How You Can Keep HR From Becoming the “Fly in the Ointment”

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Being a “fly in the ointment” is not a good thing.

This simple idiom translates into times when things are going along according to plan until an unforeseen event (our little friend, the fly) occurs and stops progress in its tracks. It complicates situations and can become a larger hassle to work through.

Unfortunately, too many HR professionals continue to be those flies and get in the way of progress at work and I’d like to share one.

I was recently reading a post from an HR pro who was reaching out for advice. It went like this:

Advice is needed for an employee who has recently been making errors at work. When the manager addressed the employee about the errors, the employee stated they needed new reading glasses but couldn’t afford them. The manager came to HR and asked what the company could do, if anything, to help the employee get an eye exam and glasses.”

The HR pro went on to describe how they met with the employee about the errors and vision issues. The HR pro surmised that the employee was nearsighted and that reading glasses wouldn’t really help the employee with the work errors. The HR pro went on to ask about resources on where to find low cost or free eye exams that could be shared with the employee.


What’s wrong with this picture?

  • I guess the HR pro forgot to share information about their moonlighting gig as ophthalmologist.
  • Both the manager and HR pro are assuming the work errors are being caused by a vision issue.
  • The HR pro is not allowing the manager to be a manager.

The HR pro is now the “fly in the ointment,” ready to muck up this employee issue. And now the 3-way-”he said-she said”-dialogue mess is front and center.

Thanks for that. Just what Corporate America needs — more messed up workplace relationships.

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Make an accurate plan

Here are some things for anyone in HR to remember:

  • Be an HR professional, not a physician.
  • Be a resource and advisor to the manager — only. It’s the manager’s responsibility to own and handle employee issues — let them do the jobs they were hired to do.
  • Keep the communication between you and the manager and let the manager work directly with the employee.
  • Advise the manager to take the time to sit with the employee and review their work together. Make an accurate determination of the cause of the errors vs. an amateur medical speculation.
  • Work with the manager on developing an action plan for the employee from there.

What does this accomplish?

  • Improved communication between the employee and manager, which allows for a better working relationship. The employee-manager relationship is the most important one at work. I’ll say it again: “employees don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad managers.”
  • Rule out why the errors are occurring. Is the employee clear on what they’re doing? Is there a step in their work that’s being overlooked?
  • Empowers managers to do the jobs they were hired to do instead of allowing them to bail and run to HR for the employee issues they don’t like to handle.

Managers always try to avoid rolling up their sleeves and handling employee issues if you let them. It’s easier to run to HR, right?

They’ll say they don’t have the time. They’ll say they don’t like these types of issues. Who does?

Employee issues rarely have a clear solution, almost always have gray areas and take time to resolve. But that’s part of their jobs — so let them do it.

This was originally published on Kimberly Patterson’s Unconventional HR blog.

Kimberly Patterson is the founder of Unconventional HR. An HR pro turned consultant, she has 25 years of progressive experience as a strategic HR and business leader in a variety of industries. Her hands-on and innovative approach allows her to create and deliver HR solutions to meet business challenges and needs by managing human capital, talent acquisition and technology. Connect with her on Twitter at, or at .


1 Comment on “How You Can Keep HR From Becoming the “Fly in the Ointment”

  1. I normally gain valuable insight from articles on TLNT. I agree with a few points in the article, including that the most important relationship is between the manager and the employee and that one of HR’s many roles is to guide managers on holding employee’s accountable and developing an action plan for addressing poor performance. The HR pro also crossed the line by diagnosing the condition.
    However, I have a serious issues with the guidance to “Keep the communication between you and the manager and let the manager deal directly with the employee.” I interpret coming to HR to find a way to help an employee pay for glasses to mean they wanted to talk about benefits available through health, vision, or other wellness benefits. Another option to help financially could mean a payroll advance or allowing the employee to cash in paid time off benefits. These are all HR’s area of expertise and responsibility. I could go on for pages about why it is a bad idea to suggest that the manager should be the middle-person to explain the benefits to the employee.
    I also want to commend this HR pro for going above and beyond the call of duty to try to help the employee. Imagine if you were the employee and HR or your manager simply said, “Sorry we don’t offer vision insurance nor payroll advances. You’re on your own. But, you still have to reduce the number of errors. If you don’t, you are subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.” Where’s the HUMAN in Human Resources?!

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