The HR Juggler

Why Are HR The Worst People Managers Of All?

Posted on: September 18, 2011


Ouch. Is it just me that recognises some element of truth in the above question? I have had the pleasure of working with some great HR line managers over the years, but I have also at times experienced a considerable gap between what we say to line managers as HR advisors and what we do ourselves as people managers. And I am also sufficiently self-aware to recognise that whilst I excel at some aspects of people management, such as providing individuals with development, mentoring, encouragement and regular feedback;  there are plenty of other areas where I definitely “could do better”.

Rather than HR being the function that attracts and retains the worst people managers…lets face it, there are plenty of other functions in most businesses that have their share of these too…it is perhaps the gap between the people management values that we advise and espouse to others and those that we at times struggle to attain within our own chains of command that contributes to the view that HR are the shoddiest line managers of all. 

In my view, some of the reasons that HR doesn’t always reach the high standards we articulate to others are as follows –

  • “Too Nice”?

I doubt I’m alone amongst my peers in preferring the motivational and developmental part of being a manager, than the relentless driving up of standards, systematic performance management and delivering of unpleasant messages. The truth is that to be better people managers HR has to excel at both sides of the coin

  • Suspicious minds

HR people can be quite suspicious by nature – we are often looking for the catch when things seem to good to be true. This trait can at times be useful….but who wants to work for someone who is anything less than trustful of them? I have seen it many times that trust between HR colleagues can be a fragile concept and it takes time to grow and develop…perhaps we need to get over this a little and give people the benefit of the doubt rather more than we do.

  • Control freakery

HR managers with control freak tendencies? Yes, I bet you know a few too…. 😉  Combine this with line management and it can become the ugly step-sister to the mistrust mentioned above. An unwillingness to delegate, the belief that things will only be done correctly if you do it yourself, a tendency to micro-manage…incredibly corrosive to the confidence and development of the individual that works for you and definitely not a good example of great people management skills.  

  • Fight fire with fire

Oh, the fire-fighting in HR. We’re just always so busy dashing here and there and fixing everyone elses issues, we are often overwhelmed by the sheer number and scale of the tasks ahead. And when it comes to prioritising, there can be a temptation to allow the tenets and discipline of good people management to slip for our own teams. Needless to say a slippery slope and one that can turn us all into poor people managers if we don’t guard against it.

  •  Do as I say, not as I do

Excellent at giving other managers advice on dealing with issues, HR is often rather less good at following its advice for its own staff. Perhaps also a factor in this is that the internal function of “HR for HR” rarely, if ever, works as effectively as it should. It’s all a bit too uncomfortable, a bit too close to home, a lower priority than working with managers elsewhere in the business.

So if HR aren’t perceived as great people managers, what do we need to do to get better? In four words: take our own advice. Let’s face it, we know how to do this stuff, we advise managers on it all the time and we do it well…let’s take some time to honestly appraise where we’re doing well and where we could do better. And how about being really revolutionary and asking the people who work for us for their feedback? Now that could be a great starting point.

What do you think?


This post is the first of my blogging experiment, where all of the post topics have been generated by others and there has been voting taking place on which topic I should blog on each day. If you haven’t voted for a topic yet, please do – I will be tackling the topic with the most votes every day for the next five days. In the event of tie-break votes (and there is one for tomorrow’s post as it currently stands!), I will make the final choice between the two most popular myself 😉 

22 Responses to "Why Are HR The Worst People Managers Of All?"

I LOVE this 🙂 fantastic 1st one for the vote.
You know I have recently had a very bad experience with a HR Manager… What the have in knowledge they totally lack in people skills. They have advised other managers of how to deal with staff issues, however in the treatment of their own team they have failed dramatically in 4 oocassions all ending in members of the team leaving.
There is often a gap between knowledge and management experience that maybe needs to be addressed ?

Thanks Jules – you are right that there is sometimes a gap between theoretical knowledge and actual experience and that can be very damaging.

I think being any manager is a conflict between empathising with the employee, and telling them what to do without being too draconian in order to improve performance. If you empathise too much, you are perceived as being soft, if you don’t empathise enough people accuse you of being distant.

Personally I don;t think HR managers are stereoyptically worse than other employers, there are good and bad managers everywhere!

More power to your creative elbow for another thought-provoking article 🙂

Very true, good points well made, thanks for commenting 🙂

i think you listed plausible explanations for why HR managers might suck at giving feedback, but i’m not sure they suck any more than anyone else does. i just think the entire human race sucks at giving feedback. this is a human thing, not a role or level or geography thing. it just is. but as you point out, it’s particularly important for HR to “walk the talk” especially if they are going to go around spouting off the virtues of providing meaningful feedback and trying to hold others accountable for it. good post!

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I do think though that it goes much deeper than just giving feedback – I think it is a broader question of management style, although you are certainly right that it is not just limited to HR Managers. Walking the talk is indeed crucial.

I echo the comments above: HR managers are just as guilty as other departments. But you raise a great point. We, HR members, should lead by example. It’s tough enough for HR to get a seat at the table, we should demonstrate competence within to demonstrate outwardly.

I’m very biased, but I believe more Organizational Psychologists belong in the HR department. I believe they have great personalities (bias much?) and have the evidence/data based perspective that can build credibility into this function.

Ha, at least you’re very honest about your bias! Thanks for popping by and commenting, I’d love a few more organisational psychologists around my workplace and in the HR team, for sure 😉

Im in line with Charlie – im not sure we are worse overall as managers. But there are some differences. For example, having spent a long time in the HR resourcing space, i can confirm that HR are the worst at hiring their own. Plumbers and taps? It really is bad, but its a story for another day!

Re your points, i concur with most except the ‘Too nice’ one – of the bad HR managers i have met, its not the nice ones that have been bad. In my experience, in HR anyway, the bad ones have been quite obnoxious, aloof and generally at the opposite scale of being nice. Maybe its the whole HR insecurity thing.

Also, Id pick up on one of David’s points – “I think being any manager is a conflict between empathising with the employee, and telling them what to do”. This is terribly old school and one of the problems with modern management and leadership. The role has nothing to do with telling people what to do.

Great post and experiment Alison!

Thanks for commenting Gareth.

The “too nice” point really relates to wishing to avoid difficult conversations or being singlem-minded with driving performance within the team, I think that side of things is quite prevalent, although as you say, much more preferable to the unpleasant personalities!

Re Dave’s point you’re right in principle, although the context (which there is no reason that you would know) is that he works for a police force…so I suspect there is perhaps a little more ‘telling’ than there usually would be in other organisations. I guess the challenges in each sector and how far we have or haven’t moved forward varies quite considerably.

I agree with the points above about good and bad managers being found everywhere. It’s just that in HR the spotlight is on you because you talk the talk. People management isn’t easy but HR are better placed than anyone to rise above and be role models. If we’re not doing this then we’re failing the profession and reinforcing negative perceptions of HR.

Thanks for commenting Debbie – think you’re definitely right re the spotlight being on us and the need to be positive role models

Definitely any disconnect between values/culture and actions will ensure loss of confidence and cries of ‘hypocrite’. I think HR are particularly vulnerable to this, but so are top leadership – the values and culture of the organisation are only true so far as they are lived… and what is exhibited by the leaders of the business will be reflected throughout the organisation. Whether on the board or not I would include HR as we must model behaviour for everyone…

True, good points – thanks for commenting

I’m enjoying your user generated blog titles experiment; good idea!
I’m in the ‘good and bad found everywhere’ camp. I’ve worked as an operational manager, as an academic, and in HR. My two best line managers have been in HR – both are really principled people who I’ve learnt a lot from and who have been great in giving me the platform I need to work well.

However, I’d agree with Gareth in that many of the poor managers I’ve witnessed in HR haven’t suffered from being overly nice. Rather, the opposite: they’ve been too caught up in their own power and politics games, and lack emotional connection and leadership skills.

I’ve seen some awful things in ops line management, as well as some terrific examples of leadership. But at the risk of over generalising, I’d have to place academics at the bottom of my personal list of the gap between espoused knowledge about management and what they actually do as managers. That world tends to be particularly prone to the Peter Principle, and also, its hardly a workplace that people enter into because they have a desire to be people managers.

Thanks Flora – I am kind of remembering why I only usually blog once or twice a week 😉

Really interesting insight into the world of academics and also the impact that a lack of emotional connection can have in leadership skills – spot on.

[…] Why Are HR The Worst People Managers Of All? […]

Hi Alison, Great Blogg.
I think the real truth is that a lot of HR managers just like so many other managers don’t become managers because they are skilled at people management per se, they may be skilled in the non-people tasks like negotiating and organising benefits packages, or designing and developing training. HR is highly administrative and people who are tasked focused often get more done because they overcome the constant interruptions and fire fighting. Thus we can end up with HR managers who are not necessarily people persons, just like you can have finance employees who are in debt!

[…] Why Are HR The Worst People Managers Of All? […]

Alison – – –

I’m way behind on my blog reading, but I enjoyed this post so much I wanted to jump in with a brief thought.

I think the reason HR people are such bad people managers is the same reason that we’re good at helping other people be people managers. That is, the line manager is often just too close to the situation to separate emotions from facts and set a reasonable course of action. That’s US when we manage people … WE’RE too close to the situation when it concerns our own people/department to be objective without some occasional guidance — just like any other people manager. We’re all the same, really.

Michael Brisciana

People are attracted to HR because of the constant fresh supply of innocent victims. I know this for a fact. Many control freaks are attracted to environments where there is a constant high volume of consistent transactions. Examples are airlines, checkout, cashier, HR, transportation, etc. They are attracted to the constantly fresh supply of people they can victimize. This may sound unscientific and implausible, but it’s true. Books are written on subject such as snakes in suits. People are naturally attracted to these types of positions because of the reasons I stated. It’s meets this evil mental need they have to dominate and control others — and in certain jobs they have constant supply meeting their daily need. This is why HR has such bad reputation, not because of HR but because of the types of people that role attracts.

[…] Why Are HR The Worst People Managers Of All? […]

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