Salary and Benefits

December 12, 2012

Q&A: Whose side is HR department on?

Q: Do you believe HR departments are there for the benefit of the workers or the employers?

A: I've had to deal with human resources only once in my life (apparently some people didn't like my "no-pants Wednesday" concept), so I had to consult some HR gurus.

Dave Ulrich, professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, told me that human resources professionals have transitioned over the past few decades from being primarily advocates for workers to being integral parts of corporate management teams.

That change can be good and bad for employees -- bad in the sense that HR people have to make decisions in strategic ways that will help maintain a company's bottom line, good in that HR people know a happy workforce is a productive workforce and that they now have management's ear.

"What makes a company successful is finding a way to work with employees," Ulrich says. "The good human resources people can put a foot in either camp. They can straddle both worlds. When they go into a management committee, they say, 'Here's what the employees need so they can deliver in a meaningful way.' And when they talk to the employees they say, 'Here's what management can do in a way that's going to work for the company.' "

Ulrich estimates about 20 percent of U.S. companies have HR departments that work effectively like this, another 20 percent do a lousy job and the remaining 60 percent are still trying to get the system right.

Robert Miller, director of human resources for the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District, says the term used most often now is "strategic human resources."

"We wear many hats now, and it's not just for the employee," Miller says. "It's also for the employer. We sometimes look at employees as what we call human capital. How can we best utilize this capital for the benefit of the organization? It sounds cold on some level, but when you look at it in terms of the viability of the organization, it's about keeping people employed."

Miller and Ulrich agreed that a good human resources department is one that employees feel comfortable coming to with problems.

"We're problem solvers," Miller says. "You walk in my door and have a situation, I want to hear about it and I want to find a solution. It's not that we're distancing ourselves from employees."

I understand what Miller is saying, but I also understand that it can be hard for employees to feel they can trust a department so intertwined with management. In deciding whether to bring a problem to HR or not, speak with others who have done so. At least get a sense whether your HR department is one of the good ones.

To that end, Ulrich said the department's reputation will likely be well known. He compared good human resources to the heating, lighting and electricity systems in a house. When they work well, nobody notices. But when something's broken, chaos ensues.

Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at

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OutThere on December 23, 2012 3:09 PM | Reply

".....the remaining 60 percent are still trying to get the system right." sounds to me like they fall more in line with the "20 percent [who] do a lousy job" than the "20 percent..... that work effectively like that." Dang, up to 80% of HR depts. are not up to professional grade. Little wonder I'm not getting anywhere with my job search....

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