Should you make HR more approachable?

July 1, 2020

If an alien landed on earth tomorrow, in order to learn about the way we work, then they might be forgiven for assuming that the human resources department was where humans went when dealing with human-related issues. But a recent survey of 926 employees suggests otherwise.

The report by Zety, “Is HR Human?” raises questions about just how comfortable employees feel asking HR for help. And it leaves me asking the question: Is there more we could be doing to make HR more approachable?

Which side is HR even on, anyway?

According to Zety, 69% of respondents did not believe that HR takes the side of the employee.

I’ve looked at this myself in the past. You might remember my article “which side is HR really on?”, which concluded similar statistics. When I asked which ‘side’ people believed HR to be on, they answered:

  • HR is on the employer’s side (55%)
  • HR is on the employee’s side (15%)
  • HR is on neither side (30%)

In my article, I concluded that actually, we should be doing whatever we can to lose this “us versus them” mentality. HR should not be there to take anybody’s ‘side’ – they should be, in the words of Perry Timms, “Stewards of Organisational Justice”.

But regardless of whether there should or should not be sides… it seems that most people believe there are sides. And that most people believe HR is not on the side of the employee. Which worries me, because a lot of HR’s function requires some degree of trust with their employees.

Some of the issues employees hide from HR

The study by Zety reveals some interesting facts about the things employees feel OK sharing with HR. Some of these stats are quite surprising – for example, 37% of people say they would not report sexual harassment at work! Here are some more from the study:

  • 87% of workers would not discuss bereavement with HR
  • Only 8% of workers would report going through a divorce
  • 82% of people say they only really discuss payroll and benefits with HR

Of course, you might be asking: Does HR really need to know if an employee is going through a divorce? Is that necessary, or is it just nosey? And you might have a valid point.

But the line that separates the work-life divide is a blurry line at best, and some people argue that if HR wants to get the best out of its people, then it needs to care about their whole self. Besides, many issues at home can affect performance in the workplace.

The problem with leaving your problems at the door

Some employers follow the mantra of “leave your problems at the door”. The only problem this solves, is that the problem is less visible. Its symptoms still exist – and if anything, pretending that they don’t exist makes it worse.

Dr Shaun Davis, director of wellbeing at the Royal Mail Group, actually believes that we should be doing the opposite of encouraging employees to hide their problems. Instead, he recommends actively encouraging employees to talk about what’s bothering them, at the start of every day.

“I’ve found personal check-ins to be brilliant,” he told me in 2018. “They take a while to get there, and people will think you’re a bit non-traditional when you try to introduce them, because it’s kind of an odd concept. But they’re really helpful!”

Of course, Dr Davis is talking more from a management perspective. But from an HR perspective, encouraging employees to talk about their problems at work is really useful, too. If not to be sympathetic, then to at least guide employees to the policies that may support them.

For example, you may have an employee assistance programme in place, which could really help a troubled employee. But if they don’t know about it, they are not going to access that service – and if there is no open communication between HR and the rest of the workforce, this kind of problem is going to crop up again and again.

How to make HR more approachable

The point is this: you want employees to feel comfortable approaching HR.

And so I asked career expert Jacques Buffett – the author of the Zety study – what he might recommend, for businesses wanting to make HR more approachable.

“The key to making HR more approachable and accessible is communication, honesty, and above all being human” he said. “It’s not about taking their side, but about showing you understand what they’re feeling. Be impartial, and emphasize this whenever an employee approaches you with an issue – let them know you won’t take sides and will take an unbiased view.”

Jacques says that there are lots of practical habits you can try to form, which will help you achieve this:

  • Smile and use open body language. This will help you come across as more human.
  • Know your policies. If you know what you’re talking about, you’ll help employees find a solution faster – plus, they’ll trust you more.
  • Be honest. If you don’t know the answer to something, say so – don’t try to make it up.

“It might sound trite” adds Jacques, “but it all comes down to the golden rule: treat others the way you’d want to be treated, and be human when dealing with your company’s most valuable resource.”

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