Learn from HR professionals on how to navigate the challenges of maximizing productivity while keeping employees happy
The Human Resources Dilemma
Recent news has put the role of the human resources (HR) function - usually regarded as a back-office department - in the limelight. A group of junior bankers at Goldman Sachs made waves when they disclosed that they were unlikely to stay at Goldman in six months if working conditions remained unchanged. As reported by the New York Times, the junior bankers said they worked an average of around 100 hours per week, with most saying they considered themselves victims of workplace abuse. In response, Goldman Sachs says that they will be enforcing the “Saturday rule” - this means that employees cannot work from 9 p.m. Friday to 9 a.m. Sunday except in certain circumstances - to try and ensure their employees have at least one day off each week.
Meanwhile, in the UK, Oprah Winfrey's explosive interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Meghan, brought up a number of questions - including one that concerns the HR department at Buckingham Palace. According to the BBC, Meghan says, "I went to human resources, and I said, 'I just really - I need help'”, adding that her request was denied since she is not a "paid employee of the institution". The BBC asks a question that perhaps crossed the minds of many of us: “Is there really a Human Resources department?” BBC royal correspondent Jonny Dymond says, "There's no HR department for working royals because it's a family affair.” But there is an HR manager for lower level royal staff and the household.
As highlighted in the above cases, HR professionals often have to walk a tightrope between prioritizing business objectives and caring for the welfare of the employees. In addition, HR managers may find that their hands are tied due to existing policies that don’t cover all eventualities.
Well, if you work in or aspire to work in HR, what can you do to address this fundamental HR dilemma? We asked this question to HR insiders from a range of organizations, and here are 5 of their best recommendations.
Tip #1. Build strong relationships with higher management
As a HR professional, one of the most important things you can do is to establish strong professional relationships with the upper management of your company.
This excellent advice is offered by Rolf Bax, Chief Human Resources Officer at Resume.io. “It is inevitable that there will be times during your career as an HR professional where you will need to advocate for an employee and there will be a conflict of interest with the company,” Bax says. “In these instances, having strong working relationships with upper management tends to give you much more latitude to make concessions and work with and for the employee when it is the right thing to do.”
Tip #2. Maintain your professional distance
You are likely to feel strongly about advocating for employees’ wellbeing in your HR role. Nevertheless, Bax emphasizes that HR professionals have to remember that they ultimately work for the organization, not the employees.
Bax says, “It is important for an HR professional to maintain a certain level of emotional distance from the workers they manage and accept the fact that they work for the company, not the employees. Eventually there will be a situation in which you will have to work against the interests of an employee for the benefit of the company and staying as emotionally disinterested as possible is necessary when doing your job.”
Tip #3. Be transparent
Many of our respondents agree that it helps to be transparent when implementing changes that will affect employees - even when those changes could impact the employees negatively.
Bill Harrison, CTO of ComplianceBridge explains, “When people are blindsided by a policy that puts the good of the company over the good of the employee, it feels like an attack. Thoroughly explaining the need, benefits, and potential repercussions of an organizational change before enacting it will help employees understand why something is happening.”
Harrison adds, “Inviting employees into the conversation lets them be part of the positive momentum, instead of being unwittingly swept away by it. By listening to the voices of your employees, and actively addressing their concerns, you can demonstrate your respect for them - even if you can’t give them exactly what they asked for.”
Tip #4. Be an agent of change
As a HR manager, you get to have input into the working lives of both employees and employers. This gives you an incredible opportunity to be an agent of change.
“Something I have always tried to do is use my position in HR as a means for change that makes the organization more human and hospitable to employees,” Bax says. “Diversity and inclusion flow outwards from human resources and if you remember that and make that part of your job and mission, you can help build a company where business objectives and employee welfare are more harmonized.”
Tip #5. Decide on the approach that works best for you
This question of how to balance the needs of the employees and the best interests of the company is clearly a topic on which people have strong opinions. The HR professionals we spoke to have a diverse range of opinions.
For example, some HR leaders believe in prioritizing employees’ welfare.
“If you are going to compromise on a decision between pursuing a business goal and sacrificing employee welfare, err on the side of employees,” Janelle Owens, HR Director at Test Prep Insight says. “Richard Branson once said ‘Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.’ It is mission critical that you not lose sight of the fact that your employees are your #1 asset. If pursuing a new business goal and hitting some numbers would come at the cost of employee welfare or satisfaction, my advice is to not pursue that goal.”
On the other hand, there are also HR professionals who believe that the team goals should come first.
Emily Connery, Head of People and Talent at ChartHop says, “Think Roles, Goals, then Souls,” writes “In approaching organization planning, we should first consider the goals of the teams we are planning for, then the roles needed to achieve those goals, and finally the people (or souls) we have or need. It is tempting for managers and HR to want to start with the people. We know the people, we care about the people, we want to make sure they all have what they want. But it is actually backward to start there if we want to most efficiently achieve business goals.”
You may agree with one of the above arguments, or you may hold a different view. In any case, you should decide on the approach that works best for you while taking into account its appropriateness within the context of your organization. This will help you do your job most effectively.