The (Not-So) Secret Life of an HR Manager

“I don’t want to make a fuss,” the call agent said, a concerned look etched onto his unripe face.  “It’s just…she really does smell, and it’s getting really difficult to sit next to her without gagging.  I feel like it’s starting to affect me, you know, on a psychological level.”

Then he said the thing all HR Managers dread.

“Can we keep this off the record?”

In my time as a lone HR Manager, I think the words “off the record” were the most overused by the people coming to see me.  Of course, what this really meant was that they wanted free rein to moan as much as they liked and for as long as they wanted to in my office (usually clutching a steaming mug of tea they’d just made for themselves), but they didn’t actually want me to help them do anything about it.  Or indeed, do anything about it on their own.

“Thing is,” our agent continued predictably, “I don’t want you to say anything because she’ll know it came from me, and I really don’t want her to know I’ve said anything.”

These cosy little chats would usually finish at this dead end, with people shuffling back off to their desks after telling me to please keep whatever they’ve said completely confidential, promise?

Sometimes I could, and sometimes I couldn't – such as when a work experience girl came to see me once, crying and telling me she was being bullied by her manager.  

I wouldn’t be able to keep something as serious that to myself whether I wanted to or not, but I think that’s why some people are mistrustful.  A lot of them think HR is there solely as a special confidential service for them to pour out all their problems to.  But it’s their friends and family they should be using for that.

I started working life as a customer service manager for a startup, before moving into HR because it didn’t have contracts or handbooks.  Chaos ensued as our beloved startup grew into a real business, and nobody, managers and staff alike, knew if they should be entitled to sick pay, or who to complain to if someone spilt their coffee on them, or stole their lunch from the communal fridge.

I’ve been in it long enough to know how important good HR really is, but wherever I’ve worked in the past I’ve endured managers looking down their noses at me because they saw what I did as an overhead.   It wasn’t until I helped them avoid a costly tribunal case that they saw the worth of my profession.

The staff could also often view me suspiciously for being “on the side of the company” instead of theirs.  To some extent that was true – I was being paid by the company, after all! – but I saw my role as one of a bridge between staff and management, helping both to see the other's point of view and using legislation and policies only as a last resort. 

It’s not an easy job, stuck in the middle of two often warring sides, and you quickly learn how petty people can be.  Top of the list of obsessions were timekeeping and everybody working the exact same number of hours, minutes and seconds as each-other.  If someone left a few minutes earlier than usual, or took five minutes extra for lunch, it would often end up in my office with a request for me to “step in” – as long as I didn’t let on who told me about the lateness! 

People often tried to use me as a shield for their own thoughts and behaviour, so I really got to see who the brave and decent people were, and who were the cowards.  It’s a wonderful job for observing human behaviour!  A huge part of the job involves encouraging people to deal with issues by simply having a friendly (or if they can’t manage that, polite) conversation.  You’d be amazed how easily most office problems could be resolved that way.  But it seems to be the hardest thing for most people to actually do, even for those who are trained in it. 

In an ideal world, managers would be patient with their underperforming members of staff, giving them specific targets and time to improve, or even just talk about things that might be holding them back.  Unfortunately, it was more common for them to storm into my office fuming about how someone “just isn’t working out” and asking me how much it would cost to “get rid of them.”   

Often we would be talking about people with years of experience, who may once have represented a lot of value to the company but who now, for some reason, managed to get on the wrong side of the wrong person.  If this happened, unfortunately it was always far healthier for the person concerned to cut their losses and move on.  

It was often sad to have to tell people in saccharine words that their services were no longer required, but it was often for the best.  For them, not the company, which could really lose out just by having a few shortsighted members of the management team and a general unwillingness to accept and sensibly manage the basic fact that people tend to respond incredibly well to interest, empathy and common sense.

As much as I would try to persuade managers to have a bit more patience with their people, to talk to them or to just train them properly, a lot didn’t want to – they didn’t know how, they weren’t really interested in learning how, and they didn’t want the hassle.  Managers like this are not particularly bothered about the company’s reputation, it’s just the easiest option for them at the time. 

The result is that any really good staff these companies have will up sticks to competitors, because the simple fact is that decent people who are good at their jobs know their worth, and they’re not interested in working for companies that treat their people unfairly.  Unfortunately, this piece of basic logic was often lost on the people right at the top. 

On another, more trivial, note I found that you can’t really have work friends when you’re in HR – it’s too awkward.  I knew what everybody earned, and who was on a final warning or who might have been in line for promotion, so it got too difficult.

I didn’t go to after work drinks very much; whenever I did there would always be playful nudging of arms amidst the classic, “careful, HR’s listening, don’t say too much or you’ll be in a disciplinary on Monday morning!”  People meant it as a joke, but there was an element of truth in the fear that I was secretly jotting down everything they said, so I could gleefully put it on their file or tell their manager about it.  

The truth was that rarely would anybody say anything worth hearing in the first place, and after work I couldn’t have cared less what people said about the company, or about anyone who worked for it.  I was always saying far worse about all of them over a bottle of red at home!