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Resourceful: ‘I Secretly Read Your Emails’ and Other HR Myths (Part I)

January 21, 2021
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Human Resources is probably your company’s most misunderstood department.

We’re called many things — from corporate “grim reapers” to “culture ambassadors.” Throughout my career, I’ve just about heard it all. Frankly, it’s time to speak up on behalf of my fellow HR professionals.

I’m here to bust some of the most common (and frustrating) misconceptions people have about what HR teams actually do. Even if you’re new to the profession, there’s a good chance you’ve struggled with some of these stereotypes yourself.

Myth 1: It’s my job to distract you from work.

We tend to hear this a lot from managers, especially those balancing the workload of an individual contributor and leader. Maybe you’re busy and not necessarily thrilled about having to wrap your head around a new quarterly review process, for example.

“Why would you do this to me?” I can almost hear managers asking.

Well, two things to consider. First, many of these initiatives originate from upper management. Someone in leadership likely went to a seminar, read an article, or heard about something another company was doing. While that doesn’t make it a bad idea, just know it wasn’t necessarily mine. I’ll be responsible for handling the logistics and execution, however.

Second, and more importantly, I promise that my job is not to make your life miserable. I’ve seen plenty of bad HR initiatives (some were mine!) implemented with good intentions. Whether the initiative was designed to improve communication between managers and reports, promote inclusion, mitigate risk, or even increase engagement, it all came from a good place. I swear.

Myth 2: I’m the “culture ambassador.”

This is one of my least favorite myths. Culture alone is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the modern workplace. Just to be clear, happy hours don’t make culture. They’re a symptom of your culture. To me, culture is what you value most when collaborating and communicating with one another at work.

Individual HR team members can’t singlehandedly create or enforce culture. Even when we’re part of leadership, we need to collaborate with other executives to get it done. While culture can organically happen from the bottom-up, it’s heavily influenced by the behavior of executives and the CEO. And yes, company values are definitely part of your culture — but these leaders need to live by them to make a difference.

Let’s look at an example. As an HR professional, maybe you’ve just been asked to improve work-life balance. If your leaders are working nights, weekends, and holidays in a visible way and congratulating others for doing so, your efforts most likely aren’t going to make a difference. 

Myth 3: I can give you a raise.

In short, not really. I’ve been cornered in the ladies’ bathroom several times in my career by employees letting me know they’re living paycheck to paycheck and desperately need a raise. This is quite alarming, and usually, my first thought is, “Why didn’t you talk to your manager about this?” It’s even more disheartening when I’m at a company with a formal review and compensation process.

A good HR professional will run audits to ensure the company complies with FLSA classifications and that there aren’t unlawful discrepancies between those with similar titles and responsibilities. We’re also there to ensure pay aligns with the company’s overall compensation philosophy. So trust me, we’re doing our part where we can — but you need to help us, help you by talking to your manager as well.

Myth 4: I read your emails.

I’m not sure why so many people think we do this, but this is a pretty common misconception. We are not your workplace’s equivalent to the FBI, I promise.

Yes, I might technically have administrative privileges to some communication channels like email and Slack. But in my experience, many of these channels aren’t even owned by Human Resources. I’m not going to contact IT to pull up employee emails unless I have a very, very good reason to. Even if I did have access, I’m not secretly doing research without good reason — and I’m certainly not Michael Scott looking to see if you planned a bbq and didn't invite me. 

Myth 5: My job is mostly administrative.

This one bums me out. Having transitioned into HR from an administrative role, it also gives me mixed feelings. This misconception allowed me to pursue the career I love so much. But in my experience, I’ve also seen it keep people from progressing.

Some of us have decades of experience, others might be new — but what we have in common is that we’re there to support and grow your company’s most important assets. Is there data entry involved in HR? Sure. But even the administrative part of our jobs carries weight across the entire business.

Another huge part of my job is compliance. That means I have to constantly research changes to federal, state, and local regulations — not just on an annual basis but throughout the year. I’m also following market trends, and how those impact our compensation philosophy, PTO policy, and just about every other policy. I’m also helping communicate organizational changes, facilitating learning and development, and helping new managers support their employees during major crises like the ongoing pandemic.

In short, it’s a big job. We’re not there to serve as your team’s personal assistants — but you can bet that we’ll empower your team in more meaningful ways.