Human Resources in Uncle Sam’s Civilian Army: Are the Wheels Coming Off?

How employees, supervisors and managers perceive human resources (HR) servicing is largely dependent on their personal experience with three factors—timeliness, accuracy and attitude. Here are suggestions from an experienced HR official in having an effective program in your agency.


In this article I will, with permission, use as a touchstone Ralph Smith’s March 10 article titled Are Human Resources Services Available and Is the Advice and Assistance Worthwhile? Ralph’s article cited a recent survey which rated the quality of Federal HR services. According to that survey, 59.2% of respondents rated human resources (HR) service as either poor or unacceptable. When Ralph subsequently took out the responses from those who identified themselves as human resources professionals, 73% of the remaining respondents rated their HR service as poor or unacceptable. 
I need to begin with a disclaimer, in that I have not provided HR services as an employee of a Federal agency for 13 years, so my perspective is now very much that of an outsider, relying on the information I glean while conducting training and doing consulting projects for agencies, talking with friends who still provide HR services as Federal employees, and my own experience and observations.
While I take any survey with a grain of salt, including this one, since are so many variables involved, I think it would be fair to characterize the results as information that the Federal HR community should take very seriously. 
The article also captured some specific comments from survey takers regarding their personal experiences with HR services. Clearly, the negative comments vastly outnumbered the positive ones. 
Having spent more than 26 years working in HR in six different Federal agencies, I found it to be a high-profile function which affects every employee to a degree. I think that how employees, supervisors and managers perceive HR servicing is largely dependent on their personal experience with three factors—timeliness, accuracy and attitude. I will address each issue after listing what I consider to be relevant narrative excerpts from the survey. A number of comments covered more than one issue, in some cases all three; so I placed them under the issue that I interpreted as being their primary focus. .
  • "Long time delays.  No published contact list.  Ended up getting the contact number from a contractor."
  • "Took too long to get my estimate because they tell me they are too busy."
  • "I still have not received a response for information forwarded in August.  I hear the same problem from peers across the country."
  • "There is no Human in HR anymore.  Take a number and they will get back to you at their convenience, if that ever happens, I’m still waiting!" 
In a service organization such as HR, delays in getting advice and/or information to clients can cause credibility problems, particularly when such delays are unexplained, sometimes even incomprehensible. For example, if the comment about "no published contact list" is accurate, my first impression would be that it’s inexcusable, recognizing that there are at least two sides to most every story and I only have one side to consider. 
  • "Different answers from different employees, one continuous contradiction."
  • "Unprofessional at the least total lack of knowledge and unable to support basis for information."
  • "Calling the local HR ofc is a farce.  You ask them what job is out on the web and they give one person one answer, another person another answer, and NOTHING is consistent."
  • "Several of the applications were missing documents submitted by the applicants but not copied and forwarded to the hiring department, e.g. resumes, the KSA’s…, etc."
  • "There (are) no seasoned or experienced HR people in our HR department. They are all GS5 or GS& upward mobility people. There is a lot to be said for experience in this field and without the experience you have a lot of misinformation!!!!"
  • "You must do all HR research online, the local CPO has been all but gutted and people with little to no HR experience are filling those positions."
  • "I don’t know."  "You are the first one ever ask that"  "He’s not here now" 
I think that the combination of HR staff reductions, consolidations, and the retirement/departure of highly experienced HR staff, who are often replaced, if at all, by less experienced workers, comes into play here, as well as in terms of timeliness. I understand that consolidating HR operations can result in "economies of scale," but I have seen more than a few relationships between HR and the organizations they service deteriorate after consolidations eliminated management’s on-site access to HR advisors.
I also feel that the increased complexity of the HR function has played a role in the negative perceptions of accuracy, including perceived inconsistency. One example would be leave administration. During most of my Federal career, sick leave could be used only when an employee was incapacitated for the performance of duties by physical or mental illness, injury, pregnancy, or childbirth; or was receiving medical, dental, or optical examinations and/or treatment.
However, the Family Friendly Leave Act of 1993 (FFLA) allowed employees to also use sick leave to provide care for a family member as a result of physical or mental illness; for pregnancy or childbirth and care; to accompany a family member to a medical, dental, or optical examination or treatment; or to make arrangements necessitated by the death of a family member or to attend the funeral of a family member.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1994 (FMLA) provided employees with up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period to provide care for a family member as a result of physical or mental illness; to adopt a child or for birth and care of the employee’s eligible child; or to take care of the employee’s own serious medical situation. While FMLA is generally unpaid leave, there are certain circumstances under which an employee can choose to substitute accrued paid leave.
This broadening of leave policy has been consistent with Congressional and White House intent to allow employees to balance work and family life but has clearly complicated leave administration for managers, supervisors, and their HR advisors.
I see increased complexity in other HR areas as well, including work schedules. For much of my career, employees worked on fixed schedules, e.g., 7:30 – 4:15 with 45 minutes for lunch. Now, alternative work schedules are available in many agencies, including flexible and compressed work schedules, credit hours and flexiplace/telework. 
A number of agencies have adopted maxiflex schedules, which, as the name implies, provide maximum flexibility for employees. Agencies using maxiflex have typically established "core hours" (e.g., 9 a.m. – 2 p.m.) during which employees must be present, but they are not required to do so. Like the changes in leave administration, the increased flexibility in work schedules has allowed many employees to strike a better balance between work and family, but it has also added complexity to the responsibilities of managers, supervisors and the HR staff, which has to interpret the relevant regulations.
  • "They require us to email them, which I did, but then they never bothered to answer my question."
  • "They think we need to serve them, when they are in a support position and are part of the overhead."
  • "Depends completely on the individual.  Generally get ZERO response from my HR representative, so I email others to get responses.  HR has a bad reputation within USDA."
  • "Untimely, not helpful, discourteous, need I say more? Why bother them?"
This is the most "controllable" of the three issues – and perhaps the most important. I found that managers, supervisors and non-supervisory employees were often willing to give HR the benefit of the doubt on other issues of concern if they were convinced that HR staff members were doing their best and had demonstrated a proactive approach in dealing with their clients. 
During my time as an HR employee, agency management had very few options aside from asking for a change in the servicing HR specialist and, if the perceived problems were more widespread, bringing them to the attention of the HR manager, and to that person’s boss, if necessary. 
Today there are many more options; they include contracting with Treasury’s Administrative Resources Center, located in the Bureau of Public Debt, or Interior’s National Business Center, for any or all of a wide variety of HR services. Agencies can also contract with privately owned firms, many of whom employ former Federal HR-types, to do classification, staffing, or personnel action processing work, or to conduct investigations into discrimination complaints, to name just a few possibilities. In some cases, the agencies can contract directly with the HR specialists. 
The bottom line is that if agency management is not satisfied with the timeliness, accuracy and/or attitude of its servicing HR office, it can often choose – depending on such factors as agency policy and the availability of funds – to have the work done by others. Servicing HR offices have to establish and maintain a reputation with their clients as a competent organization with a "can do" attitude in order to survive. 
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that every HR office I worked with, supervised or managed was alleged, at one time or another, to have had problems with accuracy/consistency, timeliness and attitude. Sometimes I think that was a matter of misunderstanding on the part of clients; sometimes I think there was miscommunication between HR and operating officials; and sometimes I think the serviced offices were right.
Here are a few things that seemed to work well for the HR offices in which I served:
1Establish and maintain rapport with the managers, supervisors and non-supervisory employees in the serviced organizations. 
The HR representative would be well-advised to know what issues are most important to her/his clients and to act accordingly. Every time an HR specialist "goes the extra mile" for a client, I believe such action helps build a reservoir of goodwill which may come in very handy when problems occur. Along similar lines, we found it very useful to have regularly scheduled meetings with managers and supervisors, as well as to visit them at their work sites from time to time.  I know that creates a bit of a conundrum—visiting with managers and supervisors takes time, a precious resource in most HR offices, but I think it’s very important to keep up communications with the officials to whom HR provides services.
2. Keep the client informed of the status of actions. 
Many HR offices appear to be understaffed and lacking in experience, which can lead to client dissatisfaction. When I was in HR in one agency, we found ourselves being criticized for being too slow with classification and staffing actions. My staff came up with the idea for a biweekly status report showing the status of each request for classification action and/or each recruit action. 
We also asked the top manager in each organization to prioritize that group’s actions, after which we would ask the Regional Administrator to prioritize classification and staffing actions throughout the region. The office heads would occasionally grumble about the overall placement of their priority actions, but they knew that was the Regional Administrator’s decision, not ours. The many advances in software technology since then have undoubtedly made it easier and less time-consuming to keep managers and supervisors updated as to the status of their actions.
I also think it’s important for HR to explain how management’s requirements can lead to delays in getting their actions processed. For example, many selecting officials would like to recruit from as wide a variety of sources as possible; that could include advertising a vacancy simultaneously under the agency’s merit promotion plan (MPP) and its delegated examining unit (DEU), and at multiple grades. HR needs to explain that the more recruiting options management chooses, the more work HR has to do and the longer the lead time is likely to be in filling the vacancy. 
3. Hire into HR only people with exceptional people skills and make sure they are developed and trained to their fullest potential.
In a service function such as HR, every employee had better be not only technically competent but also a skilled communicator with a positive attitude.
One of my former bosses, Seth Hunt, used to ask his subordinate Chief of Labor & Employee Relations, who later worked for me in the same capacity: "Is being right always right?" This individual was highly intelligent and technically competent. He prided himself on being consistently right in his interpretation of law and/or regulations, and was typically unwilling to revisit the issue, regardless of the circumstances. He often came across to clients as arrogant and condescending, and his senior specialist seemed to take her cue from him. Another employee in that unit was a young woman who was just learning the business. 
She was always friendly and helpful and she would do whatever it took to get answers to questions she was asked. Not surprisingly, many employees, and even a significant number of managers and supervisors, would go to her instead of her more knowledgeable superiors to get their questions answered.
Along similar lines, I supervised one classifier who could deliver bad news (e.g., "the position you were hoping to upgrade won’t support a higher classification") and still be praised by the manager for her work, and another classifier, more knowledgeable and experienced than the first classifier, who could deliver good news (i.e., "this job can be upgraded") and still manage to antagonize the client.  My point here is that no matter how competent HR specialists, assistants or clerks may be, unless they also demonstrate "people skills" and a positive attitude, their exceptional technical knowledge may go to waste. 
Given the nature of much of HR’s work, it would seem unlikely that HR offices would consciously hire and/or retain employees who lack people skills, but I see, and hear about, such employees in virtually every agency with which I work. In my experience, it was consistently easier to develop the technical knowledge of an employee with good people skills than it was to teach a technically competent employees the communication skills needed to thrive in a service organization such as HR. 
One task involves enhancing an employee’s subject matter knowledge, the other trying to change an employee’s personality; the chances of achieving the latter are roughly the same as the odds of successfully climbing Mount Everest in shorts and a t-shirt. Accordingly, if a candidate for an HR position doesn’t have good people skills and a "can do" attitude, I simply wouldn’t select him/her, period, no matter home impressive the applicant’s technical knowledge might be.


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.