Ask ten different people on the street–or in the office–about HR departments, and you’re likely to hear about ten different HR stereotypes. There are some things that people automatically assume about HR and the function it serves…and not many of them are true.
That can cause trouble, especially if HR is trying to accomplish an important task and runs into resistant employees, or decision makers that have the wrong idea about what HR should be. Let’s take a look at HR stereotypes, the most common ones we’ve run across, and options for how you can address them in your organization.
Why HR Stereotypes are So Common
Reasons may vary across industries or businesses, but here are a couple reasons the stereotypes can be so prevalent. First, HR departments are often involved in one-on-one enforcement of workplace guidelines and consequences resulting from behavior. An employee’s personal interactions with HR can often be negative (something we’ll discuss more below), and that’s a breeding ground for bad stereotypes.
Secondly, to an extent, it’s HR’s job to be a lightning rod in the workplace, somewhere that employees can direct their frustrations instead of infighting or blaming management. In this case, HR stereotyping serves a purpose, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.
Now let’s take a look at specific examples that we have run across.
1. “When HR Gets Involved, That Means You’re Getting Fired”
This is a “bad luck” stereotype that often stems from a limited point of view. For an average employee, the only time they may see HR in action is when someone they know gets fired. Many might only meet with HR representatives when first being hired, and when conducting exit interviews. This can create the assumption that when HR appears, your job is in jeopardy–or already gone.
This is not an assumption that’s easy to address, especially in industries with naturally high turnover. One of the things HR departments can do is work with company leaders to create a plan of clear communication with employees. This way, employees can see HR sending out messages with helpful reminders, see them help organize parties and other work events, and understand that HR isn’t just a herald of bad news in the workplace.
2. “HR Only Serves the Company’s Best Interests, Not Yours”
This classic stereotype is especially difficult to deal with, because it’s rooted in an “us vs. them” argument that’s frequently used to champion workers’ rights and employee autonomy. It’s often brought up around emotional stories of someone getting fired or mistreated by an employer. That’s tough stuff to deal with, so it’s no surprise this stereotype can spread quickly.
As mentioned above, part of HR’s job is to be a lightning rod for negative emotions, and that’s certainly true here. However, HR departments should always emphasize that their role is not just to protect the company from any legal issues, but to protect employees themselves from mistreatment, or misunderstanding their own rights. A capable HR department will help employees directly in important ways.
3. “HR is a Bunch of Dinosaurs Who Don’t Understand Technology”
This is a tricky stereotype to deal with, because it can come from several sources. Part of the problem lies in the rules that HR and IT work to set for how employees use technology. These rules are designed to help meet data privacy requirements, prevent attacks from ransomware, ensure the workplace stays productive, and keep identities safe.
However, these guidelines can often feel confining to workers, as they usually restrict how personal devices can be used and how social media can (and can’t) be used at work, among other requirements that can make some jobs feel slower or more tedious.
Technology stereotypes may also come from how individual HR departments operate. That could include not offering digital applications, requiring hard copies of every document, using old phone systems, and other habits that parts of the business can fall into.
Fortunately, out of all stereotypes this one can be very simple to address with a few points:
- Training materials and handbooks should emphasize that technology guidelines are for the safety of employees and their data.
- HR should always look for new ways to allow communication and task management, including apps and limited personal device use.
- Social media restrictions can be hit or miss. Instead of banning all social media at work, HR can focus on creating guidelines for using social media constructively (marketing teams like to talk about turning employees into brand ambassadors, too).
- HR, like all departments, should look into periodic audits that can show how they can save time with the latest best practices, which often includes embracing digital innovation in many forms.
4. “Nobody Needs HR These Days”
This stereotype often comes from the upper reaches of a company, especially when company decision makers are looking for ways to cut costs or make things more efficient. It’s a shortsighted viewpoint, because this stereotype often appears in cycles. When the labor market is tight or when recessions hit, HR looks less necessary to company leaders because turnover decreases and many people are looking for jobs, so empty positions are quickly filled. But when labor becomes scarce and employees have more agency, filling positions and keeping employees happy becomes more difficult, and HR departments quickly look essential.
The best way to deal with this is to emphasize that HR always has an important role in the company, and does far more than fill positions (a key task since “The Great Resignation” of 2021. HR should have active roles in talent development, training, succession planning, and other important organizational requirements. HR departments should also have robust plans to deal with legal issues, development proper assessment tools, and other roles that make it clear why HR is needed, particularly in more complex organizations.
5. “HR Makes Everything Boring”
Sometimes HR departments are seen as an annoying principal at a high school in the 80s–they’re just there to ruin everyone’s fun. This may be especially common in growing companies that are developing their own HR departments: Employees see the casual culture and informal work processes they enjoyed be replaced by more rote processes and what seems like unnecessary steps. HR can get a reputation as a rule-hungry busybody out to drain all the fun and color away.
The truth, however, is that HR is working to reduce risk and liability for the company while ensuring compliance with all applicable laws. This becomes increasingly important as a company grows larger and gains more attention. HR is helping to protect jobs and livelihoods that would be lost if a company was fined or sued out of existence, and it’s a good idea for businesses to openly acknowledge that.
6. “HR Isn’t Really Part of the Company”
This is another stereotype that’s common in growing businesses where an official HR arm of the organization may be added later on. It’s also an issue because HR’s work is all about the employees themselves, and not the profit-making operations of the business.
However, as any competent HR office can attest, that doesn’t make HR a lesser department or not a “real” part of the company. One of the best ways to show this is frequent and open collaboration with other departments (always a good idea), and managers who are willing to thank HR when they help with a project–that could be as simple as a mention in an email sent to employees!
7. “Complaining to HR Never Does Anything”
This stereotype arises from employees sharing stories about letting HR know about a problem and having nothing happen in return. There are two reasons this happens. The first reason is it’s not an issue HR can address: Employees often struggle to understand the scope of HR, and how HR should deal with particular grievances. The second reason is that HR did not act when it should have–negative stereotypes are enforced by inept HR departments.
The best response to these cases is to make sure that all complaints to HR are taken seriously and properly addressed. HR should work to explain their scope and limitations when appropriate – the more an employee can understand where HR is coming from for a specific complaint, the less likely they will be to harbor a grudge.
8. “Working in HR is Boring and There Are No Options to Be Creative”
This viewpoint comes from those who have never worked in HR and assume that it’s all about following long lists of rules and procedures, when this is obviously not true.
HR has to be incredibly creative, especially when filling positions in a competitive market, and partnering with marketing to help create a cohesive brand message about the workplace. A good HR department is always looking for new solutions to age-old challenges of human resource management.
Interested in learning more about the role of human resources in an organization? Would you like a starting place to brainstorm ways to upgrade HR’s technology, or manage data more efficiently? Knowledge City’s Human Resources courses are an excellent place to start. You can choose the specific field you want to learn more about and go at your own pace in the time you have.
Want to jump right in? We also suggest downloading our free guide on how to build a healthy workforce.