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".
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
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
Reprinted from HR Reporter,
November 15, 1999.