Sleeping with the Enemy: When HR and Payroll Make the Worst Bedfellows

A dear friend is starting a new job today as an HR Manager – joining a company with ~300 employees. It’s a cool opportunity with a cool company and she’ll be doing all the typical human resources stuff – workforce planning and recruiting, total rewards, employee relations, compliance-stuff, and…payroll.

That’s right; she’s in one of those organizations where payroll rests firmly in HR’s domicile. A place where performance management, cultural affinity and employee engagement snuggle-up side-by-side with tax withholding and garnishment notifications.

This is pretty common. It’s also hella stupid.

While HR and payroll need to work together, their responsibilities in ensuring people are paid correctly should be separate and distinct.

The payroll function (calculating time worked, overtime, reimbursements, retro pay, tax withholding, wage deductions, etc. etc. etc.) is, by its very nature, an administrative finance process. Payroll folks track and verify all the payroll expenses to ensure they are paid, recorded and reported properly. The HR function, on the other hand, should serve as the architects of policies, process and workflow and, in conjunction with payroll, ensure there is adherence to both state and federal wage and hour laws/FLSA regulations.

But the same person (some hybrid HR/Payroll staffer) should not be the person in charge of entering, processing, running and verifying payroll. For both financial and human reasons.

The Finance Side

On the finance side there’s a little thing called “internal controls” – designed to control risks in the organization. At the departmental and process level this means, for example, having Person A (HR) enter information (new employees, wage adjustments, deductions) and then having Person B (payroll) verify via source documents, ascertain accuracy, and finalize the process. Further internal controls may then include Person C (the big boss) doing a final review and verification.

This, of course, ensures accuracy and alignment with internal policies but also makes sure that ONE person does not have the power to fraudulently hire/pay fake employees but it also ensures there is a secondary verification step to alleviate simple human errors.

The Human (HR) Side

Employees get justifiably upset when their paycheck is incorrect. Bob was supposed to see his new pay rate reflected on his paycheck and it wasn’t. Trixie’s paycheck shows medical/dental deductions when she declined coverage. Susie took 32 hours of sick leave during a pay period but rather than paid leave her paycheck reflects 32 hours unpaid. Bob, Trixie and Susie are pissed. Rightly so. And ALL their respective co-workers KNOW they are pissed even before they pick up the phone or walk down the hall to see about getting it fixed.

Now some may say “so what’s the big deal if they take their concern to someone sitting in HR versus someone sitting in Finance?”

Well…it IS a big deal when that hybrid HR/Payroll Manager is simultaneously working very hard to change the view of HR within their organization and to their company’s leadership team.

It comes down to HR professionals and HR leaders (especially HR Departments of One) determining their raison d’etre and strongly advocating for what they SHOULD do and SHOULDN’T do. What they WILL do and WON’T do.

Long ago I determined that the reason for HR’s existence (and therefore my reason in any organization) is to “connect the capabilities of individuals to organizational success” and HR delivers value when we “support and enable the execution of organizational strategy.”

My work (“what I do”), therefore, includes the work that does exactly that: supporting and nurturing a culture that aligns with organizational goals. Providing managers/leaders with coaching, support and guidance so they can execute that company strategy. Removing barriers and obstacles so that employees can do their best work, achieve their personal/professional goals and feel a sense of purpose and connection.

That’s HR to me.

And it doesn’t include downloading swipes from the timeclock or sending out W2s at the end of the year.

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It’s Not Them. It’s Us.

HR playlist

I’m sitting here at the 5+-month mark since my state first implemented #StayAtHome orders. Since then, as has occurred across the globe, we’ve moved into new phases (“woo hoo! restaurants and hair salons are open!”) and then dialed back when people, looking to get their party on, packed newly opened bars well above the allowed capacity (“boo! bars are now closed!”).  We now have a statewide mask mandate in place which, as should not surprise anyone, is being contested with legal injunctions because we now live in a world where things designed to promote good health and courtesy/concern for our fellow citizens has become ridiculously politicized.

HR practitioners, for the most part, view their pandemic practices and policies as non-political. What I’ve noticed however is a whiff (perhaps even a strong stench) of extreme pro-business ideology creeping into numerous HR/business deliberations and responses. Lots and lots of actions that, by their very essence, come across as extremely anti-employee.

This is not to make light of the real challenges that HR professionals have faced during 2020; they’ve had to move quickly into uncharted territory and amass a huge volume of new knowledge. That being said however, there are many who have quickly reverted back to their typical and traditional mindset – spinning a golden oldies playlist at an event when the partygoers have changed.

Amongst the songs being sung (over and over and over) by HR practitioners I regularly hear these Top 10 hits: 

  • Games People Play – “Our employees are claiming they have COVID19 symptoms/exposure just to get out of coming to work.”
  • Money Money Money – “No one wants to work for us because they’re making more money with expanded unemployment payments.”
  • Baby Come Back – “We’ve required all employees to return to the office; even those who were successfully working from home.”
  • Face Time is the Best Time – “No; we’re not going to consider remote work moving forward.” 
  • The Schoolhouse Blues – “Despite schools remaining closed for in-person classes we need everyone back to the office.”
  • We’re Getting Screwed – “Our employees are taking advantage of us/Covid19/ ** the situation **”

Yes; some people are crap. Yes; some people will do whatever they can to not-come-to-work. Yes; some people will spin fantastical stories or attempt to find work-arounds. 

But when we work in HR we need to approach every day and every situation with the mindset that people are inherently good and operating with the best intentions. We must avoid using sweeping generalizations that categorize our employees (OUR employees; the ones we decided were good enough to come work for us) as people whose only goal is to engage in battle with the company.

I get it; there are daily changes to safe-opening guidelines from the CDC and/or state and local entities. Our leaders and managers are demanding we fill open positions and we’re struggling with applicant flow. We’re still managing the complexities of the FFCRA in the US. 

Yet we need to navigate all these things with a modicum of grace and a measure of humanity.  We need to understand that:

  • People are fearful of this virus and do get tested if they’ve had exposure or symptoms; the only reward they get for this, in many situations, is a lower paycheck due to “unpaid” LOA.
  • If people are making more on unemployment, perhaps it’s time to take a long-hard look at the company’s compensation/wages and other terms and conditions of employment.
  • Why are people being forced to return-to-the office when they’ve successfully been working from home? Why are butts-in-chairs in one building so critical?  
  • Parents (or other family members) are struggling with a lot of uncertainty around sending their children to school OR they’re faced with the need to oversee remote learning. What about providing assistance rather than forcing them to make a difficult decision? 

So let’s change up the playlist and find some new music. (I hear those K-pop stans have some suggestions…..). 

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The Importance of Using the “Write” Language

write-up

“I’m going to issue a write-up.”

“He should be written up.”

“Her manager is going to give her a write up.”

“HR must be present when a manager gives an employee a write-up.”

“Should I write-up this employee?”

“The employee refused to sign the write-up.” 

“Write-ups don’t work; our employees are still doing the same thing.” 

***** 

I can barely begin to tell you how I abhor this list. These articulations, as captured above, have recently appeared in various and assorted Facebook groups where HR practitioners gather. And while HR folks are accused (and sometimes guilty) of any number of bone-headed maneuvers, the language used by many around employee performance is one move that’s in serious need of adjustment. 

“Write up” (used as both a verb and a noun) is up there in my top 5 most-hated-phrases-uttered-by-HR-people. 

It’s lazy. It’s infantilizing. And it reduces the manager/employee relationship to one of parent & child. Or school principal and pupil. Or lord-of-the-manor and servant. The use of this phrase communicates everything wrong with an organization’s culture, its views on performance management and the employee experience.

It has to go.

I implore you HR – stop being the master of the one-note samba (“write up!”) and sing a different tune. 

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Group Narcissism and HR Self-Love

hypnotizing self-love

Have you ever strolled into the office of your CFO and seen an office tchotke on their bookshelf spouting the phrase “I <heart> Accounting?”  I haven’t.

How many Supply Chain Managers do you see posting on LinkedIn/Twitter/Facebook something along the line of “I LOVE my job!!!!” along with heart emojis? Probably very few.

Yet, I’m willing to wager, there’s an HR professional in your life who you have observed:

  • wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with “You can’t spell HERO without HR!” or
  • posting on the-social-media-network-of-their-choice “I love what I do!” or
  • having a pre-orgasmic meltdown at the mere anticipation of heading to the SHRM Annual Conference and listening to motivational speakers

Never have I seen a profession so in need of collective self-love and affirmation. If Tony Robbins, Marie Kondo, Stephen Covey and Oprah somehow magically had a baby, that enfant charlatan would be viewed as a GIFT by a wide audience of human resources practitioners.

It’s as if HR is a child raised in a home where parental approval was seemingly only awarded on the basis of obedient performance and achievement. Upon reaching maturity this upbringing has led to a craving for demonstrative affection, love and positive reinforcement (the kind that’s only given when something is done that pleases the parent) and therefore leads HR professionals to participate in an ongoing search for external validation for the duration of their careers.  

We see this obedience and desire-to-please in the manner in which many HR folks carry out their duties;

  • they (or their CEO) believe that HR staff must continuously have a smile (!!!) plastered on their face when walking through the office
  • they put more effort into planning parties (yes they do) and ordering the right swag for employees than they do routing out systemic organizational issues of racism or bias
  • they consider their “worth” to be determined by how well they cheerlead and rally the troops – “C’mon everyone! This ‘mandatory’ team bowling event is going to be SUPER fun!”
  • they believe that posting a quote from Brene Brown on LinkedIn and adding #LoveMyJob (along with 15 other hashtags) is meaningful employer branding  

This “rah rah HR is the greatest!” behaviorism surfaces regularly in world of HR blogging and on #HRTwitter. The platitudes and pablum are often on display within the #HRcommunity or, most glaringly, in any SHRM-affiliated hashtag convo. Everything is sunshine and rainbows and HR is the center of the universe. In numerous online conversational circles, HR folks are forever wearing a halo (the mashup of a supernova and a celestial angel) and the discussion of any shortcomings is never brought forth from the darkness. They’re indulging – in the wide-open they are! – in a mutually pleasuring group masturbation session.  

That’s some Manchurian Candidate HR sleeper-agent shit. Universities and SHRM certification courses and Fred Pryor Seminars (for the Receptionists and Office Managers who have suddenly found themselves in HR) are littering the globe with brainwashed HR practitioners who are unable to push back on the inane demands from their CEOs lest they risk losing their ‘parents’ approval (and thus the accompanying love and affection). Rather, as if acting under a hypnotic spell, this platoon of HR practitioners go forth into the world with a mission to maintain the status quo and color within the lines as they steadfastly refuse to enter into any conversations that may be critical of either their profession or their demeanor.

It’s akin, in some ways, to the reckoning we’re having in the US about our history and our country.

Protesting against injustice, questioning long-held traditions and pointing out flaws, shortcomings and failures doesn’t mean we don’t “love” something – it actually means the opposite.

We love it enough to want its survival.

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Racism: When HR is Part of the Problem

HR professionals are the architects of the employee experience. They’re the ones responsible for ensuring their workplaces are free from unlawful discrimination and racism. They’re charged with nurturing a culture that promotes diversity, inclusion and equity.  In challenging times, when people are confused and hurting and taking to the streets to protest for issues of basic human rights, employees rely on their HR team to communicate and reassure.

Numerous HR professionals are excellent at doing these things.

Others are doomed to fail miserably. 

Why? Because, unfortunately, there are far too many HR practitioners who themselves exhibit a profound lack of either understanding or care and who, to put it bluntly, are racists themselves.

Over the last several years alone I have heard the following

  • “I treat everyone the same; I don’t see color.” – OK; we can work with this one to some degree via education and conversation. Unfortunately, it was followed up (by the white, privileged HR Director) with “there is no such thing as white privilege.”
  • A local HR Director was interested in serving on a board of directors. When discussing roles and committees, including D&I, she explicitly stated, “I don’t believe in diversity; that’s all made up.”  
  • “This is a fun place. And none of ‘those people’ come here.” – spoken by an HR leader/SHRM leader to an out-of-town (white) guest who had traveled to speak at a state SHRM event.
  • “I’m not prejudiced; we had a Black housekeeper who practically raised me. She was like part of the family” – in the category of things that are Southern and problematic; see “The Help”
  • When discussing the hiring process at her company an HR practitioner said “Well, you know she’s Black so guess the only people she will ever hire?” 
  • “I don’t go to that store in that part of town; it’s too “dark” there if you know what I mean.” HR Director, 2020

Oh these HR folks aren’t using the n-word in public but they’re awfully good at using code words and euphemisms like “them” and “those people.” They realize they’re crossing a line though; you can tell that when they ‘whisper’ the offending word. 

And, of course, lots of racist white people figure they can read-the-room. They’re out having a few cocktails with HR peers or sitting at a table with other white people at a SHRM meeting and they assume everyone thinks the same as they do. There’s no holding back. They open the door on their ugly souls. 

So what to do? 

  • We must, if we work in HR, call out our HR colleagues when they say things that are hurtful, inappropriate and racist. 
  • We must continue to elevate the voices and contributions of our BIPOC colleagues EVERY DAY; not just on ‘certain days’ of the year. 

We can do better.

We have to do better. 

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