I’m Hesitant to Ask, But…


Over my years as an HR practitioner, in a fair number of organizations, I had employees stroll into the HR Department and start a conversation with “I’m not sure if you can get this for me, but…”

This phrase, or some variation, has often been the preface to a request for a piece of equipment or some business item necessary for the adequate performance of everyday tasks and duties: 

  • A chair without a broken leg
  • A new pair of safety goggles
  • Pens
  • A paper shredder that could handle more than 3 sheets of paper at a time (as the close-to-tears Office Clerk referenced 6 banker boxes of records she needed to shred)

Now ordering office supplies and work tools for employees is not a resume-building highlight that many fresh-faced HR professionals envision when they embark upon their HR career. (Although it is worth noting that in many small/mid-sized businesses it often falls upon the HR staff to stock the supply cabinet along with the office kitchen).

What’s more note-worthy here is when employees in larger organizations (those with a purchasing manager, a facilities team, and department leaders with budgets and company credit cards) go to HR as a last resort in order to acquire the most basic items to adequately perform their job in a safe manner.

Is it because the manager is not paying attention to the work environment in which employees are toiling? Perhaps the manager is telling staff members there’s no budget to update equipment until (if it’s approved) 7 months from now.? Or maybe, as is common, there are numerous hoops to jump through – and 5 signatures required – to place an order for tools and equipment.

So employees do the best they can with the items at hand. Sometimes with disastrous results. “I didn’t think I could ask for…”

  • A new can opener for the office lunch room (replacement cost to company = $1.00 from the Dollar General located next door). In the absence of a can opener and, apparently in her eagerness to adequately caffeinate her office mates, Bridget felt it would be perfectly A-OK to use a butcher knife to open a can of coffee. The knife (hello Captain Obvious) slipped, she sliced her hand open, and Bridget ended up taking a delightful trip to the ER where she received stitches, pain medication, and, perhaps, a lollipop.
  • A 2-drawer filing cabinet to replace the cabinet purchased in 1989 (replacement cost to company = $49.95 at the local office supply store). The 1989 relic had jagged metal edges running along the tops of the drawers that had not closed in a functional manner for 20+ years. Ellen cut her hand while attempting to close a drawer and bled all over the A/P files.
  • A new set of protective coveralls (replacement cost to company = $7.00 in the company supply shop). Because Karl did not wear appropriate protective gear (i.e. without holes and with workable elastic bands at wrists and ankles) he became sensitized to the chemicals in the environment, developed an allergy (and an absolutely disgusting rash), was moved to permanent partial disability status, and lost his job.  Note:  Karl was fully authorized to pop in to the supply shop – every day – and get a new set of coveralls.

Now these 3 situations were obviously safety issues which, with hindsight and information in hand, led to various operational improvements – and some performance discussions with assorted shift supervisors/managers/HSE staff on the “coverall” one.

But there’s a lesson here for HR practitioners about paying attention to the basic operational efficiencies (or inefficiencies as the case may be) in one’s organization. One of our responsibilities, I strongly believe, is to remove obstacles and roadblocks that get in the way of employees doing their best work.

Sometimes an employee may pop into the HR office or send an email with a question. At other times, while wandering the building or having conversations with people in other parts of the business, HR staff will hear stories or comments that may, seemingly, have nothing to do with HR’s responsibilities (“What a pain in the ass; I’ve been waiting over a month for my expense reimbursement!”).

But you know what? That’s a golden opportunity for HR folks to wield their internal influence and raise an issue, work to resolve the problem, and remove the obstacle that’s negatively impacting the employees’ work experience.

And think about it…

If Joe in the Mail room is afraid to ask for a new stamp-licking squeegee bottle so he can get the mail out on time, do you seriously think he’s going to report fraud, harassment, or any of the other things we tell him to bring to our attention?

So what’s the real deal at your company?  I’m hesitant to ask, but…


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