The delicate balance of HR: Leadership

This is the first article in a three-part series about human resources.
Part 2:
Employees | Part 3: Inside

It is easy to hate human resources professionals. In small or startup organizations, they are constantly delivering bad news: benefits have changed, and the costs have gone up; no, there is no money for raises; we are in a hiring freeze and so on.

If they are not bringing the bad news to us, we often have cause to seek it out from them. HR is the place we go when our benefits get screwed up, our pay is incorrect or we are just sick and tired ofhow annoying our co-worker is. It is no wonder HR gets a bad reputation.

In this article series, we will look at the department from three perspectives: the leader, the employee and inside HR to illustrate the delicate balance required to grow and maintain a functional department that contributes positively to the organization and its culture. We will start with the leadership perspective.

The function of HR

Per the Society for Human Resources Management and World at Work, HR encompasses everything from total rewards (benefits, compensation, culture and work/life balance) to the employee life cycle (recruit, hire, retain, fire) and everything in between (ethics, corporate social responsibility and business acumen).

The degree to which the department is responsible for these functions depends largely on how many employees are in the department and how much power they have impacting these areas. And both decisions are determined by the organization’s leadership.

From the top, from the start

From the leadership perspective, there are normally two basic challenges with HR:

  • HR is not capable of implementing what the leadership wants
  • it is unclear to leadership what HR can do

In small or startup organizations, the HR department is normally one person who took on the role — as well as other responsibilities — because he/she could or was asked. Sometimes, the department grows to include reception, the office manager, a generalist or a recruiter depending upon the needs of the organization.

Because of this beginning, the staff are normally not trained or experienced in what it would take to guide the leadership team with strategic advice. In such situations, HR is not capable of filling every role and often, because of what HR looks like, the leadership is unclear as to what else HR can or should do.

As organizations grow, more experienced or trained HR staff may be added, but this tends to be as a reaction to address pain points — like hiring a recruiter to address hiring needs. This growth process does not help improve the strategic level of the department or the potential of the function to help leadership achieve its goals.

Some organizations anticipate this problem and start by hiring a higher-level HR employee. Unfortunately, similar problems arise as the higher-level person is still not appropriately supported and becomes quickly mired down in administrative and tactical requirements of the job as opposed to the strategic aspects he/she was hired to do.

Next steps

It is thus incumbent upon leaders to understand the potential of a fully functioning HR team to create and support a successful HR department. With that understanding, leaders are in a stronger position to establish and maintain clear expectations of HR and align those expectations with both the support provided to the department and the communications surrounding its role.

With knowledge of the breadth and depth to which HR could support organization objectives, leaders can make appropriate decisions as to how to staff the team. With the appropriate team in place, both HR and leadership can work and communicate in unison as to the purpose and goals of the team.

Then, with an informed leadership and consistent communication with HR, staff will be better able to work with HR to nurture and grow the desired work environment.