HR employees are an interesting type. They are supposed to be your advocate, but do not be fooled. In reality they are anything but your advocate. If you are ever caught in a situation between yourself and someone higher on the totem pole, no matter how much evidence you have and how obvious it is that you are right, HR will find a way to make you the culprit and the other individual the angel. HR has many techniques up their sleeves to provoke you, make you gain their trust, and confuse and intimidate you.
Before I continue with this post, I would like to put in a disclaimer. There are fantastic HR reps out there who truly know the value that they bring to the company. These are the ones who fight to make sure the employee is getting treated fairly regardless of the political minefield. I personally know a few HR reps who are great. Anyone who has my friends as their HR representatives are very lucky because good HR reps are very hard to come by. While I do have friends who are HR reps and have hearts of gold, this is very rare and my experience in the corporate world has shown that the majority of HR reps have hearts of stone.
In this post I will be discussing some of the main tricks HR will play with you and what they get out of these games. In follow up posts, I will talk about how to handle these tricks and have them work in your favor so you come out on top. If you are on the verge of losing your job because your manager is trying to fire you, lay you off or force you to quit and you are to the point where HR needs to be involved, you may not be able to salvage your job. But if you follow along, chances are you will be able to leave with something in your hand. If you are in that type of situation and you read my posts, HR will be shocked that you know their dirty tricks and they will be even more shocked that you can turn their tricks around on them while still playing nice. This will make them want to do anything to make you go away, namely by giving you some money.
Tricks HR Plays
When you meet with your HR representative you need to be careful about talking too much. Not because you have anything to hide, but because HR will do anything to lead you down a rabbit hole before you even realize you are being lead down that rabbit hole. As they start to ask you questions, they will slowly get more and more off topic. They will justify this by saying that they need to get the big picture. In reality, they are trying to do two things:
1) Get more and more information out of you until they find something that they can turn into a big issue. They will nitpick on something that is completely irrelevant to the discussion and turn it into a big issue so that they can turn you in to the “troublemaker”
2) Avoid dealing with the issue at hand so that they can confuse you and even make you feel like you have no support so you lose hope (I’m not kidding! This actually happens!)
Unless you know this trick in advance, you will not even know what is going on. They will ask you questions, trying to make you comfortable so you continue to spill irrelevant information until they find something and then they pounce. Be careful about what you say in your meetings and stick to the topic only. In my next post I will talk more in detail about how you can keep your HR manager focused.
In your meeting, HR should be the one who is doing most of the talking. You may introduce the topic at first to give them some background but after an initial quick introduction, they should be the ones with their lips flapping. Remember, the HR rep already knows everything there is to know about your situation before they meet with you. You should have emailed* HR with the details of your situation prior to meeting with them. Also, note that they will have already met with your managers before meeting with you even if they do not admit it or tell you about it.
*I will address the emails and the overall process to use in a future post.
Often what HR will do, and this is something other cultures will do when they meet with western businesspersons, is be very quiet during the meeting. Because we are a culture that is uncomfortable with silences, HR knows that out of awkwardness you will start to talk to fill the gaps without even knowing it. You will start to give away information and stray off topic. Do not fall for this trap! Know that they will use this so be aware.
Another very common trick HR plays, and you may even notice some of your more politically-charged managers play, is where they tell you that you feel a certain way in order to get you to act that way. For example, if you are calmly meeting with the HR rep a very common play they have is to ask you why you are being so defensive or to tell you that you are being defensive and that you are always defensive. The moment they say this to you, you automatically feel like you now have to defend yourself and in defending yourself, you become defensive. HR is trying to provoke you so they can make you out to be the bad guy who is not in control, who is not professional. Using “defensive” is the most common trick, but they may say that you are acting “upset” or other similar type words.
Another trick HR uses is intimidation. Especially if you are younger or look younger, HR will try to talk about how many years of experience they have and how they know so much more about HR and business than you do. They will do anything to try to convince you that they know how business works and how such situations should be handled. They will do anything to convince you that you are wrong or that you should be grateful for what is happening to you because most people do not get such “special” treatment. If you are not being treated fairly, do NOT fall for this. They may say it with a sweet voice and encouraging head nods, but pay attention to the words and remember that at the end of the day, they are no smarter or better than you are. Just because they have more experience or are older than you are does not in any way support their subtle claims that they know right from wrong better than you do.
To get you to spill more information and to confuse you into agreeing with them even though you are being treated unfairly, HR will often times throw other people under the bus. If your manager is causing you this unnecessary trouble the HR rep may tell you that they agree with you, that your manager did not handle the situation well. Or the HR rep may throw one of her teammates under the bus. Say you talked to an HR rep previously (let’s say HR rep A) and now you are talking to her boss (HR rep B). B may throw A under the bus and say that she knows A has not been handling this well, A will be talked to, etc. B is doing this to gain your trust and make you feel like she is on your side. Do NOT fall for this. If you do, you will find yourself spilling irrelevant information or being convinced that you are being treated fairly even though you are not.
Your HR rep will tell you that they have been made aware of your issues previously and that they are sorry that you feel like this is coming to you as a surprise. HR is doing this to make you believe that you have no support so that you will back off and submit. This may seem like you have hit a dead end but there is a way to counter this claim because really it makes no sense! You will see how and why in a follow up post.
If HR is scared of something you are doing, like documenting all of your meetings with them, they will convince you that what you are doing is useless and even wrong so that you lose hope and stop doing what it is they fear. Do not listen to what they are saying. In the case of documenting, HR reps are the very people who, when you first get on-boarded into the company, tell you that documentation is everything! When you go to court, documentation is EVERYTHING. HR knows this, but they say this because they want you to stop so that everything becomes he-said-she-said.
I know this is a dark post, but it is one that I feel is very important. Some of what I have said above may seem unbelievable, but I assure you it happens. I have experienced it firsthand.
Always remember that when you are talking to an HR rep, you are just playing their game. They will try to nitpick on words that you say to take the focus away from the main issue, distract you, provoke you, fluster you and turn you into the bad guy in the situation. And yes, they will even lie if they have to. Just stay calm, remember that you are right, and be strong. Once you know how to beat these tricks, I bet you HR will be shaking in their boots even harder than you are.