Is It HR’s Role to Support the Company, or Its Employees?

Catbert is the Evil HR Director in Scott Adams' comic strip "Dilbert."
Catbert is the Evil HR Director in Scott Adams' comic strip "Dilbert."

Many HR people are familiar with Catbert, the “Evil HR Director” from Dilbert, the comic strip written and illustrated by Scott Adams.

Catbert is the company’s gatekeeper and policy policeman, concocting and implementing rules and policies with blind adherence to the company.

One of my personal Catbert favorites is the time he came up with the idea to offer unpaid vacation time to employees as long as their managers approved it in advance. He planned to downsize any workgroup who used the policy, since that was proof to him the group was overstaffed. Funny huh?

Making HR the “bad” guy?

But, perhaps not so funny to many people in the workforce today, who still regard the HR function as playing the role of gatekeeper and policy dictator. After a while, few employees visit the office of Catbert since the experience turns out to be painful. Word gets around, and employees stay away.

For those who’ve had a difficult experience made worse by an overzealous HR bureaucrat, the 2005 Fast Company article Why We Hate HR by Keith Hammonds still rings true.

Unfortunately, many of us in HR were initially taught that if we made an exception of one among many, we would also create inequity for many. Our managers sometimes encouraged us to play the gatekeeper role, and suggested that this was part of the job description.

There have been several occasions in my own career where my direct manager, the CEO of the company, personally instructed me to delay the processing of job requisitions during difficult times, while encouraging his other direct reports to do what was necessary to support the growth and profitability of their businesses.

Actually, this occurred with more than one CEO I worked for. They didn’t want to take accountability for saying no or being the bad guy. After all, that’s HR’s job.

When Human Resource pros are “nice”

But not all HR people are Catberts. In fact, some HR people are the opposite of Catbert.

They’re “nice” people and make it a priority to care about the well-being of employees. They think that it’s their job to walk through the corridors smiling at people and saying hello, believing that it’s their responsibility to set a pleasant tone in the workplace. Many of these “people persons” became interested in becoming an HR professional because they “wanted to work with people.”

Often, “nice” HR people see themselves as the referee between the supervisor and his/her subordinate. This isn’t uncommon as it’s often the supervisor or the subordinate who brings an issue or problem to HR in the first place.

In the worst cases, HR “nice” people are “employee advocates.” They have somehow come to the conclusion that their role is to be the crusader for employees.

They always seem to have a stream of visitors stopping by the office for their dose of encouragement. They take this role very seriously, and anytime they’re in meetings with cross-functional peers, they passionately look out for and guard the rights and welfare of the workforce.

Unfortunately for the “nice” HR people, they aren’t well respected by their peers and senior managers.

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The best do what is best for the business

Peer managers grow tired of HR managers whose main purpose is to look after the workforce. They soon look for ways to bypass HR in decision-making and it’s not uncommon for HR to be left out of meetings that they probably should be in.

The reality of course, is that the best HR people are neither Catberts nor “employee advocates.” First and foremost, they’re “business” people, who are focused on doing what’s best for the business.

When an employee relations or people policy question comes up for review, they examine the issue as a business issue, considering the best outcome for the long-term well-being of the business. They understand that exceptions without merit cause internal dissention, but they focus on the business issues and circumstances around them rather than starting from the rulebook.

“Business” HR people also have an underlying understanding that the motivation of the workforce is good for business, and this is a foundational principle for them. They operate by the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would do unto yourself.”

For “business” HR people, word gets around with managers and within the workforce.

Business people always have a seat at the table

While decisions don’t always benefit the person who brought the issue forward, they somehow leave the “business” HR person’s office feeling like a fair decision was made, even when they’re unhappy with the outcome. When decisions are made, “business” HR managers explain the rationale behind them from a business perspective, not suggesting “this is what the policy manual says” or “that’s the way we do business here.”

It doesn’t take a survey to figure out that “business” HR people have a “seat at the table.” Their cross-functional peer managers value them for their objective views, and see them as “business people first, HR second.” This is the role that HR people play in Human Capital Management, a higher-level next step in the evolution of the HR function.

For those HR folks who are still struggling to find their role within their organization, self-reflection through this lens is important to consider. Perhaps more important though, is what others have to offer as an objective opinion.

After all, as HR professionals often preach to employees during career advisory sessions, “perception is reality.”

Mark P. Salsbury is a Human Capital executive with 30 plus years of global business experience including management and leadership positions in North America, Europe, and Asia. In 2012, Mark launched Salsbury Human Capital Management, LLC, a management consulting firm specializing in helping organizations gain a competitive advantage through maximizing their human capital potential. He is the author of “Human Capital Management: Leveraging Your Workforce for a Competitive Advantage.”


8 Comments on “Is It HR’s Role to Support the Company, or Its Employees?

  1. There is not a single point with which I take exception. Until HR people understand where the value is they add to the business, they should not expect to be a “respected” member of the team by management or employees. My former employer was very strong on headcount control and it was HR who managed it. If one is involved in the business they need to know when to go to the leadership and say “This is a need to achieve the strategy and tactics of the business”. One must go with facts and not “fairy juice” to make the case. Requisition systems are great and while they may not be liked by out of control managers, they sure do reduce the need for layoffs and hiring spikes. Well said Mark!

  2. Throughout my long HR career I’ve often been embarrassed to be viewed alongside those HR types who have sought to gain power and influence from their “policing” roles. I’m afraid there were often more of them than the business manager HR types, especially visible at conferences, etc, which I stopped attending in the 1980s. Some of the most successful HR professionals I have encountered just didn’t see themselves as HR specialists, but as business generalists and so were able to look at the company’s people issues from an all embracing perspective, not merely from a theoretical HR viewpoint. In a commercial business the HR professional needs to take as commercial a view as any other manager in the business, a point I fear is missed by many. In my experience many HR managers seem to run their function for the benefit of the HR team, rather than for the benefit of the business. In the twilight of my career I regret not having had more of an impact on other HR folk, making them understand the better contribution they could have made had they only embraced the notion of “getting the best from people” which benefits both employee and employer.

  3. Great Article!

    The business of every HR Practitioner is to support the business. This can be done by supporting the human capital to support the business. This is through motivation, which will cause the employees to appreciate policies and be part of the implementation .

  4. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some excellent HR professionals during my working life, and you’re right – whether I liked what they had to say or not, I recognised that they were always with the best intentions for the company, and I respected them for it. Thanks for reminding us of what really makes up a top HR pro.

  5. As a marketing executive, I seek HR business partners of the “business” variety. The best HR partners that I’ve worked with have a deep understanding of marketing, and may have even worked in marketing roles themselves. When we share an understanding of the KPIs and what good marketing talent looks like, everything just works smoothly. As an additional benefit, the conversations about human capital are more strategic. Yes, those conversations can be tough, but I prefer an HR partner who can be a true partner as opposed to a pushover.

    I’ve worked with both the nice guys and the Catberts and they’re too easy to roll over or ignore, to the detriment of the business AND the employees.

  6. Great post. HR’s role is to support the company against the unions, and its employees against their managers.

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