I talk to a lot of people. One question I typically ask is “Are you happy with your HR service?” The reaction I most often get, whether I am talking with someone in government or the private sector, is a laugh. Sometimes it is a grin, sometimes laughing out loud, and sometimes a full-on belly laugh. “Yes” is a rare answer.
Human resources specialists have been identified by the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Defense, and many others in government as a “mission critical occupation” or MCO. Strategic human capital management is on GAO’s “High Risk” list. Virtually every manager I know identifies better hiring support as one of their most critical needs.
If HR is so important and HR Specialists are an MCO, why is it so rare to find someone who says they are happy with their HR support? Is there anything agencies can do to fix the problem?
HR service delivery problems are typically caused by two distinct but intertwined problems. If an agency does not have a clear vision for its HR services and the agency fails to invest in HR, the agency is likely to get the default HR solution. For HR, particularly in government, the default is enforcing rules. A former colleague used to describe it by saying “Everyone has a Stop sign. I want to find the person in HR who has a Go sign.” The people who practice “just say no” usually defend their rules-based approach as protecting people from themselves, upholding the merit system, and “doing the right thing” as they define it. That HR-as-traffic cop mindset is a tremendous obstacle to good HR service. It is usually the product of the agency’s inadequate attention to and investment in HR services. When we see poorly resourced HR offices with poorly trained employees providing substandard services to the agency, no one is going to say they are happy with HR.
HR the Enforcer
Yes – the government has a lot of HR rules and regulations. But – HR is a service provider that is supposed to be helping people get things done. They help managers hire and fire people. They help employees with benefits such as retirement and insurance. They build and deliver HR training programs. Being viewed as the place that always says no is not providing service. The simple fact is that manager and employee customers are rarely asking HR to violate the law. More often than not, someone is asking HR to do something that is not the normal HR practice or that the HR office has not seen before. In some agencies those practices are treated as though Moses brought them down to HR on tablets.
By far, the greatest number of complaints about HR are connected to the hiring process. Hiring managers complain that they cannot get the talent they need, the process is unpredictable and unreliable, and the HR staff is unresponsive. Employees and applicants have similar complaints. The truth is that the federal hiring process is terrible and needs to be reformed. But – the broken hiring process is no excuse for poor customer service.
Even with a badly broken hiring process, good HR specialists deliver good customer service. They help managers navigate the hiring process to get the best outcome. They run hiring processes that are predictable, so the hiring manager knows how long it takes to get a vacancy announcement or a referral certificate. They respond quickly to questions. They understand the mission and the priorities.
Many of the complaints I hear most often are caused by poorly trained HR specialists who do not know what they are doing. Those are the folks who are most likely to hide behind regulations they do not understand or policies that do not require them to think. They do not respond to questions and do not know the answers when they do. They make promises and do not follow through. It’s no wonder their customers are unhappy.
If people are your most important resource, invest in people programs
We have all seen the collective eye rolling that happens when managers stand in front of employees and declare that people are their most important resource. Their people rhetoric and people programs are usually not aligned. We may think of people programs as being limited to things like training, rewards and recognition, and other programs that directly affect the workforce. More often than not the HR office itself is not viewed as a people program. Because of that, federal HR offices are generally under-resourced and under-trained. I have worked in agencies where HR became the dumping ground for the people no one else wanted. Agencies that had superb HR training programs cut them because training is always at the top of the list to be cut, and training for support folks like HR is at the top of the top of the list.
With that approach to resourcing HR, the outcome is predictable. You get a poorly trained and equipped HR office that defaults to the just say no approach. You get employee survey responses that are not good. You get “check the box” training. You get HR offices that struggle because they do not have enough resources, agencies do not see them as truly being mission critical, and they have limited access to the kind of training needed to develop customer-focused HR professionals who have the in-depth understanding of their organization, its needs, and the HR regulations themselves. The poor reputation of HR makes it harder to justify resources for HR offices. That makes them worse, which means they get fewer resources. And the cycle continues.
Is Good HR Service Out There?
The Defense Logistics Agency is one of those organizations where people are generally satisfied with their HR support. They have actually turned away agencies that want them to provide HR services. Their customer feedback is excellent. When I was DLA HR Director, we got customer ratings that averaged 4.7 on a 5-point scale. We turned around vacancy announcements in days, not weeks. We issued referral certificates within a few days of announcements closing. So yes, good HR service is out there. Getting it meant the agency had to invest in HR. Fortunately for us, DLA is a well-run agency that knows something about customer service. It also knows there is no free lunch and if you want quality you pay for it. I’m sure there are other agencies that have good HR service. If you want to let me know about a great HR office, please do.
There are also great HR specialists out there who are delivering great results for their customers even when their office is not. We have all seen them. Customers love working with them. They find ways to get things done. They help customers navigate the maze of HR rules. They follow through. They know the jobs in the organization and understand the mission. When you find one you want more.
We Need More
Unlike professions like accounting and contracting, there are no real standard for federal HR training and certification. Except for a few situations like conducting delegated examining, there are no requirements or minimum standards for practicing HR. That means we have a lot of amateurs practicing HR. They say no to customers because they do not know how to say yes. They don’t know the real rules. They do a lot of damage.
If HR is mission critical, and we want people to get great HR support, calling someone an HR professional is not enough. We have to start professionalizing HR. That means being more selective about who we hire, more deliberate about training, and setting standards for certification of HR professionals. It also means providing adequate resources for HR offices, and holding HR professionals accountable for providing great HR service. Being the holder of the stop sign who never finds a way to help an agency and its workforce meet their HR needs should be grounds for removal.
If the government is willing to invest in HR and hold HR Offices and individual HR specialists accountable, great HR service is doable. If not, we are going to get more of the same. And people will continue to laugh when asked if they are happy with their HR service. And that will be a shame.