Management Culture == Values

Your Culture is Rotting

Whoever came up with the name “Human Resources” deserves a medal. Such a descriptive, helpful, and seemingly useful name. Why yes, I’m human and I sure could use some resources. Purely viewed by the name, Humans Resources or HR seems like such a great idea. These are the people who are responsible for looking after your people whether it’s their health, compensation, or career.

So, why do we freak out when HR is in the building? What’s with the hush whispers when you see your boss huddled with HR in her office? Layoffs? Reorg? Has anyone seen Ryan today? HR’s presence typically makes folks paranoid. I’ll repeat that: the folks whose job it is to be resources for humans collectively gives us the shakes. What happened?

It’s not HR; it’s your culture.

Humane Resources

Disclaimer: I’ve never worked in HR, and all of my observations regarding HR have been made without what I assume is the daily toil of having a gig where the expectations are so high, but corporate support is traditionally low. However, both as manager and as a former employee of an HR-focused start-up, I know a bit.

Simplification: There are all sorts of different jobs inside of HR and depending on the size of your company, your HR team may have one or all of them. Benefits, recruiting, compensation, training, it’s a long list. For the purpose of this article, let’s consider HR to be the folks who are responsible for helping a team thrive. They have many other jobs, but that’s the one I’m thinking about in this piece.

HR is a tough gig. They have constraints which often leads to unique behavior that affects their reputation. Two examples:

  • Lack of clear measures. Just like managers, HR folks have fuzzy measures of success. You write code, you fix bugs, you make it 27.5% faster, and everyone can point at that work and say, “You did something of measurable value.” While engineering managers can ride the coattails of this work by completing meta-goals like “Ship on time” or “Deliver the features the customers needs,” HR often has fewer obvious concrete deliverables that directly affect the production and selling of the product.

  • As a support team and a cost center, HR traditionally does not receive a lot of investment. How many folks is your manager responsible for? Ok, how many is your HR partner responsible for? My guess is your HR person has 10x the number of people for whom they are responsible. This under-resourcing has interesting consequences.

First, because of their limited numbers, they logically gravitate towards informed decision makers because these humans are an early warning system regarding what is and isn’t going well. This network helps keep them informed as to the state of the company.

Second, because of their allegedly human-related skills, they are called in when there are people-related problems. This means you only see them when something is going down. These infrequent appearances when the sky is falling contributes to their grim reaper reputation.

Finally, when they do arrive because the sky is falling, they are informed because of the carefully built information gathering network, but when they start talking, they don’t sound like you. They, like every group at your company, have a language all their own, which when accompanied with the penchant for showing up when the shit is going down makes their language the language of trouble.

All of these attributes contribute to the problematic reputation of HR. Yet, in two decades of work I’ve discovered that when the team is freaked out by HR, it’s not HR, it’s the culture. Something is rotting.

Culture == Values

Your company has values regardless of whether you’ve painted them on the wall or produced an employee handbook. They exist as a result of the Old Guard employees working together, making decisions, and successfully building the company.

Values exist as stories. Back in our first building, Christine once stayed up all night working on a single performance bug that ended up revealing fundamental flaws in our architecture. The implied value? Persistence or perhaps craftsmanship.

Values exist as people. When I watch Brad run a meeting, I realize how poorly I run my own. The implied value? Everyone’s time is valuable, efficiency, or maybe constant improvement.

Values are principles or standards of behavior, and in a group of humans, they are first defined by the founding employees and then evolved over time by the leadership team. Painting them on the walls or writing them down in an employee handbook makes them accessible and obvious, but it is how these values are consistently applied especially during times of crisis that gives values value.

When I hear, “I don’t trust HR,” I ask, “Why?” The answers vary, “They are political. They are risk mitigators. They protect the company… not the employees.” There are humans in HR who exhibit this behavior. However, it is equally likely there are humans at every level of leadership who exhibit this behavior, and all are allowed to behave in this way because of the values of the company.

Has Anyone Seen Ryan Today?

The rule is: in the absence of information, humans will make up a story to fill the vacuum. When this happens, listen to the story because not only do they usually find the worst case scenario, it’s a situation that reflects the perception of your company’s values.

Where is Ryan? Well, he left early on Friday and was out all day on Monday. I think he’s checked out and you know what we do to checked out people here? HR fires them without warning.

No, HR doesn’t fire people without warning. No, Ryan is not checked out. He’s just sick, and his manager forgot to send a message to the team. The issue here is that the team believes HR has nefarious unchecked power and in my experience they rarely do. They are capable, overworked, emotionally intelligent humans who I call when I need help.

Yes, they swarm around disasters. Yes, they have access to a lot of information. You should hold them to them a high bar. More importantly, you should understand how in the world your team comes to hold seemingly irrational beliefs because their existence is not a sign of their character of your team, it is a sign your culture is rotting.

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8 Responses

  1. Hamed Bastan-Hagh 7 years ago

    I think this is a good summary, and gets to the point that what employees ascribe to HR is often a systemic/structural thing in the company.

    I’ve often seen the reverse though (this is in the UK, so YMMV): that employees think that HR is ‘in your corner’, which isn’t true. The good HR practitioners want to help you but that’s because happy workers are more productive, less likely to leave etc.: it’s a means to an end. But HR isn’t on the side of the employee: so “They protect the company… not the employees” is pretty accurate. It’s just that, when things are going well, those two things coincide.

    Just to repeat though: I like the analysis, I just wonder whether you’re maybe a bit slanted towards your view as a senior manager. (NB. I’ve just gone back from being in a leadership role to being an IC as part of a career change, so it’s been interesting to see things from a different perspective over the last year.)

    Thanks for the blog, it’s one of the few that I have piped straight to Pinboard!

    Kind regards

  2. It’s interesting to see you interpret “human resources” as “resources for humans.” I don’t generally see that phrase interpreted that way. It’s normally “humans as resources” — the same as “people are our most valuable resource.”

    That interpretation is dehumanizing to the “resources” (employees) in question. But managers often refer to their people as “resources”, so that’s normal.

    HR is a policing-type role. They should be very hands-off when things are healthy and all is going well. In a healthy culture battling an infection (bad employees or bad employee behavior,) they’re hands-on to remove the infection efficiently. In a toxic culture, they become enforcers of that toxicity. As you say, seeing them isn’t good news. HR is like a police car on the highway. “Oh shit, am I speeding? Is my registration expired? Am I going slightly faster than other cars nearby?” It’s low-level anxiety, not the guilt of specific wrongdoing.

    Relatedly, one person’s “gravitate toward informed decision-makers” is another person’s “listen to the most influential managers and enforce their whims.” It’s hard to tease those two things apart. And as you say, HR is generally massively under-resourced, making it impossible.

    A company can have a popular and capable dictator/manager that employees feel okay about (commonly a founder, CTO or DirEng.) But that system is fragile and leads to cliques. As a random employee, you always wonder if you’re still in the good graces of the guy who quietly decides who’s in and who’s out.

    (*I* worry about that, and my last few jobs have *loved* me. I’ve even been the guy who decides. The anxiety never goes away.)

    I agree that when people are nervous about HR it’s because the company’s values aren’t perfectly aligned with their own values. Here’s a dreadful secret: if you’re an employee rather than a sole owner of the company, a company’s values are never perfectly aligned with your values. There is always a difference, it’s just a question of how big a difference.

    The worry is that if there’s a conflict between you and the company, HR is supposed to side with the company. Which is true. Enlightened companies will try to make sure that “side with the company” follows good principles. But employees perceiving that conflict aren’t wrong.

    Here’s the basic conflict: a company that says “being ethical is good business” is still, in the final analysis, driven by business, and ethics is just the method to do that. If there seems to be a genuine conflict where ethics is *not* good business, pretty much any company understands: they are in business, not religion, and business will trump ethics.

    (“But being ethical is good business! People will find out if you’re unethical!” Okay, now what does the company do when it appears that there *is* no consequence of that kind for being unethical? If you justify ethics in terms of business, sometimes there *will* be conflicts.)

    So: HR gets treated as an extension of the business, rather than how you would treat your therapist, pastor, lawyer or other professional who has specific legal protections and requirements to be “on your side” in particular ways.

    That’s because that’s exactly what they are. I’d be in favor of a serious HR profession analogous to the medical or legal profession, the clergy or therapists. But right now we have no such thing, and no legal or professional protections like those professions have.

  3. The issue that worries everyone is that when an issue arises, HR is almost always on the side of company management, not the employees, even when the better solution to the company (and, for the trivial amount it’s usually worth, the ethical solution) is to support the employee.

    I’ve seen this happen directly to my wife, and heard many stories from other sources. She had a new boss parachuted in who was seriously borderline abusive (screaming and threatening behind closed doors, etc.). She was (mis-)advised to talk to HR in confidence to start a documentation trail… and within minutes after she left the office, HR was in the CFO’s office, the CFO took the manager’s side without bothering to hear hers, and she was fired for incompetence within a month… after a stellar performance review only 2 months before the new boss started. (They settled out of court afterwards – not a good solution for anyone.)

    Read the new posting by the former Uber employee, where the same manager had multiple sexual harassment complaints, but all were treated as “oh, it’s a first-time offense so we don’t want to ruin his career.” (

    This is why HR is really feared – they are not on the side of the employee in any case where it matters.

  4. Chris Upchurch 7 years ago

    “It’s interesting to see you interpret “human resources” as “resources for humans.” I don’t generally see that phrase interpreted that way. It’s normally “humans as resources” — the same as “people are our most valuable resource.””

    The attitude often seems to be, “The wouldn’t be called human resources if they weren’t meant to be strip mined.” (

  5. Craig Dial 7 years ago

    Reading the comments so far, for me they reinforce the point – it’s not that HR “is on the side of the company” that’s the point, it’s that if they are that way, then your culture supports them being that way. If Uber HR blows off complaints, the root issue isn’t that HR blows off complaints, it’s that the company culture encourages and supports them doing so. If HR is a “policing role”, then something in the culture supports them being the police.

    If these are not the outcomes you want, change the culture. We choose, create, and/or attract the reality in which we operate – so what are we doing to bring this into being?

  6. Charlie martin 7 years ago

    Excellent comments and measured view.

  7. Say whatever you want about “culture” but you can’t argue against someone’s experience. My experience has been that I have been in the workforce since the day I turned 16 and I just turned 50. In 30+ years of work, I have NEVER……I repeat NEVER been called to HR for anything positive. Not 1 single time.