Put simply, HR helps shape the employee experience via compensation, benefits and administration, talent development and training, and cultural programs, and are called upon to solve other people’s problems. They aim to design with all team members in mind while keeping an eye out for consistency, fairness, and legal requirements, balancing their responsibility to the company and its employees.
Depending on the environment and your own experience, HR might be a team that you trust and value and that you see as a partner and advisor, or you may view them as a cumbersome administrative function that complicates what should be simple and reduces what is actually complex to an annoying form or checklist. In fact, these are two of the more positive views into the role that HR plays in organizations. In some companies, and for many people, HR enforces outdated policies and the law, serves to protect the company rather than support the employees, and caters to those who do wrong rather than those who have been wronged. Pair that with the perception that HR doesn’t have a real seat at the table, takes a resource-focused versus human-oriented approach to problem solving, and fails to innovate or adapt to an ever-changing workplace—it’s not surprising that seeing a HR team member on your interview list may not excite you.
As someone who has had roles within this function in startups and established companies, I’ve seen the positive and negative impacts of what these teams and individuals can do. I often talk about how I think the function is desperately in need of dramatic change and do my best to support innovation and the infusion of new ideas as part of this transformation. 2020, and the layered impacts of a pandemic with its health and remote work implications (childcare, technology, and more!), reckoning with racial injustice, and layoffs, furloughs, and economic recession have further tested the HR function. With these acknowledgments and my personal beliefs, and despite my passion and intentions, I know I have also missed team members’ expectations before. I see these challenges and look back on my own experiences as an ever-present chance to learn more, do more, and grow in my expertise and capabilities. I, like many HR professionals, come into the function because they care about making the work experience better and want to do it for people, with people. Sometimes broader company policies, hierarchy, access to information, or legal requirements interfere with HR’s ability to take what would be the best, most efficient and practical path. Additionally, an abundance of employee questions and concerns can take up more time than the innovative culture-building activities that may have inspired them to get into the field.
Still, the HR perspective can be incredibly valuable for candidates navigating the interview process—who may become employees adapting to company operations and personalities. They’ve seen team members at their best—when projects go well or when promotions and raises get announced—and have been present during those tough times too—when conflicts emerge, terminations occur, or issues pop up. Those diverse experiences give them context, insight, and, hopefully, empathy for what any individual or team might be going through.
In an ideal world (and in this case, an aspirational one), HR has the chance to listen to the voices and represent the interests of employees by developing programs that make current employees committed to their roles, and entice others to want to join the team. In reality, their hard work is mostly behind the scenes where it won’t be noticed by most people, and they are often caught between groups or individuals trying to interpret motivations and stories to get to the bottom of a particular situation. They are asked to be pragmatic and objective even though they are dealing with reactive, nuanced, and subjective situations.
During your conversation, raise questions that may be of a sensitive nature (for example, those that give a window into your personal life such as a disability requiring accommodations or questions about childcare benefits or leave policies) that you would not be comfortable asking to other interviewers. Push on the aspects of the total rewards (benefits, health care), and programs and talent management strategy (performance reviews, leadership development, and promotion processes). They will often represent the organizational perspective and process with more objectivity than the anecdotal experience, rusty recollections, or personal opinions of others. Take the opportunity to build a relationship with the HR person so that, if someday you have a problem or tricky situation, you’ll feel more comfortable approaching them for support.