Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues-everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
The division that I've recently joined has an HR director who seems to be extremely powerful due to the strong relationship she has with the head of our business unit. About three months into my job, I was warned by two colleagues on different occasions that I should never challenge this woman and should be very wary about any information I gave her, since it wasn't just my survival that depended on her but that of others too. What I've subsequently seen has made me believe that this was excellent advice, especially when a colleague I really looked up to told me that she would be leaving mainly due to this woman's influence on her future in the company.
Recently, I have become worried about my own position. After about six months of what I believed was good performance based on feedback from my manager, the HR director came into my office one day and told me that my job was on the line due to "serious issues" with my communication style. The only reason I didn't faint with shock was that I had been told confidentially by another director that something of the kind was about to happen and that he disagreed with the assessment. Thankfully I seem to be working through the situation, but my fear is that this will happen again, especially since there seems to be a history of people being pushed out in this way by this HR director. I feel I have little control of the situation, since it is impossible to make changes - assuming these need to be made - if I'm only told about them by the time they are judged to be such "serious issues" that I'm about to lose my job.
I've never been in a situation where HR could make decisions about people almost unilaterally, which is the case here, and would be grateful for advice. I'd also be curious to know what your take in general is on this situation: is this someone who is generating a lot of fear and suspicion simply because she's doing a really difficult job - giving feedback that perhaps other people should have given - or is there something dysfunctional about this whole set-up, which many of my colleagues believe?
I think your last sentence raises something really insightful, and is something that a lot of people in this situation wouldn't think to ask themselves: Is she a punitive tyrant who pushes out good people, or is she raising legitimate issues that no one else is raising? (And kudos to you for being open-minded enough to consider that.)
I don't know the answer, but I do know that either way, something isn't being handled correctly here. Either:
1. The HR director is an out-of-control rogue whose assessments are not rooted in reality, and as a result she is pushing out good people. And for some reason the company is allowing it. This is a dysfunctional set-up. Or...
2. The HR director's assessments of people are accurate and presumably formed with the input of their managers, and for some reason the company has charged her with being the messenger whenever there's a serious performance problem. This is a bad set-up too, because funneling feedback through the HR director is (a) unfair to employees, who aren't hearing feedback early on or from their own managers, and (b) unfair to the HR director herself, who's being forced into the role of the office bad cop while everyone else gets to play good cop.
Ideally, managers would make assessments of their own people, with the HR director providing guidance if needed. And managers would deliver feedback to their own people, with the HR director pushing them to do it if they avoided it. If the HR director felt there was a serious problem with an employee that wasn't getting addressed, she should take it up with the person's manager and the two of them would resolve it (with the manager ultimately delivering any message that needed to be delivered to the employee).
So the big question for you is: Where is your manager in this situation? Thus, the very first thing you need to do is to sit down with your manager and talk about the feedback you received from the HR director. You'll have a few different goals in this conversation:
1. Find out why you heard this message from the HR director rather than from your manager. Is this actually the company's system? Or is something else going on?
2. Say explicitly that you very much want to hear feedback directly and early on, so that you're able to incorporate it immediately, rather than only hearing about something once it's become a serious problem. Ask directly if your manager is willing to do that going forward. (And pay attention to her body language and other cues here; you want to get a good sense of whether or not she is likely to continue to wimp out when it comes to having awkward conversations in the future.)
3. Talk about what you're doing to respond to the concerns the HR director relayed, and ask to check in with your manager on them again in a few weeks, so that you can get further feedback about where you stand.
Then, from this point forward, since you know that your manager is willing to be so hands-off about feedback that you may not hear about something until it's considered a serious problem, be proactive about seeking out feedback. Regularly check in with your manager and ask for feedback on how you're doing, and about this communication issue raised by HR in particular.
And if you do start to get the sense that the HR director is an out-of-control rogue whose assessments aren't based in reality, and that your manager is unwilling to assert herself on your behalf, then I'd consider getting out of there, because that's a dangerous situation to be in. But for now, keep the open mind that you currently have, talk to your manager, gather information, and be proactive. Good luck!
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