Communicating As HR (Part 1)

Human Resources can sometimes get bogged down in administration and legal protocol, neglecting communicating with their clients…

When people do their jobs, they often prioritize the urgent over the important, and feel pressured to give preference to things that are brought to us in a strict or time-pressured manner. Busy managers, angry auditors, disappointed employees – these can lead us from a serene and prepared workload straight into a day where we’re simply chasing our forms and the status of workflows.

As a result, we often neglect communicating properly. We sometimes choose to ignore the underlying request, and rather than drilling down to the bottom and finishing it, we choose to give a half-answer, hoping that we can postpone further action. That way, however, lies futility. The work won’t go away and now the people on the other side of the table feel neglected, or that you’re not willing to listen to their needs.

This problem exists in two stages: for one, the approach we take to the administrative side of HR, and second the way in which we communicate with people in general. Or in another way: how we think about our work, and how we communicate on it.

In this post I will try to lay out the structure of communicating as HR, and how the actions you take, even when performing a simple administrative task, can change the mindset of people you interact with.

“The Buck Stops Here”

This is a wonderful expression used by Americans to denote that one cannot pass one’s responsibility on to someone else. Some people believe it denotes the token used in poker to signify who is the dealer (a buckhorn dagger, often) and if one did not want to deal, one could pass the token on – thus, ” passing the buck”. Another belief is that the phrase originates from the old practice of “scapgoating”, where one loads the sins of a community on to a goat and then sends it off into the wilderness, and so the buck passes.

I believe that personal responsibility is one of the most important things when dealing with other people, especially if there is a large amount of administration, bureaucracy or legal difficulty involved. In Human Resources specifically, where you are the representative of the company with regards to pay, contracts and Human rights, this becomes incredibly important.

After all, you are the person who knows these things, and they often do not. Your colleagues are relying on you to help them navigate rules, restrictions and policy to achieve what they want, if possible.

Silo thinking

The first danger to overcome is thinking of HR as “you” and your colleagues as “them”. When you are asked a question or to assist with some administrative chore, this is not some elaborate plot to expose a weakness in the company or exploit your kindness to scam the company. It’s your job to know what is possible, advise on what to do or not, and to help navigate the protocols needed.

  1. If there are clear protocols in place, you cannot go wrong by following them
  2. If there is a grey zone, consult with your manager and set a rule of thumb
  3. People who ask for help are involved and active, they are not trying to annoy or trick you

Damage: If you stall or play silent, you will harm your colleague’s view of yourself as a professional and HR as an institution. You will contribute to their lack of engagement, or add to their feeling of being ignored by the company. People may feel that they are merely “replacement parts”, which is really a more 80’s view on HR.

Mitigation: Even if you cannot do something, or are not allowed to, don’t go silent – remain in the communication. Explain thoroughly what is going on, and either what you can do, or what they can do, to continue in this situation.

Mistaking responsibility for accountability

The second danger is to pass off responsibility to someone else. “I can’t do this because I do not have the rights in the system”, “The person who does this is on holiday and no one else can do it” and “Your manager will need to do that”. Recognize these sentences?

These words, while true, all ignore the fact that you can still take responsibility for these things happening, even if you cannot do anything about it yourself. You are mistaking responsibility (ensuring something happens) with accountability (your actions being something you are punished or rewarded for).

If you don’t have the rights, ask someone who does have them if it can be done, and to give feedback if it’s done. Then update your colleague.

If a person is on holiday, they must have a replacement, else they are a single point of failure. Find this person, and if the person is not there, find their manager and make sure someone has the ability to replace them in the future. Instead of sending a colleague back to their manager, include their manager in the conversation and save everyone involved the time.

Damage: Blocking requests and denying responsibility will cause people to become frustrated at their needs not being met. Processes become slowed, halt at particular people regularly, or communication simply stops. People then look for alternate ways of getting what they want done (bypassing your process altogether) or ask for their managers to expedite the process, meaning that more people get involved and the initial feeling of frustration is likely to spread.

Mitigation: The greatest mitigation possible for this issue in communication is teaching your team that their responsibilities are shared, and that tasks to be done need to have at least a primary and a secondary person to perform them. This reduces the likelihood of a single point of failure, such as during holiday or illness. It would be of value for everyone to be able to access the most critical HR processes, at least to be able to answer questions that arise, if not to handle matters themselves.

The second important thing to instill in your team’s culture is that when people come with a question, they do not care who is responsible, or who solves their problem or answers their question. All members of the HR team need to show a cohesive front, and whoever accepts the task reports back, whether it’s their main task or not.

System And Process Coherence

An important part of facilitating a smoother and more controlled HR process is to make sure that your HRM, HRIS and LMS systems are all connected. Preferably they’d all be part of the same package, ideally well integrated into the CMS system of your company. This means that all information remains constant between the business side and HR side, while allowing all processes and tasks to be shared and following a single track.

Transparency of the systems and processes used is the first step in improving HR Communication from being about changes in policy and the latest changes in processes and tasks to becoming more interactive.

This increased interactivity will allow people to have a measure of insight and perhaps control over the processes they are involved in. This reduces the anxiety of observing a “black box”  system, while allowing them to perform the first line of troubleshooting before knocking on the doors of HR’s administrators.

The result is that communication from HR can progress from one-sided info-dumping or demanding actions to be undertaken. The strength of HR lies not in authoritative demands, but making sure that people-related processes are carried out quick and painless, leaving more time to focus on the conversations most interesting to employees; performance, reward, training and development, and wellness.


Accepting responsibility and empathizing with people who come with questions or complaints paves the way to building increased trust with employees. Coherent processes and well-connected systems smooth the operations side of HR, giving more time for personalized, on-demand development of people and the business.

Only then can HR Communication evolve from updates and reminders to interactive content improving employee engagement, well being and their connection with the business.

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