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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 31, No. 12 * June 21, 1999

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Friends and Enemies

This is the "highest" HR Doctor column ever written – on an airplane at 35,000 feet. The HR Doctor is seated next to a "real" doctor, neurosurgeon Lawrence Schlachter. We have been sharing and comparing perspectives on work, family, society, politics, etc. – easily 2,000 miles of conversation.

Part of our discussion concerned a disturbing development in medical practice – the patient/doctor relationship is evolving in a dysfunctional direction. Call it the result of managed care, "corporate" medicine, a less personalized relationship between people and their physicians, lack of time, the rise of the lawsuit as a tool in this and many other areas of society (certainly including human resources), or who knows what combination of all of the above plus more. How to maintain focus on the principles of the relationship between doctor and patient in the present managed care environment is a very great challenge.

The reality is that an ancient and honorable profession, developed to do no harm and do a lot of help, has developed a defensive and sometimes adversarial relationship involving the very people who depend on its help and of course, vice versa.

The same scenario, albeit with a different cast of characters, is playing out elsewhere in public administration. The relationship between employee and supervisor should be, indeed must be, one of collaboration and symbiotic benefit for both. Without this supportive framework, the public agency’s business will be neglected or less efficiently performed than should be the case.

Disaffected employees will direct suspicion and hostility into unproductive channels such as morale decay, higher absenteeism, more grievances, disciplinary actions, claims of unlawful treatment or discrimination, etc.

The HR Doctor also notes similar symptoms in the relationship in many agencies between elected and appointed leaders, field versus administrative workers, line agencies such as police, fire and public works versus support resources.

This set of symptoms must be treated and the effects reversed for the agency to be at its healthiest and most productive condition.

Is there a prescription that can be written?

There are definite programs and policies that can help. These include making sure that all current and new employees receive regular orientations about how the role and contribution of each adds to the success of the overall organization. Every HR staff member, for example, needs to know that improvement in the fire department, for example, relates directly to HR’s work.

Inter-agency out-stationing of HR staff, temporarily for special projects such as recruitment or development of an orientation program, or on a regular basis can help both parties understand each other, dispel rumor and replace suspicion with trust.

The same is true of regular and direct visits by agency top administrators and elected officials to discuss the future, answer questions and to let employees know that we all depend on each other. Periodic "retreats" can be especially helpful.

Managers and supervisors need special assistance from HR staff members serving as trainers, coaches and consultants, who are readily available and readily able to help them do their difficult jobs and grow as professionals in the process.

The common denominators are respect and understanding by one person about what the needs and expectation are of another person. Doing these things in a governmental agency, especially in a large and perhaps cumbersome one will be a great start in re-ordering our thoughts about relationships between those who really need and depend on each other.

While we are formally and technically co-workers, we need to also pay more attention to being partners and colleagues, rather than strangers and enemies.

Best Wishes,
The HR Doctor
e-mail at

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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