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.

11 thoughts on “Great HR Service? Don’t Make Me Laugh

  1. Judy Jones says:

    Great article Jeff

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  2. PeterG says:

    Couldn’t agree more! I’m with the DOD…and while I’m not in HR, I do a lot of position classification. When I interact with our HR, it’s like pulling teeth to get a response. People will forgive bad service if you’re responsive. Trying to get into HR and change that mindset. Great piece, thanks.

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  3. JessieW says:

    Well said!! One of the biggest frustrations I face as a hiring manager is not knowing where in the process my action to bring a person on stands. I’m somewhat in control from the point of the announcement closing, but then it is a guessing game after that. How many people applied? How long will it take to complete qualifications and issue a certificate? Once the certificate is finally issued, I’m back in control and its up to me to work it. Then after I make the selection I’m back in the dark as to exactly where my candidate is in the process and when they will start. Transparency is needed from the start of the hiring process all the way to the person reporting for duty.

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  4. Robyn Burch says:

    I’m in HR and I agree…but I’d like to see your next article about the supervisors responsibility in the hiring process. HR does need to do better, but supervisors taking responsibility for their part would also make the process work more smoothly.

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  5. ES says:

    As long as HR is treated like an ad-hoc support role, there won’t be any substantial change to this scenario. A light needs to be shined on how leadership and management were “raised” through their career ladder to see that they are simply perpetuating a culture of leaving personnel matters to “support personnel” – essentially chance and regulations. Keep treating people like they’re anything but people (living breathing, thinking, feeling human beings), and the result is the same; disengagement, disagreement, and poor performance. Employees checkout, leave, file grievances or other complaint avenues, while supervisors, management and leadership cover their backsides with EMR and legalese.

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    • Nicole says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more! Leadership and management need to understand that strong relationships with HR employees, nurtured through transparent engagement and interaction, can lead to the excellent service they want and need. I am an HR specialist in government and I would much rather look for ways to support leadership needs if they would be upfront about what it is they truly want. While we must abide by statute and regulations, there are innovative ways to make all parties comfortable if not completely happy.

      Just my two cents……

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  6. JK says:

    Thank you for your keen insight and observations!

    To properly execute a hiring the check list approach to creating packages needs to be supplemental with meaningful conversations about organizational structure, mission, execution, skills, we simply need to talk to each other, not pass along forms.

    The concepts of Talent Management and Acquisitions ( as outlined in the Partnership for Public Service “Improving the Employee Experience” is a great read and great launching point for conversations and policy development.

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  7. Kymm says:

    You cite that you had customer ratings that averaged 4.7 on a 5-point scale. What were the questions you asked and what was the scale?

    While I agree there are a large number of ill trained HR employees, managers and supervisors have often not done their part in the process(es) even with repetitive education. I’m just currently getting a grip on quantifying the classification pieces where so often I get an incomplete package because someone can’t fill out an OF-8 form (to even sign it).

    I definitely agree with the last portion of this article and have struggled with this “growing up” in a great HR organization. I was taught by the best

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  8. ExFederalHRProfessional says:

    Thank you! You accurately described the situation I faced when I tried to help reform a poorly-performing HR office. Left government after six months of futility and frustration.

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  9. John Tomlin says:

    Timely, timely, timely! Jeff’s mention of the resource issue is right on target. I was lucky enough to be the HR Director of a major Navy R&D lab, and we lived off the command’s marketing success. Even though the Navy established staffing “standards” for HROs, we could buy as much as the CO would allow. This enabled me to staff to a level where the servicing HR Specialists had time to sit with their clients, see and understand what they did and how they did it, and become an integral part of the organization they served. It was my standing “rule” that the staffing and classification folks spent at least 50% of their time in their customers’ spaces. Nothing could make me feel better than to see the HR Specialist who served our Hydromechanics Directorate wearing a life jacket riding one of the carriages in the towing tank. The Command considered the HRO to be an important part of the overall planning process, and as HR Director, I sat on the Command’s Strategic Planning Committee. As to attitudes, we were proud of our ability to understand what our customers needed and how to get it for them. When we had to say “No” (which was infrequent), we always followed it up with a “but we can get there by doing this.” It can be done!

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