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Career Q&A: HR departments aren't all unhelpful

Q: Although I usually agree with your advice, I'm skeptical about your suggestion that employees take problems to human resources. After serving as an expert witness in employment cases for 20 years, I've concluded that HR departments are simply not very helpful.

Based on the legal depositions I have seen, most HR managers are either poorly trained or lack the courage to challenge management decisions. Some are merely paper-pushers who had personnel duties tacked on to their regular jobs. Others automatically align with management regardless of the circumstances.

Because these people don't seem willing or able to provide sound guidance, my recommendation would be that employees avoid them at all costs. What do you think about this?

A: Like any profession, human resources has both screw-ups and superstars, with many levels of ability in between. Unfortunately, your immersion in the legal system has probably exposed you to an unrepresentative sample at the lower end, since bad decisions are more likely to be litigated.

At their best, HR professionals carefully evaluate issues based on laws, policies, organizational goals, and sound management practices. They respect confidentiality, share information appropriately, look for workable compromises and encourage positive relationships.

They're also able to balance the interests of managers and staff, while helping each group understand the other's perspective. Conversely, those who are spineless management lackeys or knee-jerk employee advocates can't be effective because they'll never be trusted by the other side.

Considering all this, I typically advise people to contact human resources if the manager is known to be helpful and trustworthy. During employment litigation, those are the ones you are less likely to meet.

Employee torn about outside offer

Q: About 18 months ago, I was heavily recruited by one of my company's competitors. When I mentioned this to my boss, I explained that I would prefer to stay if certain changes could be made to my job. Both he and his manager agreed to my proposal, so I declined the other offer.

Unfortunately, management has failed to follow through with their commitment, even though I provided several reminders. Now another competitor is recruiting me, but I would still rather stay here. However, I don't know if the changes I want will ever occur. What should I do?

A: According to a wise old saying, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Therefore, you can reasonably assume that your bosses will continue to avoid any modifications which they have previously refused to make. Of course, you can always try again, using the most recent job offer as leverage.

If you have specific wishes, like higher pay or a new title, you just need to become a better negotiator. Instead of accepting vague assurances, ask for a written agreement with a clear deadline. But if your requests are more ambiguous — for example, having greater autonomy or less pressure — compliance will be hard to enforce unless you have clearly defined action steps.

Either way, however, there's always a chance that management will disappoint you again. So in making this decision, you should weigh the competitor's offer against your current working conditions.

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