Great HR Service? Don’t Make Me Laugh

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?

The Problem(s). 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.

Feds are Overpaid – Or Not: Part II

Last week’s post “Feds Are Overpaid – Or Not” generated a lot of questions, comments and complaints from people on all sides of the federal pay issue. Pay is one of those issues that causes people to get emotional, but because we are talking about the pay of people who work for The People, it is a fair subject to discuss. In fact, federal pay and bonuses are public information. If you go to a Fedsmith’s Feds Datacenter, you can even search by name for pay and bonus information for individuals.

Given all of the questions and comments, I decided to clarify a couple of points and address a few new ones.

Job Security. Last week I said “Feds have more job security and that has value, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to place a realistic dollar value on it.” Clearly for many employees job security is one of the most appealing aspects of a federal job. The problem with putting a value on it is that the value is subjective and varies greatly depending on who you ask. Some people would be willing to trade job security for a 5% pay raise, others would give up a significant part of their pay to have more job security. In a federal workforce of more than 2 million people with hundreds of occupations, assigning a particular value to job security is not very useful.

Job Classification. Last week I said “If the job description is bogus (and many are) so is the comparison.” That one was challenged by people who say the accuracy of individual job classifications is not important, while others said many federal jobs are under-graded. If the number of over-graded jobs was small, it would be of little importance. But my observation of the evolution of job grading over the past 37 years that I have been in or around government is that, for a variety of reasons, grade inflation is real, it is widespread, and it makes comparisons of General Schedule jobs to jobs in the private sector much less meaningful. The other problem with job classification is that we try to pay people in more than 400 job series using the the same General Schedule grades and pay. How do we expect to have meaningful pay discussions when everyone is lumped into an antiquated and limited system such as the General Schedule? The idea that many federal job are under-graded is one I heard from quite a few folks, but there is little evidence to back it up. In fact, when people appeal their job classification they rarely see the job upgraded.

Some people say the answer to the federal pay question is a new pay system for federal employees that bases pay on performance. I would support that 100% if I had any confidence that (a) it could be done without the gender, racial and ethnic bias we have seen in some pay-for-performance programs and (b) someone could devise a performance management process that actually works. Nothing I have seen so far gives me that confidence.

What might work is a system that is more responsive to the conditions in local labor markets for various occupations. A true market-based pay system that recognizes the wide variations among pay levels for different occupations and in different localities might actually work. Locales would have to be far smaller than today (for example, the DC locality includes jobs in rural WV and PA) and occupation-specific. Moving to market-based pay raises a lot of public policy questions that would have to be addressed. What happens when pay for an occupation goes up 25% in a year due to competition in the labor market? Would the government be willing to raise an employee’s pay that much? What happens when pay goes down? What happens when pay for the same occupation goes down in one location and up in another? How do we respond to the preceding question when we replace “location” with “congressional district?” Would the government follow the typical private sector practice and not cut the pay of existing employees (while bringing new employees in at a lower rate of pay)? Given that experience doing a job adds value (at least for a few years), does it include pay increases based on longevity? How do we deal with federal jobs that have no private sector equivalent?

It is certainly possible to design a pay system that works, is based on market realities, and is fair to employees. The problem is that politics and ideology are also part of the equation. That is why I am not optimistic that we will see real pay reform in government any time soon. The General Schedule is an antique, it is clearly not a good pay system, and it is so inflexible that it drives a lot of very bad behavior. That said, it is better than almost any option that could result from a reform effort that is driven by politics.