For many leaders, the most uncomfortable message to communicate is ‘no’. Watching a person’s face fall as they’re told something they don’t want to hear is never pleasant. But, if you work in human resources or public relations (aka communications) chances are you’re comfortable handing out disappointing news like Tic Tacs after a spicy meal. It can be a challenge for colleagues to understand why HR and communications staff seem to butt their way into other departments’ business. It’s not always understood both professions require its practitioners to do what’s best for their organization, not just their own department. Sometimes mistaken by colleagues as the ‘fun police’, here’s a light-hearted look at the challenges these corporate cousins have in common.
Three Reasons HR and Communications Practitioners Are Misunderstood
1. You enforce rules your colleagues don’t understand
Common sense doesn’t always win the day if you’re talking with someone in HR or communications. Both professions are guided by industry specific rules and professional standards which are not well known and can, at times, seem unnecessary.
HR leaders are expected to be on top of ever-changing legal precedents and they have the unenviable task of asking leaders to follow new processes and procedures, often resulting in more work for their colleagues. They must ensure their organizations stay in compliance with a myriad of employment standards and labour laws. Similarly, communication professionals actively enforce a number of best practices when dealing with the media or sharing external communications. Well known for being persnickety when it comes to the written word, PR practitioners are required to follow the Canadian Press (‘CP Style’) guide used by journalists. This quirky guide is full of rules that go against common sense, making it a regular occurrence for practitioners to tell senior leaders “Sorry, I know it looks wrong but we have to write it that way.”
2. You look like you’re “kissing up” to the boss
It’s easy for HR and PR professionals to look like they’re campaigning to be employee of the month. To do their jobs well, these leaders need to have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening across the organization, not just in their own departments. HR and communication practitioners are known for being ‘in the know’. This is why top management tend to stop by to chat. Savvy leaders, especially those who travel frequently, appreciate the chance to catch-up on what’s been happening while they’ve been away. It’s also common for members of the leadership team to seek out human resources and public relations for their advice. Seasoned leaders appreciate the value of a gut check from their HR or communications practitioner before making an important decision. Many of these discussions are time sensitive and confidential so they happen behind closed doors which can be confusing to leaders in other departments who don’t have this type of relationship with management. Nor do they realize there’s a good chance the boss is actually receiving a word of caution.
3. Some of your best work is a secret
HR and communication professionals see people at their most vulnerable. In times of crisis, these practitioners are able to put their personal feelings aside to offer compassion and guidance to those in need. Leaders make mistakes and it’s often the HR or PR team members who make things right again. How do you quantify the value of an HR leader who stops a colleague from accidentally giving an employee a case for constructive dismissal? Or the communications professional who writes a letter to “further clarify” and tactfully override a catastrophic mistake that was included in a previous letter signed by the top leadership? Much like a member of a covert military operation, the facts of what happened (including the hard fought victories) usually remain classified. The bad news is keeping these events confidential furthers the misunderstanding of how critical HR and communications are to an organization.
I admit there was a time in my career that I envied what it must be like to work in finance. Have you ever watched a financial update be delivered to a leadership team? It’s pretty amazing. Everyone pays attention, some get out their calculators and there are always questions. Communications, and I suspect HR, are not capable of engaging leaders in the same way as finance, sales or even marketing. We often live up to the nickname the ‘fun police’. We say ‘no’ a lot, we tell people what they don’t want to hear and we appear inflexible. But, we also have the deep satisfaction of knowing we help people in need, we develop leaders, and, thankfully, we have each other.
Janet Hueglin Hartwick is a conversation coach, trainer and speaker. She is the founder of Conversations At Work, an evidence-based communications training program that helps leaders manage today’s emotionally engaged workforce. Janet is also is also the President of Soilleirich Communications Group, a consultancy that specializes in corporate and employee communications.