In Human Resources We Trust?

Some federal managers see HR officials as a necessary evil or an obstacle to overcome in getting a job done. Developing a relationship of trust between a supervisor and HR specialists can make the job of a supervisor easier. Here is a view from a former federal human resources officer.

Harvey Mackay, best-selling author of Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, recently published a newspaper column in which he said “T-R-U-S-T are the five most important letters in the alphabet.” I agree with Mr. Mackay about the importance of trust – in this case the relationship of trust that you have (or don’t have) with your servicing human resources (HR) office.

HR-types are viewed by line managers and supervisors in several different ways, not all of them positive. In some agencies/ organizations, the HR office is valued by management for what it can contribute to the “bottom line” – mission accomplishment – and for its customer-service orientation. In other organizations, HR is tolerated as a “necessary evil,” while in still others agency management views HR professionals as obstacles rather than helpers, perhaps even as the “enemy.”

Why in the world would you, as an operating official, want to build partnerships with your HR advisors? What’s in it for you? Sure, you’re a nice person, and you play well with others, but there are more than altruistic reasons for developing these particular relationships. The fact is that the HR folks can help you with every aspect of managing your organization. The premise of this article is that it is important to you, as a manager or supervisor, to build relationships of trust with the folks who provide HR services to your organization.

Here is a hypothetical scenario in the staffing area. This scenario demonstrates what can happen (and has happened) where – for whatever reasons – there is no relationship of trust between the manager and the staffing specialist:

A position in the Acquisition Branch is vacated and the branch chief submits an SF-52, Request for Personnel Action, to fill the Contract Specialist vacancy, GS-1102-12. The staffing specialist proceeds on the assumption that the selecting official wants to follow the usual recruitment process, which is to publish a vacancy announcement under the agency’s Merit Promotion Plan (MPP) in hopes of attracting highly-qualified candidates.

The staffing specialist issues the vacancy announcement, and dozens of candidates apply from within the area of consideration, which is regionwide and includes other agencies. A three-person promotion evaluation panel, chaired by a staffing specialist and with an EEO observer, is convened to rate qualified applicants against the crediting plan for the position. After a two-day evaluation process, the panel places 10 people on the best-qualified list and that list is referred to the manager for selection.

To the surprise of the staffing specialist and the promotion evaluation panel, the manager, without interviewing any of the candidates, returns the certificate unused and advises the staffing specialist that she has decided not to fill the position at this time. Why? Because the manager had wanted to promote one of her employees into the position, and that person’s name did not appear on the certificate.

The manager had not informed the staffing specialist at the beginning of the recruitment process that she wanted to promote a specific individual. Consequently, the efforts of the promotion evaluation panel, the staffing specialist and the EEO observer were essentially wasted, while the applicants, who had spent time filling out their applications or resumes, felt “burned” by the agency and were therefore unlikely to apply for future vacancies.

The staffing specialist believed that he had been “had” by the manager, and the members of the promotion evaluation panel said it would be a long time before they agreed to serve on another panel for this particular organization.

All of these negative consequences could have been averted if the manager had told the staffing specialist up front what she had in mind and they could have discussed the various options. It was within the realm of possibility, for example, that the employee the manager wanted to upgrade could have been promoted non-competitively, i.e., based on accretion of duties. If that was not going to be possible, the staffing specialist could have outlined alternatives, such as limiting the area of consideration.

It is likely that this situation was caused by either a lack of trust between the manager and the staffing specialist or reluctance on the manager’s part to ask a question which may have smacked of “pre-selection,” perhaps out of fear of “implicating” or compromising the staffing specialist.

Once a vacancy occurs, the staffing specialist (or HR generalist) becomes vitally important to you, as the selecting official. You are not expected to keep up with staffing law and regulations; existing staffing authorities; or the latest developments in the field, such as automated recruitment systems – but the staffing specialist is required to do so. The staffing specialist must be conversant with a wide variety of internal and external recruitment sources for positions in the organizations that she/he services.

As a manager or supervisor, you should be looking for at least the following attributes in the staffing specialist who advises you: 1) extensive knowledge of the staffing “business,” including the laws and regulations that govern staffing actions; and 2) personal credibility. If the staffing specialist knows all of the ins and outs of the staffing function but the two of you don’t have a relationship of trust, or if you trust the staffing specialist implicitly but he/she doesn’t have strong subject matter knowledge, one key component is missing.

Sometimes, a less experienced staffing specialist will be assigned to you, but the two of you will have good rapport and develop a relationship of trust. In that circumstance, when a vacancy arises you may wish to be joined by a more experienced staffing specialist as you discuss filling the position, particularly if you are interested in exploring the full range of staffing options.

If, on the other hand, the problem is that there is no rapport between you and the staffing specialist, or you have tried but failed to establish a relationship of trust, you should think seriously of asking for a new staffing advisor.

In an ideal working relationship between a manager or supervisor and a staffing specialist, you should feel confident that you can run any possibility by your HR advisor, that you will get a straight answer and sound advice, and that the information will be held in confidence at your request.

Once a relationship of trust has been developed between the supervisor and the HR advisor, disagreements on individual issues can generally be tolerated. However, trust must be earned, on both sides.

It takes time and effort to establish a relationship of trust with your HR advisors. When you and your servicing HR advisor are on the “same page” and can communicate effectively and candidly, it will benefit you and your organization, as well as making the working relationship more enjoyable.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.