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A Client’s Perspective on
Human Resources Mistakes

By Lonnie Pacelli

A number of years back I was in a meeting with two HR representatives at my company. They were explaining to me how the HR organization wanted to be more “strategic” with its clients and how they wanted to help us with annual resource planning.   At the time, our biggest problem was filling open positions with qualified candidates; a number of key positions had been open for months with no qualified candidates in the hiring pipeline. When I asked the HR reps about how they were going to help with this problem, they both told me that they didn’t have time to address the hiring issues because they were tasked with being more “strategic”. Needless to say, the meeting went downhill in a hurry because the HR reps were more interested in fulfilling the HR organization’s “be strategic” mandate than they were in helping me with my real-life problem.

As a longtime client of numerous HR organizations, I’ve learned to appreciate the value that HR professionals provide and the times my HR partner protected me from potentially difficult situations. When working well, the client, employees, and company as a whole benefit. When things don’t work so well, though, everyone ultimately loses. Through my years as a client, I’ve locked down on five of the biggest mistakes that an HR professional can make in their relationship with the client, as follows:

Not understanding the client’s business – Foundational to an HR professional’s success is s strong understanding of their client’s business. What are the key products the client offers? What does the client want to accomplish in the next fiscal year? Is the client’s product emerging, stable, or declining? What are the client’s key business challenges? Does the client face any significant financial issues? Have the professional self esteem to know that the client wants you to invest some time to understand their business. Being a team player means spending time with the team to better understand how your services can be best applied in the client’s organization.

Trying too hard to get the client to understand the business of HR – Many HR professionals I’ve worked with wanted to “educate” me on terminology, concepts, or the latest HR trends. While the education was interesting and helped broaden my horizons somewhat, much of the education wasn’t relevant to my job or important for me to know. If there are truly important terms and concepts that the client is going to need to know to get their job done effectively, then by all means educate away. However, if the HR-ese is not material to the client getting their job done, then skip the education session. Help the client with what is need-to-know and keep the rest in your bag of tricks.

Not understanding the basics of employment law – My most valuable experiences with my HR partners were situations where my HR partner helped me to understand employment law issues and advised me on courses of action to take to minimize legal risk.   When an HR professional understands the basics of employment law and can recognize situations where further legal advice may be required, potentially hundreds of hours of lost productivity are mitigated. By not having employment law basics down, the HR professional not only puts the client’s business at risk but also suffers a credibility hit in the client’s eyes. Know enough to advise the client and when additional legal help needs to be brought in.

Showing bias in supporting either management or employees – A crucial credibility factor for an HR professional is demonstrating impartiality while dealing with HR issues.   If an HR professional has a reputation for being biased toward management, then they get a rap for being a “company” person and potentially legitimate employee issues may never surface. Conversely, when the bias is toward the employee, then they can be accused of holding “witch hunts” against management. The best HR professionals walk this line carefully and ensure that their thought process and advice represents consideration of sound business and legal thinking. They also need to have the courage of their convictions to tell either management or an employee when and where they think they are going wrong. Don’t become a "yes man" or “yes woman” for either side.

Not establishing expectations of work to be performed – Perceptions of the services an HR professional provides can be radically varied from client to client. While one client may see an HR professional as a recruiter, another may see the HR professional as an employment mediator, while a third may see him or her as an overall generalist. Establish a service-level agreement or contract with the client to ensure a common understanding of services performed, what is expected from the client, and expected timeframes in which services will be performed. Key to this is ensuring that the contract is mutually understood and agreed-upon; it’s not enough for the HR professional to quote department policy about what will or won’t be done for the client. Make it clear about what you’ll do for the client, what you expect from the client, and in what timeframe the work will be done.

An HR professional that understands the client’s business, shields the client from the HR-ese, is unbiased, delivers against clearly set expectations, and protects the company and employee fairly can be an invaluable partner to both the client and the company as a whole. Avoid these five major mistakes and you’ll build a high degree of trust and credibility with your client, be viewed as a trusted business partner, and save potentially countless hours of lost productivity and waste.

Read other articles and learn more about Lonnie Pacelli.

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