when appropriate) and empower them to better lead their people.
When minor problems are constantly being brought up with HR, it can become easy for employees to spout off small frustrations they have with the people they work with, rather than talking to them directly. When problems are constantly dumped on HR the tone of conversations can become gossip-y, which is never beneficial to an organization.
3. It’s a lost opportunity to develop leaders. When an employee goes to HR to discuss an issue that they have with their leader or their team, HR’s common response should be, “Have you discussed this with your manager?” and should encourage them to do so. It is then appropriate for HR to call and keep the manager in the loop and give them the heads up that the employee will likely come to discuss a particular issue with them. Of course, there are absolutely circumstances where an employee should go to HR. For example, if an employee has a harassment complaint against their direct manager or doesn’t feel comfortable going to their leader for some other reason, it is then appropriate to go directly to HR.
On the flip side, when a leader comes to HR and asks to, “please talk with Sarah because she really needs to step it up”, then leaders are not doing their job, which is leading their team. Again, there are certainly situations where HR should be involved (i.e. throughout the corrective action process), but conversations such as the example above should be had between the employee and the leader. Even in scenarios like the one above, HR can provide the Leader with support regarding how to approach the conversation, but the conversation should be had between the leader and the employee. This openness between a leader and the employee will likely result in a better and more effective working relationship.
There are times when HR must be involved (to ensure HR best practice when dealing with a particular situation or to ensure compliance with employment legislation). There are also times where it may make sense for HR to be involved from a coaching standpoint. For example, when a leader or employee is unsure of how to approach a conversation, HR should be consulted. However, HR should never become a middle-man between a leader and his/her employee. You can’t outsource caring for an employee or leading your team to HR. That’s your job as a leader. HR can assist and coach but should act in a way that empowers leaders, as opposed to taking power or trust away from them.
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