HR Insights 5 min

Common Human Resources Stereotypes [& How to Avoid Them]

September 15, 2020

Every profession has a reputation, an instant association and judgment of character, all in line with our personal experiences. Nurse, lobbyist, banker, car salesperson, city council member; each carries a certain set of expectations on their traits, whether they deserve it or not. It’s no different for HR—HR professionals as a group have to deal with the reality of how human resources stereotypes can affect their work.

HR isn’t easy work, and it can be unglamorous to the point of making scapegoats of the people in charge. But with the right tools and strategies, HR can overcome these stereotypes and prove the strength that comes from taking care of people’s needs while building and protecting a successful organization.

Why Are There So Many Negative HR Stereotypes?

As with all stereotypes, the ones about HR stem from negative personal observations. Often, the bad experiences people have with HR shape the views they hold. Here are a few examples of how this can turn out:

“HR Is the Corporate Enforcer”

HR has a dual mandate: protect the organization from getting in trouble with the law and protect employees from unhealthy, unsafe, and unpleasant experiences. Ideally, these mandates overlap to the point where protecting employees fortifies the organization’s position in the process.

When push comes to shove, however, protecting the organization comes first—if the organization goes down, it takes all of its people with it. Inevitably, taking the organization’s side when a compromise can’t be reached leads to some employees seeing HR as their adversary. When these employees express their frustrations publicly, they often frame it as a struggle between an ordinary and reasonable employee and the heartless HR servants of the corporate empire.

“HR sits in front of the fan. And the fan is always on. And sooner or later, something is going to hit that fan."

Protecting HR’s reputation is a constant struggle. Cassie Whitlock, director of HR at BambooHR, put it this way: “HR sits in front of the fan. And the fan is always on. And sooner or later, something is going to hit that fan—and whatever it is, the rest of the organization is going to see it coming from HR. Whether or not HR is originally responsible for the issue, HR will take the blame for the fallout.”

“HR Is Technically Incompetent”

While there are many anecdotes from employees about HR, Bill’s anecdote at the conclusion of this Balance Careers article takes the cake for sheer boorishness:

“Why would anyone with real talent (a trendy HR term) want to waste their career in HR where one can become an expert in government regulations and deal with employee issues. No—real talent wants to excel and HR is just not a place where that is going to happen. While the company evolves to survive, HR is often decades behind. Dealing with HR people is like talking to cave dwellers. Next time you find yourself frustrated by HR, just be thankful you are smart or ambitious enough not to work there.”

To give Bill the benefit of the doubt, he may never have considered that HR has grown since the last time they asked for his signature on hiring papers. Maybe he has only experienced outdated, cumbersome, analog HR processes. For all we know, it could be Bill Weasley expressing his frustration at the outdated bureaucracy in the wizarding world.

No matter how much HR has been belittled or ignored in the past, many organizations are now recognizing HR as an important strategic partner: a group of professionals who can deliver data-based insights on whether company policies have their intended effect on the employee experience.

“HR Is a Sitcom Foil”

In the absence of regular experiences involving HR, people usually fill in their stereotypes with popular depictions. While the comedy on The Office is timeless, the business culture it depicts is a snapshot of exaggerated small business dysfunction from 2005. This is great for developing zany and memorable characters but not a great source for an accurate depiction of today’s world of HR.

Every comedic character needs a foil—a serious character or group that provides contrast. Jim would have no one to torment without Dwight, and Michael would just be a fun, quirky boss without Toby interjecting a dose of whiny disapproval.

Of course, art can only imitate life to a certain extent, so it’s no surprise that Toby should have handled HR issues differently. Unfortunately, life also imitates art, so when employees stream The Office or other funny HR stereotypes, it reinforces the idea that HR is the ultimate buzzkill-thought police, looking to take all the fun out of work.

Providing a More Complete Picture

These negative HR stereotypes may not be accurate, but they can affect how people respond to HR. If you want to get leadership and employees on board with your organization’s people initiatives, focus on helping them understand the benefits of good HR rather than just enforcing the rules.

Here are some tips for countering the negative effects of HR stereotypes:

Give Compliance Context with Values

An HR professional may be able to list a hundred reasons why a certain action is a compliance danger, but employees will still question the motivation behind your organization’s rules.

The best answer to, “Why not?” is, “Here’s why.” Your organization’s mission, vision, and values provide a space to speak proactively about what you want to accomplish and how you plan on accomplishing it the right way, building a positive culture of compliance.

Work with Managers

While most employees rarely interact with HR, they should have regular interactions with their managers. HR can lead their organization in creating a good culture, but it’s up to managers and employees to build that culture. Developing clear, consistent communication between HR and managers helps ensure that employees across your organization have a consistent experience, which helps avoid the stereotype that HR is solely interested in office politics.

Use the Right Tools

HR technology can help ensure that your employees see HR as capable, competent, and contributing to your organization’s goals—no cave-dwellers here. Technological solutions  include:

  • Sending out hiring paperwork before an employee’s first day
  • Developing a performance management system with software that logs feedback to avoid ambiguity in disputes
  • Making it easy for employees to take a day of PTO

No one can prevent human resource stereotypes. But when HR finds the balance between compliance facilitator, strategic partner, and employee advocate, you can provide your employees with an experience that exceeds their expectations.

See how BambooHR provides the technical tools to support all your HR strategies. 
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Brian Anderson

Brian Anderson expertly decodes all things HR, drawing on a decade of technical writing in the business organization industry to provide editorial support to internal and external learning programs at BambooHR. His writing explores the different motivations that shape the employee experience and the psychology of human resources.