During her first few months on the job, Montroy also
held one-on-one listening sessions with every employee.
Some workers responded with skepticism, grumbling,
“This is going to go right back to the executive team.” But
Montroy confronted those reactions head on, saying, “No,
this is information for me. We can’t fix things we don’t
know about.” Those conversations led to a series of small
victories—like the webcam
solution for employees nervous about buzzing in guests
unseen—and trust in the new
HR role grew.
Simple initiatives like Montroy’s are often more impactful than elaborate campaigns.
It’s tempting to react to a culture of distrust with a flurry
of activities to solicit feedback and build morale. But
the effort will backfire if it is
perceived as insincere or is not
sustained over time. Lauritsen
has seen many organizations
overreact to problems discovered in expansive employee
surveys, then fail to share the
results or respond to them in any meaningful way. “HR
doesn’t appreciate how much that undermines our credibility,” he says. “Fewer initiatives would be better. Just make
sure the ones you do are done well and followed up on.”
3Establish Limits. Confidenti- ality is an area where expectations and trust intersect. “All employees have a right to con- fidentiality,” says attorney Thomas Ander- son, SHRM-SCP, employee relations director for 6,500 workers within the Houston Community College system. But HR’s discretion cannot always
be guaranteed. “With anything legal or criminal in nature,
once the HR person has knowledge, the company has
knowledge [in the eyes of the law],” he says.
Many businesses today have a formal whistle-blower
policy, and in some industries it is standard practice to
have a confidential ethics hotline for reporting violations.
Workers and managers need to know, however, that any
information HR receives about a criminal activity that
could affect the company will not remain private.
Hopefully, those situations are few and far between.
More frequently, people come to their HR representative
with issues related to their physical or mental health or that
of a family member; personal problems that may influence
their performance, like divorce or the responsibility of car-
ing for an elderly parent; and conflicts with supervisors
and co-workers. In these cases, HR does need to ensure
confidentiality, although it is important to establish clear
boundaries from the beginning. In many cases, it’s best to
coach the individuals about how to resolve the issue them-
selves, without HR’s direct involvement.
“Start by being very honest about what you can and
will do,” Lauritsen says. “Express your intentions: ‘I
want to help resolve this and support you, whether manager or employee, but understand my role is not to fix this
for you.’” Of course, there are times when HR must get
involved, but save those interventions for big, complex situations, not disputes over the coffee maker.
As important as it is to clearly state HR’s role, it’s also
important to listen. “It has to be two-way communica-
tion, not just me telling [employees] things,” Anderson
says. “Sometimes, you really have to delve deep to find
out what the real issues are. It may be family problems [or]
money problems, and it manifests itself as poor attendance
or poor performance. But you would never know that if
you don’t [communicate] properly.”
In cases such as these, it may be appropriate to encour-
age, and even facilitate, a conversation between the worker
and his or her manager so they both understand the situ-
ation. For example, if someone tells his or her HR repre-
sentative about a newly diagnosed disability that requires
accommodation, the person’s supervisor must be involved
in planning and implementing any modifications. The HR
professional can prepare and coach the employee and man-
ager beforehand, facilitate the initial meeting, and then get
out of the way.
In human resources, there is no way to avoid the
“human” factor—and, therefore, it’s impossible to completely eliminate misunderstandings, conflict and disappointment. But when HR practitioners consistently
set expectations, build and maintain trust, and set clear
boundaries, there are bound to be fewer problems. And
that’s a good thing for the employees, for the business and
for the HR professionals who support them. The whole
Jennifer Arnold is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville
This article relates to HR Expertise, one
of the nine competencies on which
SHRM has based its certification. To learn
more, visit www.shrmcertification.org.
legal or criminal
in nature, once
the HR person
the company has
knowledge [in the
eyes of the law.]’