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posted: 6/23/2013 6:30 AM

Work Advice: When HR goes off the rails

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Q: I work for a large nonprofit (300 to 500 employees) that has recently restructured its human resources department. The new policy is that employees are not allowed to contact HR directly; all requests or questions -- including pay issues, benefits concerns and supervisor conflicts -- must first go through supervisors and up a multilevel chain of command before HR sees them.

Is distancing and even removing communication between HR and employees a standard practice? We're all baffled at how this new system is beneficial.

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Karla: My reaction: "Whut."

For a more cogent analysis, I turned to Steven Miranda, managing director at Cornell University ILR School's Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies. As Miranda sees it, your new policy creates three major problems:

1. Increased risk for the company. How can workers safely report harassment if the perpetrators are part of the mandatory reporting chain?

2. Mistrustful atmosphere. Employees could infer that management either doesn't trust HR or doesn't trust employees to know what issues are worth elevating.

3. Inefficiency. The multiple reporting levels are "bad operational hygiene," Miranda says. If your IT department required all those steps to request a repair, productivity would squeal to a halt.

Your odds of getting this policy changed range from slim to infinitesimal, but knowing the reasons behind it might make it more tolerable. Miranda suggests three explanations:

1. If HR lost most of its staff in the restructuring, the policy may be a way to manage workflow.

2. If the department is not competent, management may be avoiding routing important decisions through it.

3. The company may want to make middle managers more accountable and engaged.

Since your official communication channels have more layers and hoops than a debutante's ballgown, I recommend seeking a friendly high-level source who is willing to listen to you explain, using Miranda's first three points, that the policy is bad for the company. This source might be able to communicate that to the higher-ups and also convince them that they should communicate their strategy to worried workers.

With luck, you'll learn that this new policy will be in place only until management finds a high-performing HR leader. But in the absence of such a strategy, the policy sounds, in Miranda's words, "nonsensical," "unexplainable" and downright "crazy." (See also: "Whut." )

Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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