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National Association of Counties * Washington, DC / Vol. 30, No. 14 * July 20, 1998

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HR's Many Roles

TThe HR Doctor has repeatedly pointed out the major characteristics of a 21st century human resources function. Those characteristics include being program-active, having a strategic role in the organization, being innovative, taking risks, and continually moving the rest of the organization toward a more respectful and fun workplace.

However, HR often struggles to adopt these characteristics because many local governments - and private businesses as well - continue to display behaviors which are not up-to-date and lead to trouble. These include management by "command and control," an aversion to listen to new ideas and innovations, failure to reward or recognize hard work, and failure to control and intervene in cases of workplace liability such as sexual harassment, violence and unlawful discrimination.

This combination of an HR staff struggling to improve the organization meeting head on with the resistance and opposition of some managers, supervisors, employees and even union representatives, causes HR professionals to be cast in several roles. Some of these roles would make great material for television programs or movies. Here are several examples:

· Adult Day Care Provider - There is a small percentage of employees and managers who appear to be unwilling or incapable of being motivated to contribute to the organization. Instead, they walk a fine and sometimes carefully crafted line which keeps them from being fired and allows them to remain in an employment version of a persistent vegetative state.

An inordinate amount of HR staff time is taken up in providing advice for the management of such employees. The HR Doctor has commented about this kind of behavior in a prior column called "Taking Excuses Away" and has suggested steps to reduce this problem.

It also comes to mind occasionally that perhaps organizations incapable of responding to the challenges of such employees might want to create a separate unit to which all such employees could be assigned to "graze." In effect, this approach is a form of surrender, which is not necessary. There are steps which can be taken to attack this problem directly and successfully.

· Law Enforcement Officer - HR professionals are often the ones who identify inappropriate behaviors which managers or employees report.

Like police officers, HR staff is often called upon to respond "Code 3" with administrative advice, direction and solutions. Like motorists stopped for speeding, supervisors often find, after consulting with an HR "officer," that they have been moving in the wrong direction and in the wrong way.

A proactive HR function has the same positive effect as its law enforcement counterpart - community policing. An HR staff that is motivated and allowed to do its job will get to know the people and the issues present in an agency and can provide quicker and more effective help.

When the human resources staff is not allowed to function this way or is incapable of being anything other than reactive and bureaucratic, problems elsewhere in the organization will grow.

· Emergency Room Physician - The HR Doctor has used this name and the "HR ER" concept for years because, so often, organizational "patients" roll into the HR emergency room unannounced with urgent problems.

The "HR ER" must be staffed by knowledgeable and experienced employees, must be accessible 24 hours-a-day, and must be capable of giving immediate care to an acute problem such as an incident of violence.

At the same time the "patient" gets the chance to be educated about prevention and risk appraisal so that the problems which brought the person to the ER in the first place can be prevented in the future.

· Teacher and Counselor - One important benchmark to judge whether progress is being made in organizational change in human resources is to find out how often HR professionals are called on to provide advice, help and intervention that begin when an employee, supervisor or senior executive comes in "just to talk." The resulting meetings often end up as opportunities for the sharing of stresses, concerns, hopes and questions like "I don't know how to get there." "What can I do to improve ...?"

A proactive HR function is an agency counselor. It is a place where colleagues can ask for help in a private and respectful way in a place where help will be provided in a similar manner. An Employee Assistance Program is a key part of meeting this need. So are energetic and knowledgeable employee training and development, classification, recruitment and labor relations staff members.

There are many other roles that the modern HR staff is performing. But taken as a whole, modern local governments face tremendous stresses and pressures. They need key players with the energy to work hard, the knowledge to support the work of others, and the patience and optimism to think strategically and to make the organization better tomorrow than it was yesterday.

Coincidentally, these roles are the roles of all managers, not just HR professionals, but then again aren't all successful managers also skilled in applying the principles of human resources?

Best Wishes,
The HR Doctor



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