You Can Do Consultative HR When You Work for Uncle Sam, I Swear!

Jessica Lee Culture, Jessica Lee

No, Uncle Sam, I'm sorry, but I don't love you. You aren't going away anytime soon though, this I know… but it's just that sometimes, I'd like to cut our ties. And as an HR pro, you can maybe share in the frustration of dealing with the gov, especially if you've ever had to…

  • manage unemployment claims Uncle-sam-1024
  • administer FMLA
  • respond to and manage an EEOC complaint
  • manage a worker's comp issue
  • file for a visa or work permit for a non-US citizen

Fun for everyone! Think about all the bureaucratic hoops you've ever had to jump through with that stuff… makes you wanna outsource it all, right? You have better things to do with your time, after all. More *strategic* activities to get involved in. And that stuff is precisely un-fun because it can be hard to get answers and guidance or some of the processes and steps seem needlessly complex. Sorry, Uncle Sam. I know it hurts you that I say this… but you're not always efficient and you're bound by so many rules. It's no fun. But I've been there with you in the trenches. I mean, imagine doing HR for the government.

My second and third HR jobs were actually working for a municipality and a state institution. And let me tell you… HR in those settings is an interesting challenge. You have rules upon rules upon rules upon rules. And both of those environments were unionized, so I also had labor contracts aplenty. Sadly, I remember more of the Washington State Administrative Code and City of Seattle Municipal Code than I care to about hiring, rehiring, layoffs, disciplinary action… but interestingly, I also learned some of my best HR lessons in the public sector.

Lesson one? Rely on a consultative HR approach, and don't rely on rules to get people to do the right thing. My HR director ingrained this into us. We had rules, we had contracts, we had policies we could throw in the faces of the managers we worked with to easily say, "No you can't do that because I said so there's a rule/contract clause/policy that says…" but that would have been too easy. She wanted us to be partners. She wanted us to influence behavior. She didn't want HR to be rule enforcers. And this was in a setting where we actually had plenty of rules and contracts and policies we could whip out in order to get people to follow along. They were only to be used as a very last resort.

When I look back and think about doing HR in that setting, I've gotta say that my HR director was onto something. She spent her entire career in public sector HR, where there's an abundance of rules/contracts/policies, yet she still figured out that even there, it was influence over enforcement. So, in your organization, where you likely have fewer rules than we did, how are you making things happen? Are you sticking policies to your managers and your workforce to get them to behave as you'd like, or are you doing something else?

Let us not rely on rules, folks. Let us not rely on rules.