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6/13/10 - 10 Things Human Resources Won't Say

10 Things Human Resources Won't Say

by Jim Rendon
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1. "We're Squeezed Too."


There was a time when human resources departments handled every staffing need at a company, from hiring and firing to administering benefits and determining salaries. But HR's role has begun to change significantly as departments have shrunk at companies across the board. According to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, the profession's largest association, the head count at the average HR department fell from 13 in 2007 to nine in 2008. "HR departments are under pressure like never before," says Steve Miranda, the society's global HR and integration officer.


As much of what was once HR's domain increasingly gets outsourced, human resources is regrouping to help show top management how it can add to the bottom line, says Tony Rucci, former chief administrative officer at Cardinal Health and a professor at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University. Though that may seem like an odd role for a department that doesn't make or sell anything, strong HR departments are now focusing on boosting productivity by helping employees better understand what's expected of them and by showing managers how to be more effective.


2. "We're Not Always Your Advocate..."

Employees often turn to HR if they're having problems with a manager, but they don't always come away satisfied. In 2007, Ronica Tabor was interviewing for a better sales job at tool manufacturer Hilti North America when, she says, the interviewer told her that women had to work harder than men to learn to use and sell tools and that she should check with her husband about applying for the job. Tabor says she turned to HR with "high hopes" they'd keep the interviewer from doing this with others. But Tabor's attorney says she was "made ineligible for promotion for another year" and left the company. She is suing Hilti in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma, alleging gender discrimination. A Hilti spokesperson says the company's investigation found that Tabor wasn't qualified for the opening and that Hilti doesn't discriminate. "Our HR process did work," says the spokesperson.

Still, employees should realize that HR answers to the company, says Lewis Maltby, director of the National Workrights Institute, an employee-rights organization. "HR is a spear carrier for the boss," he says.


3. "...But We Can Help Your Career."

Human resources managers do much more than handle employment agreements, medical forms and 401(k) paperwork. They can also have a hand in helping to retain and promote top talent -- i.e., you. J.T. O'Donnell, a former HR manager and the founder of online career-development company, says it's a good idea to be in touch with someone in the department. Employees often want to avoid HR, O'Donnell says, "but you really should do the opposite." Molly John credits HR with helping her get promoted to partner at Ernst & Young last year, after she participated in an HR-sponsored program assigning senior partners as mentors to promising junior employees. Without it, she says, "I would not have been promoted so soon."


Seymour Adler, a senior VP with HR management firm Aon Consulting, says one way to be recognized for your work is to keep human resources in the loop -- say, by sending your HR manager an occasional e-mail to let her know how you've been contributing to the company's success. That kind of connection could help land you a promotion when positions open up or even keep you off the chopping block during the next round of layoffs.


4. "Want the job? Then You'll Want to Get to Know Us."

With unemployment hovering around 10 percent, HR managers are inundated with responses for every job posting. In fact, some companies are hiring outside firms to post jobs and sort through resumes, presenting only a dozen or so qualified candidates for consideration. How to make the cut? Be sure your resume and cover letter highlight the skills asked for in the job posting; HR tosses applications that don't meet all the basic criteria. And ask yourself what in your background fits the company's needs, says Mike Wright, senior vice president of outsourcing sales with Hewitt Associates.


Another angle: Approach an in-house recruiter or hiring manager before they post a position. Try using business-oriented social-media sites like to meet contacts, says O'Donnell. Judi Perkins, founder of, says she found most of her clients jobs this way. When you score an interview with HR reps, take it seriously -- you never know how much say they have in the process. And ask them what qualities they look for in employees. "You really need to sell them on your abilities," says O'Donnell.


5. "Yes, Facebook Can Get You Fired."

Employees like to think that what they do on their own time is their own business, but that's not always the case. According to a 2009 survey by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute, 27 percent of companies have policies about what employees can post on personal blogs. "You have to think about whether this will come back to haunt you," says Nancy Flynn, executive director of the institute. That never occurred to Nate Fulmer, a warehouse manager for chemical supplier Environmental Express. Fulmer and his wife made fun of a local church sermon in a podcast they posted online in 2005. Fulmer says it got so much attention, his boss listened to it, thought it was offensive and fired him. "I was so blindsided," he says. (A company spokesperson says the firm has new ownership and can't comment on employee matters.)

According to Flynn's survey, 2 percent of companies have dismissed employees over the content of personal social-networking pages. Flynn recommends employees check company policy before posting anything online and steer clear of potentially offensive content, even if it has nothing to do with work.

6. "In Some Companies, We're Not Very Useful at All."

it seems that every company has a different approach to human resources. For some, it's nothing more than an administrative job, involved with hiring and firing, benefits and not much more. These firms may have a dysfunctional work environment with high turnover, Perkins says, where employees can often feel trapped. By contrast, companies with strong HR departments have been shown to do better financially, says Rucci. Empowered human resources reps can also help guide employees through their careers.


How to tell the difference? For one, see whom HR reports to. If it's the CEO, that's good, says Maltby. If HR managers are in the field, getting to know employees and how the company works, that can be another key, says LaRhonda Edwards, an employee-relations panel member with the Society of Human Resource Management. One way to suss out a human resources department's effectiveness is to ask the manager interviewing you how HR operates and what it has done to help her achieve her goals. If she doesn't have an answer, it's "not a good sign," Rucci says.


7. "You're Not Paranoid — We are Watching You."

Companies want to make sure you're working most of the time, not sending joke e-mails to your buddies. Half of organizations in the ePolicy Institute survey banned the use of personal e-mail on the job, and more than one in four reported firing employees for misusing the Internet. In many companies, HR works with the information-technology department and the legal team to develop policies for electronic communication. These policies aren't a secret. Edwards says she makes a big effort to walk new employees through computer-use and e-mail policies, and they must sign forms saying they're aware of them.


Many companies employ software that sifts through e-mail looking for curse words or sexually explicit language. IT monitors Web usage and can see every site an employee visits. In fact, anything you do via the company's server—most activity on an office computer, including personal e-mail -- is subject to review by your boss. Firings over these issues are on the rise, says Flynn. In 2009, 26 percent of companies reported terminating employees for violations of e-mail policy, up from 14 percent in 2001. "Employees should act as if the boss was looking over their shoulder," says California employment mediator Michelle Reinglass.


8. "Read the Fine Print."

When you take a job, you may be agreeing to more than you know. In the fine print of employment agreements, employee handbooks and job applications, many companies include a mandatory arbitration clause -- meaning that you agree to give up your right to take any dispute to court, even if the employer has broken the law. Instead, the case goes to an arbitrator, who decides it privately, and "the grounds for appeal are extremely limited," says Donna Lenhoff, an attorney with the National Employment Lawyers Association. Lenhoff estimates that more than 30 million Americans are bound by arbitration clauses at work.


Employers -- particularly those in financial services, health care and pharmaceuticals -- often favor arbitration because it keeps costs down and cases out of the headlines, says Manesh Rath, a partner at the law firm Keller & Heckman. But, says Lenhoff, arbitration seldom works out well for employees. A recent study found that arbitrators decided in favor of employees just 30 percent of the time, and when the individual arbitrator had worked previously on a case with the employer, the employee won only 12 percent of the time. Reinglass says employees can often fare better in court. "Someone on a jury might relate to your experience in a way that an arbitrator may not," she says.


9. "We Know More About You Than You think."

these days companies do a lot more than look over a pile of resumes and call a few references before hiring a new employee. They bring in outside firms to dig into an applicant's background and verify education and employment histories, and they will often even search criminal records and credit reports. According to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 53 percent of companies have conducted credit checks on their employees. Companies are concerned that "if you have a lot of financial pressure, you might not act in the best interest of the company," says Wright.


Another survey, conducted in 2007 by HR Focus magazine, found that 86 percent of firms performed criminal background checks during the hiring process, and it has been estimated that nearly two-thirds of companies test job applicants for drug use. But not everyone thinks such measures are extreme. If anything, employers don't dig deeply enough, says Rath: "An employee with a problem with a previous employer or criminal record will try to hide it."


10. "We Love Tests."

Job seekers today have so much experience packaging themselves, with tailored resumes and rehearsed answers, that companies turn to tests to find out more about what makes them tick. A 2009 survey by research firm IOMA found that 26 percent of companies conducted personality, psychological or integrity tests on applicants. Job seekers may also be asked to take a test to quantify their creativity. What's more, insurance companies are pushing businesses to screen for traits like risk-taking, a quality the underwriter would not appreciate in, say, an applicant for a forklift-driver position.


But testing does have its problems. Rucci says that the most important indicator of future success on the job is past performance. Counter to that, HR managers sometimes distance themselves from the hiring process by relying on tests rather than performance appraisals. "There was a time when someone would say, This is the best-qualified candidate, based on their record," says Maltby. "Now it's tests, and no one takes responsibility for the decision."

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