How to Shed HR's Grim Reaper Reputation

Posted by Brandon Carter on Oct. 25, 2016

Think back to when you were in elementary school.

You're out on the playground, when a teacher's aide says you need to go to the principal's office.

Your heart rate speeds a bit. Your palms get sweaty. Your mind races to remember every little bad deed you've committed recently.

"Did they find out I was chewing gum on the bus?"

Then, you get to the principal's office, only to find out you'd been named the student of the month, or that you'd made the honor roll.

Now come back to the present day. Do you, in your role as HR professional, feel like the principal?

Do your phone calls create anxiety for employees? Do they freak out when you ask them to stop by your office?

In many organizations, HR is the Grim Reaper. When HR calls, your time is done. You're going to be fired.

It isn't just employees that feel that way. Oftentimes, management sees HR as a stumbling block for the way they'd really like to run things. Or even worse, they see HR as hired goons to do all the dirty work they'd rather avoid.

To be as effective as possible with both employees and management, HR must break free from this mindset. You can't allow yourself to become the "bad guy."

The only way to do that is a personal and departmental branding strategy.New Call-to-action

First, Why It's Important

Let's be honest. This isn't elementary school and HR isn't the principal. Employees shouldn't immediately tremble when they see your number on their phones, or when you ask them to stop by your office.

You're an ally. They need to know they can trust you with any sort of information.

Similarly, management shouldn't expect you to do their dirty work. Yes, you're going to terminate and discipline employees. But management needs to know your role is protecting the company's interests - not handling their difficult tasks.

Plus, no one wants to be seen as the grim reaper.

Building the trust of each side means you have to make an investment in yourself and your department to be more visible and promote the wide and various deeds that comprise HR.

Start with these three personal branding principles that can change your perception around the office:

1. Get Out Among the People

Depending on the size of your department, odds are you're having some sort of contact with every new hire that comes into your company. Maybe it's introducing them to the benefits package or policies or the whole onboarding enchilada.

Sometimes, that's the last contact you have with them until it's their final day, and you're helping to send them on their way out the door.

Don't let that happen. Check back in and say hello in the hallways. Keep regular contact with people. Pop into cubicles on occasion, if not every day.

Ideally, HR should be among the biggest cheerleaders any organization has. It cannot live on an isolated island.

Learn the names of your employees, and cheer them on as they advance in your organization. They'll be far more likely to keep you involved in their progress, and won't hesitate to loop you in if they feel you can be of help.

2. Challenge Your Managers to be Better

As in, don't let managers push off all disciplinary matters to HR. They need to have their hard conversations - but you can be a tremendous resource for them if you have the rapport.

Just like it's important to have regular contact with employees, you must also have regular contact with managers. Have the same friendly chit chat you have with employees, but also have regular discussions about what they're experiencing as managers, what they're seeing on their team, who is or isn't working out, and so on.

The more you can understand their struggles, the more you can offer help when applicable. They'll be far less likely to surprise you with sudden disciplinary requests, and they'll definitely be less hesitant to push all difficult conversations to your office.

Best of all, you'll help them build engagement among their team by simply being more aware and seeing issues before they arise.

3. Become a Communications Hub

Communication is such a massive aspect of human resources, but not every company allows their HR team to interface with employees across email or intranet.

HR should be the primary communicator for a number of areas - benefits, wellness, special corporate perks, and even smaller items like weather warnings or commute alerts. When certain messages are released to the company, they should come from HR.

You may have to fight executives and managers for this real estate (especially emails with good news), but it's worth it. Repeated conditioning is an huge aspect of branding, and employees must see your name associated with good (or even neutral) messages regularly.

If all employees ever see of HR is rules and discipline-related messages, then yes, they're going to see you as the Fun Police at least, if not the Grim Reaper.

Trust Leads to Effectiveness

Few departments are asked to walk the fine line on which HR resides - smack dab in the middle of management and employees. Each side has different needs and goals, and each looks to HR to protect its best interests.

The most effective way to do this is building trust. That means neither side should see you as the Grim Reaper.

Your personal brand should be the trusted adviser, the person who knows what it's like to be on the front lines but also knows how to protect the best interests of the company. Sometimes your role is to be the Grim Reaper, but it doesn't have to be what defines you.

HR is most effective when it has implicit trust from both employees and management. The better relationships you're able to create with both management and the employee base, the more effective you'll be at your job. 

Topics: Employee Engagement + Loyalty

Brandon Carter

Written by Brandon Carter

Brandon is a former writer and marketer for Access Development. He's a frequent blogger on customer and employee engagement & loyalty, consumer trends, and branding. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter at @bscarter