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Know thy Customer

A fundamental principle of business is the adage "know thy customer". This makes obvious sense for the sales and marketing people because they have goods and services that must be offered to the appropriate markets. Their success is directly proportional to how well they identify and then meet the needs of their customer. You may be wondering how this applies to Human Resources? I will state that it is just as vital and just as critical not only to your personal success as an HR professional, but to the success of the overall organization you work for.

Thus, we begin with the question: Who is the customer for the work performed and services offered by the HR staff? If your answer is "the employees, of course", your answer is wrong. The correct answer is "the management staff". Here’s why.

By the time an organization is large enough to support one or more HR professionals, there will be a firmly established managerial structure in the organization. For the most part, the managers in this structure are paid to manage their employees and these employees are their full-time responsibility. If the organization follows the rule of thumb for staff size, the ratio of employees to managers will be less than 10 to 1. If the organization follows the rule of thumb for HR staff, the ratio of employees to HR staff will be about 100 to 1. Now, if the organization has agreed that 10 to 1 is an acceptable ratio for effective staff management, then it is safe to say that the organization cannot expect HR to effectively manage HR issues at the employee level at a ratio of 100 to 1.

The flaw is not in the numbers; companies do not need one HR professional for every ten employees. The fundamental flaw is an assumption that HR is responsible on a daily basis for all employee level issues. Granted, there will always be grievances to contend with and delicate employee relations issues, but is it the duty of the human resources staff to answer every employee question about vacation hours, benefits enrollment, and the sick time policy? The answer is a resounding ‘No’.

A closer look at those ratios will show that the ratio of employees to managers is just about the same as the ratio of managers to HR staff. This is not a coincidence or a quirk; this is a compelling fact of organizational dynamics. Managers are paid to manage employees at a ratio of 10 to 1. HR staff members are paid to assist managers from a human resources perspective at a ratio of 10 to 1.

An organization with the premise that HR serves the employee at the employee level has asked the HR department to make up for a less than adequate management staff. These are strong words, but let’s look at it carefully. The management staff is paid to manage employees on a full time basis. It makes sense then, that the management staff should be fully prepared to answer questions about the benefit plans, policies, and available sick or vacation time for the employee. A manager who continually defers these questions to HR has actually decided to defer part of the management of that employee to HR. This deferment does little to enhance the manager to employee relationship, but rather sets up a "dual manager" relationship which will inevitably lead to confusion, miscommunication, and a dis-empowering of the management staff. Let’s look at a classic example.

ABC Company has a vacation request form that requires the manager’s signature and HR approval. Sally, an employee, submits the form to her manager, Joan, requesting a 40 hour vacation. Joan has no idea how many vacation hours Sally has and thus signs the form and forwards it to HR. Sally makes plans for her vacation assuming all is well. Two days later, the form comes back to Joan with the request denied because Sally does not have sufficient vacation hours. Sally is mad, Joan is embarrassed, and HR takes the heat for providing the right information at the wrong time. This whole incident is easily avoided if HR provides the necessary data to Joan on a regular basis and empowers Joan to approve or disapprove the vacation based on that data.

I shall contend that for every overworked, harried, and bedraggled HR staff member, there is an organizational premise that HR serves the staff at the employee level (i.e. the employee is your customer). At the ratio of 100 to 1, what else can result but a continual overload of work. At a ratio of 100 to 1, you cannot be effective in meeting the HR needs of the organization? The HR needs of the organization are not solely your responsibility any more than winning a football game is the sole responsibility of the quarterback. Each member of the management staff must play their part.

Taking a careful look at your own organization, what do you see? Do you have an effective management staff that partners with you in meeting the human resources needs of the employees? Or, are you the classic overworked HR staffer holding the whole HR mess together with bubble gum, paper clips, and your personal labor commitment? Whatever you see, it reflects who you see as your customer.

A Strategy for Change

Now, knowing that your customer is the management staff and knowing that you must serve your customer well, what does your daily schedule look like? How much time is devoted to handling employee issues that should be handled by the respective managers? How much time is spent personally assisting the management staff? Are you locked in a "catch 22" dilemma: too much time fixing employee issues, not enough time to address management issues? If this is you, you need a strategy for change.

The first step in your strategy is to set your priorities and apply risk management techniques where necessary. Your priority must be to increase proactive time with the management staff and to decrease reactive time with the employees. However, while doing this, you cannot let all employee issues fall through the cracks. This is where risk management comes in. Let’s say that a typical employee issue arises. An employee comes into your office and wants to know if they can take an 80 hour vacation three months from now. While you might normally drop your work and perform this task immediately, you would do better to weigh the risks against your priorities. The employee does not need an answer right then and there. You can ask them to wait a day or two and you can continue to focus on the priority at hand. It may be difficult to ask an employee wait when your reputation has been "instant answer person", but this is a minor risk.

The next step in your strategy is communication. Once you have decided to switch priorities and to manage interrupts on a risk basis, you must notify your customers (both management and the employees) that change is in progress and that the changes involve them. During the interim period as you transition your customer focus, there will be a delay and/or disruption in the services you have been providing, particularly since some of the services will now be provided through the managers and not directly through you. Less risky issues are going to fall to the bottom of the stack. Crucial bottom line and legal issues will always remain a priority. No one likes a surprise, but if you let others know that there will be little more traffic on the interstate for a few months, they will be able to prepare themselves and be supportive.

Another issue you must be prepared for is resistance to change. You will be changing the status quo and regardless of how much better things are going to be, some people will see the old days as the good old days. You may have spoiled your employees with instant access and you may have managers that are less than prepared to fulfill their roles. You cannot let a few disgruntled voices deter you. Remember your goal is to serve your customers well and to improve the overall management capability of the organization. The end result of your efforts will be a fully empowered management staff, a well served group of employees, and an exciting fulfilling career.

Jim Witschger is founder and CEO of California-based Technical Difference, Inc., creators of PEOPLE-TRAK software, a feature-rich HR software program. He has 10 years’ experience working in the HR software field and 19 in software research development. He can be reached at 1-800-809-5731.

Reprinted from HR Reporter, November 15, 1999.

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