Whose Side is HR on, Anyway?

An employee wonders if human resources will help her, or protect her manager.

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Suzanne Lucas

I received an inaccurate performance appraisal from my incompetent manager and I wrote a detailed response (actually, longer than the original appraisal). I have some questions:

  • Is it likely that the company will change the review rating?
  • How does HR feel about employees who submit review responses?
  • Even if the ratings are not changed, will the fact that I wrote a coherent, objective response be noted in my manager's HR file?
  • My husband is a manager at a big company. He tells me HR is not my friend, that that they will protect my manager before me. Is this true?

I don’t know you, your manager, or your company policies, so this is going to be a general answer--your mileage may vary.

Changing the rating: It’s likely that your company has a formal review process. Just writing a response will not get a rating changed. You’ll have to officially request a review and a hearing. Will it get changed? I’ve seen it happen, but more often then not, the answer is no. Employees are often the worst judges of their own behavior. I’ve never had an employee say, “Gee, I’m average or below average.” Every employee thinks they are above average. This, of course, cannot be true.

Your manager may or may not be incompetent. I can’t judge from here. If he is incompetent, his manager should already know it. Your manager’s manager is the person you really need to speak to about this. And please note, I said speak. Almost everyone is too busy to read through comments on a performance review. Make an appointment and express your concerns.

HR’s feelings: HR doesn’t really feel anything. We’ve all grown numb to the whining. (Sorry, I’ve just divulged a little secret.) Responses are frequent and we take them with a grain of salt. That said, we are not the final arbiters of performance. (Or at least we shouldn’t be.) We are there to help your management make proper decisions. But a rating is a business decision and--except in rare circumstances--the business (line management) should be making appraisal decisions.

Your manager’s file: Unless your manager has done something illegal, or is already on a performance improvement plan, I can’t see that happening. Performance appraisals tend to be subjective and managers should have the ability to evaluate their own employees.

HR as your friend: I’m quite friendly and have bent over backwards to help employees with various problems. But, what your husband said has a grain of truth to it. HR is there to help the business. Theoretically, (and in my experience and opinion, practically) that means making sure the people are taken care of. Good people make good business, and you want to keep the best people. That said, will they favor a manager over the employee? It depends on what is best for the business. As I said before, none of us are great at judging our own performance. As a result, the bias almost always favors the manager in these cases. Your arguments need to be solid, fact-based, and concisely written.

One of the best rebuttals to a performance appraisal I’ve seen involved an excel spreadsheet. The employee had several columns: a quote from the appraisal, documented evidence rebutting the manager’s statement, names of other employees who could verify, and finally the employee’s own view of what happened. It was easy to read, displayed evidence clearly, and went a long way in helping the employee win his case.

Will this do any good for you? Maybe--and maybe not. If you don’t see eye to eye with your manager, you can choose to make the changes to comply with his wishes, be miserable, or look for a new job. There are good reasons for all three choices. Just be sure to make a conscious choice, and don’t just drift along.

Suzanne Lucas has nine years of human resources experience, most of which have been in a Fortune 500-company setting. She holds a Professional in Human Resources Certificate from the Society for Human Resources Management. She blogs at Evil HR Lady.

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