You got into HR because you genuinely like helping people. You care about other people’s wellbeing and you see the value in building systems that are mutually beneficial for both individuals and companies. You take pride in being able to listen, empathize, and help people deal with problems.
But being a people person comes with its own challenges. You want to be able to help everyone, but in HR (and in life) that doesn’t always mean allowing them to bring all their problems to you. You’ve got to balance the needs of the company with the needs of individual workers. That does not mean you’re supposed to be the company therapist.
Although playing the role of the listener is often a part of being in HR, it isn’t your job to listen to employees complain about each other. There are more productive ways to deal with those issues.
When employees approach you to complain about a problem they’re having with someone on their team, or their manager, do a quick evaluation to see if they should be talking with you or if they should be taking the first steps to addressing the issue.
- Have they tried to solve the problem themselves?
- Do you get the sense they just want to change the other person?
- Are they trying to absolve themselves of accountability?
- Do they simply want to vent and aren’t interested in coming up with solutions?
In these cases, they should be exploring other methods of addressing the problem rather than giving it to you. Coaching employees and managers to have constructive conversations on their own is key for teams to run effectively. People need to learn to approach, talk about, and solve problems within their team in a professional manner.
It might include coaching on key concepts like active listening, mirroring, and how to create value from a conversation. Unless it is a matter of safety, such as harassment, this should be the first step anyone takes when dealing with an interpersonal problem at work.
If your company culture pushes people into the arms of HR before they’ve tried addressing the problem themselves, some changes may be in order. Take steps toward adjusting the company culture around internal problem solving and empowering people to address some level of challenges on their own.
Need extra support?
Empowering people to manage their own concerns and disputes is a great way to develop a team. However, sometimes employees are dealing with something much larger than an interpersonal issue.
Problems stemming from mental illness, grief, or trauma are common and can go unknown to teammates. It may be manifesting itself in disagreements with other coworkers, negativity, and decreased engagement. HR may be the right answer to help in these situations, and you’ll need to take the time to uncover the real issue.
But often personal problems like this need extra assistance. Some companies have employee assistance programs (EAPs) that are designed to help with these issues. Having an EAP and pointing employees to these services may be especially useful if there was a recent event involving workplace violence or harassment.
There are other resources outside of your company you can tap into to help deal with a problem that is beyond the capacity of HR. It’s important to be familiar with them so you can make informed recommendations for what’s needed to help maintain workplace health.
Here are some supporting resources you can tap into:
- Hire a coach to come work with your team
- Offer in-person or over-the-phone counseling options to employees
- Have a list of hotlines you can reference for employees struggling with personal issues
Learning to say no to people approaching HR with the wrong problems can be difficult, especially when your first instinct is to help. But sometimes it’s necessary—although it doesn’t mean that the problem goes ignored.
When you send someone away to deal with a problem themselves, and you give them the tools to do so, you are challenging them to take accountability for their situation and assume a leadership role in addressing the issue. You are empowering them by teaching them how to deal with future workplace challenges and showing them they have the ability to solve it on their own. You’re also taking a lot of unnecessary work off your plate. It’s a win-win.
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Photo by Dmitrii Shironosov