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A Day in the Life of HR: “How did this become even remotely an HR issue?”

This blog post is part of our “Day In the Life” series offered this summer.

Somehow, as issues or ideas arise, or more accurately, when people are looking to delegate (or let’s be honest, unload) an unpleasant or ridiculous task, it somehow winds up in the HR department. Or else it’s an initiative that’s a great idea but they don’t know who should be responsible for it.

The logic usually goes like this: “Well, there are people involved. HR deals with people. Therefore, HR should look after it.” And that’s how we wind up organizing a Christmas party for a bazillion children on a Saturday afternoon.

Or have to talk to someone else’s employee about their body odour problem.

Or someone lost their money in the break-room vending machine and takes it up with HR.

Or there’s an idea to pursue an environmental greening initiative, which sounds kind of “out there like HR”, but couldn’t possibly be taken on by Building Operations who actually look after the facilities because they’re not fun or necessarily “green” community people like HR should be.

Or maybe, and it happens more frequently than most would imagine, someone’s unable to look at a calendar to find out what day of the week Christmas is – so they ask someone in HR. (By the way, despite my 2 Christmas-related remarks, I don’t actually dislike Christmas, just all the nonsense that comes with it, especially in the workplace. And pretty much anything around the administration of Christmas, like shopping, decorating, family politics, cookie exchanges – just not the holiday itself.)

Now, I would argue that all of these people looking for our help use computers or can dial a phone, so it must be an IT issue. But somehow, no one wants to take these issues to IT, and from what I hear, IT gets their own collection of bizarre requests so we’ll leave them alone. For now. So it becomes a predicament: If you just say, “No”, then you get viewed as not being a team player. In fact, you might even hear, “Those folks in HR always say ‘No’.” We are oftentimes viewed as the killjoys who say, “No, you can’t do that.” They usually forget we’re saying “No” to something illegal/unethical/ludicrous, but they don’t usually remember what it was, just that we said, “No” to them. And then we’re painted as saying “No” to everything. But in the same token, we get viewed as the people-pleasers and that we should be saying, “Yes, of course, it’s all rainbows and unicorns for our employees.” Which is interesting, because you’d think we’d either be viewed as Yes People or No People, but not both. But then again, we are frequently seen as a fluffy friendly lot until layoffs occur, then we’re seen as the Grim Reapers. But that’s another discussion for another day, our identity crisis challenges.

Of course, saying nothing is not an option, because to do that is to silently agree to organizing the employee carpool or cleaning out the fridge in the lunchroom or what have you. Rock, hard place, you. There you are.

So what’s an HR Professional to do? While I’m no expert on diplomatic relations in the workplace, given HR’s focus is to be on spending time within the business and delivering/coordinating initiatives that strategically support the business, I do know that taking on a time-sucking, thankless job will be one heck of a detour from what we’re supposed to be doing. Yes, I know, we need to get in the trenches with employees and do things with (and sometimes to) them, but there is a limit to our time, like any other department.

Here are some steps that might help – employ all or some of them, however you see fit:

1. Wherever possible, buy some time. “I’ve got a lot going on right now (or I’m on a deadline), let me think about it and get back to you.” This allows you to go back to them and say “No”, it gives them a reality check that HR isn’t a doormat, and also, if you’re lucky, they’ll be impatient and go ask someone else.

2. Determine that honestly, this is not an initiative you need to be taking on right now, due to priorities or limited resources. Disliking the initiator of the request isn’t reason enough, nor are guilty feelings or people-pleasing tendencies.

3. Once you’ve bought your time and thought about it, go back and say “No” and be polite but firm.

4. You don’t have to offer an explanation why you won’t take on their challenge, but any combination of the following might work:

  • “We’ve got a number of urgent priorities on the go right now and I don’t know when we could get to that.”
  • “We don’t have the bandwidth/resources.”
  • “We’re on a tight deadline and if I do this, the wheels will come off the whole project.”
  • “I couldn’t get to it until weeks from now.”

5. You could offer to point them in the right direction or give them a few ideas on how to manage the project/issue. Especially if it’s a “My employee smells” issue – go ahead and coach away but don’t take that one on yourself. Their stinky employee, their issue to deal with. Let’s face it, when it comes time to give that stinky employee a raise, they’ll gladly do that. But deal with a not-fun conversation? Why dump it on HR?

6. Send them to IT. Just kidding. Don’t do that, or the IT folks will disconnect you from the network or hack your Facebook account.

7. Cover your assets. If you need to, give your boss the heads-up about your “No.” This way, if someone goes up the food chain over your head, you already have that base covered. So say “No”, be nice, and remember, tackling the vending machine for a refund does not support the business, nor HR’s credibility. Just because the request comes from a human, it doesn’t necessarily have to be performed by HR.

Again, I’m not suggesting to be a “b with an itch” or not a team player and say “No” to everything, just the crazy far-fetched items that really have nothing to do with supporting the business. Non-value added items or items that others can do don’t have to be our burdens just because it has something to do with a human, therefore it must be Human Resources’ issue. Because let’s face it – you know those Performance Reviews we’re nagging everyone about? Well, our personal Performance Reviews should have just as many meaningful accomplishments on them as everyone else has.

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