Employees tend to describe their HR departments in the same way they talk about the DMV: bureaucratic, opaque, and a necessary evil. They’re seen either as management mouthpieces or oblivious cheerleaders — and sometimes both.
The role of the modern HR department is complex: administering benefits, recruiting and developing talent, improving the organization effectiveness, and helping manage transitions. They’re also a key player when it comes to employee engagement — and not surprisingly, Deloitte found that engagement was cited as the number one issue by HR professionals in 2015, along with company culture.
But if the very people whose job it is to boost engagement aren’t responding to what employees need or lowering morale, it’s time to give the HR department an extreme makeover. Here’s how to read the warning signs:
1. There’s an overactive grapevine: Every company has some watercooler gossip, but if major decisions that have to do with compensation or layoffs are being filtered through a grapevine, that’s a bigger problem. HR departments have increasingly become the bearer of bad news during the Great Recession, and they need to be candid about changes or they’re not doing their job of effectively managing change.
Worse, a lack of open communication has a direct impact on morale. Our 2013 Employee Engagement Survey found that transparency was the number one factor in contributing to employee happiness. Without it, workers are left with uncertainty and misinformation. No way will they feel confident in the company if they don’t know what’s going on.
2. They make false promises: HR professionals wear a number of hats, including recruitment, during which they’re often trying to woo employees to join your companies. If they’re making promises to potential new hires they know they can’t deliver, like “you’re guaranteed a raise after six months” or “you’ll get the best projects,” they’re setting a bad standard before the employee even comes on board. The same principle applies if they’re glossing over the truth about staffing or benefits with current employees.
Getting someone to accept the job shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of the recruitment process. Finding someone who will commit to the company is more important. Be transparent in your recruiting, even if it scares a few candidates away. A cycle of half-truths hurts morale because employees feel like they can’t trust HR — and leadership by proxy.
3. They stick to inflexible rules: While compliance is important, ultimately your employees are people, not boxes to check off. If your HR department is ignoring employees’ needs to rigidly adhere to the rules, this suggests a lack of creativity and understanding of what the modern worker is looking for in a job.
One in three American workers is a millennial, a generation that now represents the largest share in the workforce. Most of them want adaptive policies like telecommuting and flexible work hours that may be at odds with existing company rules. But an organization’s policies should evolve with the organization. An unresponsive HR department can force millennials — and others who want a modern workplace — to look elsewhere for a job.
4. They don’t understand what employees do: By definition, the HR department is in the business of managing people, so a lack of knowledge about each employee’s role is dangerous. Without it, they can’t recruit the right people or know how to keep them.
But it’s not just about memorizing job descriptions and compensation levels. David Sirota, author of The Enthusiastic Employee, suggests that HR departments take a customer-centric approach to employees to build a motivated and dedicated workforce. Connecting with the customer/employee on an ongoing basis helps to build a better baseline. Regular avenues of feedback like employee surveys can be a great a resource.
5. They ask for opinions but never follow up: The only way to enjoy the benefits of surveys is if the results are acted on or at least openly discussed. In fact, research indicates that conducting employee surveys without follow-up may drive employee engagement down. It doesn’t matter how many questions employees answer if they don’t see any results come from the effort. So if your HR department is doing a lot of surveys but isn’t helping create an action plan, they may be doing more harm than good.
Of course, HR can’t solve this problem on its own. Meaningful action on employee feedback takes buy-in from leadership, so company leaders must partner with them to fulfill this duty. Even if HR is the one to administer the survey, senior leaders should be part of any communication to employees as well as active participants in the action plan.
Don’t forget that you can find solutions right among your own workforce. Use surveys to ask employees how to solve these five problems. Consider asking these questions:
“How would you like to receive important information from HR?” Cut the guesswork and let employees tell you the best method and timing for announcements.
“Did you have accurate information about this job when you applied? What do you wish you were told during the hiring process?” Employees can share any gaps in information between what they were told and what they have experienced on the job.
“If you had the power to change one company policy, what would it be?” Of course, not every wish can be granted, but the collection of responses will show if there are any common themes. From there, you can figure out if and how your company can update its policies.
“Does HR have an accurate understanding of your job role and needs?” Here, employees can share any areas of misinformation that are undermining their relationship with HR.
“Do you feel that your feedback has an impact on how the company operates?” It’s important to ask this way because what matters isn’t just the company’s response to feedback — employees must know and believe that response as well.
HR is in a great position to help increase employee engagement. If HR departments want to be a positive factor, they must first have the employees’ trust — and that trust is earned over time. Moving away from these five common errors is one place to start. Leveraging employee surveys to pinpoint opportunities for improvement is a great way to start moving in the right direction.
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