HR has two faces. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s by design. To employees, we are the face of management. To management, we are the face of employees. This is what makes our job so darn hard.
Employees need us to be their advocate to management. We beg, borrow, and steal for increased benefits, argue that people should be disciplined, we ask for more training and opportunity for employees, we pass tissues when someone is upset, we help get them leave when a grandma is sick or a baby is on the way, etc.
Management expects us to keep them safe. We create policies that govern employee behavior, we find people so the widgets get made, we draft severance agreements when a manager screws up, we coach managers how to have tough conversations, we try to reduce liability by implementing safety programs, etc.
Some of us really like one side over the other, but both are expected and important. Problems arise when we show the wrong face. When we brag to employees just how hard we’ve been working on their behalf, management hears of it and loses trust in us. When we gossip with employees about management strategy, employees learn they can’t trust us either. When we stop advocating for employees with management, the employees know we’ve stopped. Then, they know they can’t come to us with problems – we’ll just can’t be bothered by them.
These two faces are really hard to maintain. We can’t have deep friendships with the people we work with for fear of the time when we have a tough conversation with our friend that ends in her termination. But we want to know enough about people so they feel comfortable coming to us with concerns even if we don’t partake in the party after the company party. This professional distance is important for us to do our jobs, so we’re trusted enough to do our jobs.
Sometimes, we can’t show either face until we have facts. When we hear about harassment is one of those times. We are empathetic and appreciative to the person who brought us the complaint, but we can’t make admissions like “I’m so sorry” or “We’ll make this right.” This could show the employee that we’re on her side, undermining our investigation. OR – perhaps more destructively – we show the employee our management face that’s cold and “just the fact’s ma’am” ensuring that no employee ever tells us about harassment again because we appeared to immediately take the side of the harasser. Once we have completed the investigation, we advocate to management about what should be done, even if it’s nothing. When we advocate for the ultimate penalty (termination), we put our credibility and relationship with management on the line. Then, if we lose, we have to make tough decisions for ourselves.
We don’t always win. We advocate and lose on both sides, employees and management. But even when we lose, our job is to build relationships strong enough to get past the loss so we can be ready for the next round. OR, if this loss affects our integrity, we have even tougher decisions to make. We must think about the possibility of making that decision someday. It takes guts.
We may have two faces, two jobs that sometimes conflict, but that’s the great thing of HR. We get to do both.