In HR We Trust? Part II – The Other Side of the Trust Coin – HR Building Relationships with Managers and Supervisors

Agencies have options for obtaining human resources services. It is enlightened self-interest for servicing HR offices to raise the “comfort level” of agency managers and supervisors dealing with the HR office.

Part One of the article In “Human Resources We Trust?”  is available here.

I received an e-mail recently from a woman who is in HR with the Department of Veterans Affairs and at the bottom of her message was the following quote:  “People don’t care how much you know, unless they know how much you care.”  What a great message for an HR employee to be sending out!

In part I of this article, I focused on what managers and supervisors have to gain from developing and maintaining relationships of trust with HR specialists.  What about the other side of the coin?  Is there anything in it for the HR employees?

I think the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

In the previous article, I tried to show how a lack of trust between a supervisor and a servicing HR specialist could lead to wasted time and hard feelings in a staffing action.

Here is another quick illustration, this one in the position classification arena.

In my experience, supervisors and classifiers were often at odds, usually over the grade of a position but sometimes over the series and title as well.  During my early days in classification, many of us were told that our primary mission was to uphold the integrity of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM – formerly Civil Service Commission) classification standards, NOT to help the operating officials accomplish their mission.  Since the classifiers had classification authority (and still do in most agencies following some experiments in delegating it to operating officials), the supervisor had to convince the classifier that the grade, title and/or series he/she wanted was supportable.

It was a common “joke” in many agencies that a supervisor would say anything in a position description (PD) to get the grade he or she wanted and that a classifier would do anything to avoid giving the supervisor that grade. There was often a climate of secrecy, in which classifiers were most reluctant to let supervisors look at the standards, lest they copy the standard at the grade they wanted and write it into their PD.  Many supervisors were convinced that if they only knew the “magic words” they could get the grades they were seeking.

A supervisor who did not get the grade he/she wanted on the first PD would often revise it and send it right back to the classifier, who would still find that the PD couldn’t be classified at the higher grade. Depending on the circumstance and the agency’s rules, PDs could go flying back and forth between the supervisor and the HR specialist at dizzying speed.

Today, there are no secrets – all of the OPM classification standards are available to any interested party at At the same time, I think most classifiers now consider themselves to be more consultants to management than “classification police.” I view both of those developments as positive.

If a supervisor and a classifier have a relationship of trust, it is much more likely that the supervisor will tell the classifier why she or he wants a PD to be classified at a particular grade, title and/or series – which in my experience often had to do with either wanting to promote an employee or out of concern for recruiting for and/or retaining well-qualified employees – and to be receptive to advice. If the classifier finds that the PD doesn’t support the requested grade, he/she is more likely to explain the rationale behind the classification determination, outline any available alternatives, and offer advice, guidance and any appropriate cautions, rather than just saying no.

Classifiers typically provide advice on position management as well as classification.  In both capacities, they are often involved when reorganizations take place. This is another area where the relationship of trust, or lack thereof, can come into play. For example, if the relationship between the operating official and the servicing classifier is not particularly strong, it would not be unusual for the manager to bring the classifier into the picture only after making key decisions regarding the implementation of a reorganization. If the classifier raises questions or identifies problems with those decisions at that point, the manager might well view that person as an impediment to the organization’s plans and vow to find a way to work around him/her next time.

If, on the other hand, there is a good working relationship between management and HR, the operating official would likely bring the classifier into reorganization planning from the beginning, at which time the classifier could provide the manager with a full range of options, including recommendations. In that circumstance, the manager is likely to welcome the advice of the HR advisor and that employee is likely to feel valued by the manager and the organization.

An even more practical advantage falls under the heading of “enlightened self-interest” and reflects the fact that these days supervisors generally have options in getting their HR needs met.  When I started my Federal HR career, it was often the case that the manager’s only choice if she/he did not have a good working relationship with the servicing HR specialist was to ask the employee’s supervisor to provide a different advisor. Today, there are many other options available, such as paying OPM to handle a recruiting action.

A number of agencies have in recent years established “franchise” offices which operate on a reimbursable basis.  For example, the National Park Service’s Human Resource Franchise in Denver provides recruitment and staffing, position classification, and position management services to a variety of customers for a fee.

The Bureau of Public Debt’s Administrative Resource Center (ARC) in Parkersburg, West Virginia, provides virtually the full range of HR services, also on a reimbursable basis. The ARC processes personnel actions and handles pay & leave administration, position classification & position management, staffing & recruitment, labor & employee relations, and employee benefits. That “franchise” office will even negotiate your collective bargaining agreement with the union, if you so desire. Because these franchise operations are not base-funded, they have to demonstrate both technical expertise and a commitment to customer service.

The agency could also hire a contractor to perform a specific project, such as a classification review, or could even contract out (“outsource”) the whole HR function.

Of course, not all decisions by agency management to look “outside” for HR services are triggered by problems in the working relationships involved. In many cases, the decision is based on such circumstances as reductions in HR staff and the attendant loss of “institutional memory” in the HR area.  Other times, agency budgets can be the “driver.”

Despite agency management’s access to multiple options in getting their HR work accomplished, the “in-house” HR advisors have a number of advantages, including their familiarity with the agency’s mission and functions and an ongoing working relationship with the organization’s managers and supervisors.

In my experience, if the managers and supervisors with whom HR deals have a high “comfort level” with those folks, they are unlikely to look outside for HR services unless other factors push them in that direction.  If HR advisors demonstrate that they care about the employing agency’s mission and about providing high-quality HR services on a consistent basis, chances are very good that agency management will take advantage of their expertise, underscoring the value of developing and maintaining relationships of trust.

I’ll close with the same Linden Wood quote that opened this part of the article:  “People don’t care how much you know, unless they know how much you care.”

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.