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Tough Love: What Your Employees Won’t Say About HR, But I Will

HR Management
by Stephen Bruce, PhD, PHR

Special from SHRM’s Legal and Legislative Conference
Tough Love: What Your Employees Won’t Say About HR, But I Will

SHRM’s top-rated speaker, attorney Jonathan Segal, has distilled what he’s learned about HR—by listening to non-HR people—into 15 principles all HR managers should abide by.

Segal, who is a partner with law firm Duane Morris LLP in Philadelphia, shared what he’s found in engagement surveys, discussions with CEOs and COOs, and his own observations in a well-attended session at the SHRM Employment Law and Legislative Conference, held recently in Washington, D.C.

Here are Segal’s 15 principles:

1. Communicate More Frequently and Effectively

  • All your communications need to be clear, concise, and credible. (For example, saying “I had no idea this was coming” when you did know is not credible.)
  • Communicate about HR, of course, but don’t stop there. Be more of a business partner; talk about new products and services, for example.
  • Diversify the means and frequency of your communications; for example, don’t always communicate by e-mail.

2. Plain Speak English: Minimize HR-ese

It can sound like we’re hiding behind our lingo, says Segal. Phrases to avoid include:

  • Proactive
  • Value added
  • Synergistic
  • Paradigm shift
  • Outside the box
  • Opine
  • New normal

3. Be Visible and Approachable

Yes, you want to keep an open door, but that’s not enough. You want to:

  • Walk the floors.
  • Visit locations, and not just when there’s a problem.
  • Ask employees:
    • What’s working?
    • What’s not working?

Again, do not limit your inquiries to HR issues only.

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4. Help Employees Solve Problems

Again, the HR issues are a given, but be knowledgeable about and help employees solve other business problems, such as:

  • Finance and accounting
  • Sales and marketing
  • Products and services
  • Business operations and logistics
  • Technology

If you cannot solve the problem, find the right person who can.

5. Increase Recognition and Appreciation (“R&A”)

Lack of recognition and appreciation is the number one complaint of employees, says Segal. You have to make the case for R&A.

  • Improve the quality of your product or service—unengaged employees will not work to full capacity.
  • Minimize loss of talent—unengaged employees will leave.

6. Recalibrate Time

It’s typical to spend 85% of your time on your “favorite” 15% of employees. You can’t totally reverse this, but you can move along the continuum, says Segal.

  • Resolve to spend more time with A and B players (and less time with C players).
  • Reserve “outlook time,” time spent on positive employee relations.

7. Say No to GOMOs

You need to learn how to say nicely: “Get out of my office.” HR cannot be the “friend to the friendless.” You need to be direct that not every issue is an HR issue. Be kind but protect your time, says Segal.

8. Protect Employees from Retaliation

Sentence you’ve never heard: “I’ve always wanted to be falsely accused of something that is an anathema to my values.” Segal’s point is that the urge to retaliate is natural, but has to be avoided.

  • Empower employees to speak up internally (or they will do so externally).
  • Understand that employees fear retaliation (because it happens).
  • Meet with managers to make sure there is no “terms and conditions” retaliation (giving the worst assignments, no raise, for example).
  • Be aware of the possibility of retaliation by avoidance. (OK, since I get in trouble talking to this employee, I just won’t communicate with him at all.”) That’s also a form of retaliation.

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9. Protect Employees from Bullying

Bullying because of or directed at a protected group can be illegal; otherwise, bullying is not unlawful if it is directed toward an individual target due to personal animus, or at many targets (the equal opportunity bully). But that doesn’t mean that you can allow and condone bullying.

  • Clarify for managers the difference between pushing an employee hard to do better work and bullying.
  • Understand that bullying has costs in lowered morale and productivity.
  • Advocate for employees, where appropriate.

10. Be Clear of Your Role

You often have to play a mediator’s role, says Segal, but remember that you are a member of management.

  • Don’t suggest you are an employee advocate.
  • But serve as an employee advocate, where appropriate.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, the rest of Segal’s “they won’t tell you” principles, plus an introduction to a unique guide especially for smaller or even one-person HR departments.



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  1. Anonymous        
    April 23, 2013 8:12 am

    Sometimes the best way to help employees solve their non-HR problems is to just connect them with the right person. That way you build bridges without stepping on any toes, as well as position yourself as a problem solver.

  2. Anonymous        
    April 24, 2013 7:30 am

    This is good information. The problem is that HR is responsible for a lot of problems that occur in organizations! Being a 29-year HR professional, I have seen it all. My experience has been that those HR professionals that try to do the right thing and work on the behalf of everyone and not just the leaders in the organization are considered ineffective. Employees are not treated as though they are valued, only leaders! I work in a large organization and have heard that it is even worse in small companies. Bullying, Discrimination (in any area) and outright injustice is ALLOWED by a lot of HR professionals. The profession has been made to be a JOKE and very few employees as well as leaders TRUST their HR business partner.

    The HARD LOVE should be given to those who claim that they are working on the behalf of the organization, but really are not! HR people should be held accountable for the pace of change in organizations. Their influence on their customers (employees and leaders) is what impacts whether change will happen or not. They should expose those leaders and employees who are negatively impacting the change that is needed.


  3. Anonymous        
    April 24, 2013 4:52 pm

    Wow, I used to be just what you said we should be except for 7. Sometimes, you just need to spend some extra time to build a relationship. I tried to go to the employees turf, to give the employees without the confidence to come to HR, just that little tip to make it easier. I would also thell them that I have heard all the “words” since I did go to college and what is said in HR stays in HR unless they are filing a complaint or they tell me to tell someone.

    I used to do things like have a punching bag in HR. I would tell people that I would much prefer that they hit the punching bag instead of a wall, desk, another employee or their boss. People would come, at first, out of curiousity. Then employees came to talk about real issues. I saved the company tons of money that would have normally been spent fighting lawsuits or being in mediation.

    I created “Just Because” days. Just because we appreciate the work you do for the company and we would let the employees wear jeans on a Wednesday. Do you know what that meant to them? or Just Because we want you to share the new product with our vendors. All of it meant the company cared about them and it did not cost much. Since we had catalogues, we would ask for shots of their children and selt one or two to be in the catalogue. We would have Meet Your Leaders Lunches so everyone got to know each other.

    But poor me, I have been unemployed for over 2 years. It is not because I have not tried to get a job – any job in HR. I want to work desperately, but I never seem to be right for the job. I’m either overqualified, the company is going in a different direction, I’m from the wrong industry, although I always thought one could transfer skills. I have read that it is actually good to move from one industry to another so the status quo is NOT maintained. I know I write too much and I guess I talk too much, but I have a passion for HR, business, people, the future, technology and making a difference. I guess, now, if you are unemployed too long or appear too old, that doesn’t matter. I find it sad that certain people in companies, today, prefer people who are not seasoned, are expected to leave in a short period of time taking what they have learned with them, only to start the hiring and training process again, without having backups with extensive knowledge, who have a certain work ethic, who would be so extactic just to have a job. The world has changed, but is it for the better?

  4. Anonymous        
    April 25, 2013 8:05 am

    Jonathan – another great article! I strive hard to be the HR manager that has learned not to say “no” (directly). There’s always a way to address concerns; sometimes it just takes a little more time and attention! As HR professionals, we MUST be aware of our customers (while balancing the fine line of protecting the Company.)

  5. Anonymous        
    April 25, 2013 9:08 am

    This is a great list! Also I have found it helpful to establish an ethical line (what I will do and what I won’t do) before any issue should come along. That cuts down on sleepless nights when managers want to make you into a “tool”.