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CAREERS: MADDER THAN EVER

Keeping a Lid on the Tensions

Human resources departments should help employees resolve grievances, but often they add to the problem.

November 02, 1998|MICHELLE MALTAIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Double, double, toil and trouble.

That's what has many employees throughout the country stewing: Twice the work, and double the trouble.

The result is that many workplaces have turned into caldrons bubbling with anger, tension and animosity. Unfortunately, many companies' human resources departments have played as much a role in creating the heat as in reducing it.

One reason for this discrepancy might be that workers' needs have shifted in the last several years. Employment has become less secure at the same time that it has gotten more demanding.

"Life is getting in the way of work, and work is getting in the way of life," said Barry Lawrence, a spokesman for the Society of Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.

Some HR departments offer employees options to reduce work-related stress--including flexible schedules, fitness centers and an occasional free meal. Not all human resources directors provide such humane alternatives, however.

One infamous, albeit fictional, HR director, Catbert, teases employees before downsizing them. Scott Adams' depraved feline implements destructive policies, and sometimes the only good justification he can come up with is "because I hate you."

While few who work in HR are as extreme as the "Dilbert" character, the representation might not be completely inaccurate, according to some in the field.

"There are pockets of evil in how people are being treated," said Blaine Lee, who wrote "The Power Principle: Influence With Honor," (Simon & Schuster, 1997).

Before becoming a vice president of Utah-based consulting firm Franklin Covey Co., Lee was the principal at a private residential high school for delinquent teens where his predecessor employed a "Catbertian" method of notifying a teacher her contract was not being renewed. At a staff meeting to discuss the next year's teaching assignments, this teacher was told in front of her colleagues that her name was not included because she wouldn't be returning. Aside from creating a legal nightmare, this approach both devastated the teacher and left the rest of the faculty uncertain and distrustful, Lee said.

Despite seeing some correlation between cartoon and reality, Lawrence said Catbert's real-life counterparts are less prevalent these days.

"I think when Scott Adams portrays HR, it is old-world HR," he said. But these departments need to explore new approaches, Lawrence said, because some use old solutions to new problems.

Although HR has been trying to be more focused on people than on paperwork, he thinks HR needs to do more work to get people together.

In their efforts to push programs that promote community and team-building, HR departments often function merely as cheerleaders for management-generated programs they might not really support, some critics say.

"There are some HR people that are guilty of what I call 'dancing school syndrome'--they wait to be asked," said Kathy McKee, an independent consultant and vice president of Right Management Consultants in Irvine. Instead, McKee said, HR professionals should help develop programs, so there's a sense of ownership among those who are implementing and touting them.

One they should consider sponsoring, Lawrence said, is a program on understanding the differences in communication styles. This can help employees refocus discussions on issues, rather than on personalities.

Unfortunately, many such programs don't offer much more than proof that the company is paying attention, said Jeffrey Kahn, a New York-based psychiatrist and president of WorkPsych Associates, which offers executive and corporate mental health counseling. The trick, he said, is to make the programs pertinent and useful.

Most employees don't start out angry. Powerlessness and frustration, without an appropriate outlet for expression, fester and become the venom projected onto co-workers. Some of the frustration could stem from employees not knowing what's expected of them. Plus, "people are too easily lulled into the position that there are no solutions," Kahn said.

Much of that can be fixed if middle management takes the time to give employees compliments and criticism on a regular basis, not just once a year, the experts said. At the same time, HR should help managers understand how to get the most out of their employees, as well as give them opportunities to hone their skills and grow as leaders.

Although most companies these days can't guarantee workers employment, some might be able to assist in improving their employability, Lee said. Through training, human resources departments can offer employees the chance to develop the skills they already have and learn new ones, which can do wonders for morale.

Keeping employees abreast of things going on in the company also is important. HR can use intranets or in-house Web sites to inform them about everything from development opportunities to benefits, said Caroline Zambrowicz, a SHRM spokeswoman.

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