Advice & News

September 26, 2022

Self-Help Measures for Addressing Workplace Challenges (That Don’t Require HR)


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Human Resources, or "HR," can take an all-consuming presence in our lives, leaving us, if we aren't careful, believing HR has, or should have, the solution to all the problems we encounter at work.

Let's face it: HR is involved in virtually every aspect of organizational life, from when we start work with recruitment, hiring, benefits enrollment, and onboarding to the end through termination, lay-off, resignation, or retirement -- and everything in between, as we are subject to HR policies and procedures for managing time, leave, performance, grievances, and discipline, to name a few. This can leave us believing we are totally dependent on HR and must run to them whenever we get as much as a hangnail.

While some issues will require HR involvement, such as discipline, formal complaint processes, and compliance issues like sexual misconduct and ethical breaches of employment policies, many issues do not come with a strict requirement to involve HR (or else!). What about empowering yourself, adopting a proactive mindset, and developing skills to manage your own workplace challenges? Here are some measures you can take, either proactively (before challenges arise) or as they arise:

Attend training. Look for workshops on conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, communication, handling difficult conversations, cultural competence, and related topics. If your institution doesn't provide internal learning opportunities, identify and request to attend external training opportunities, making the case with your supervisor how the time and cost investment will benefit you and the organization. The best workshops are more than "data dumps" and provide opportunities for hands-on practice, interaction with other participants and the trainer, and connecting learning to application back at the job. Carefully plan your participation, recognizing the opportunity as your "work" for the time you are away and guarding against excuses you or others may make to cancel last-minute.

Find coaches and mentors. While many organizations have formal programs matching employees with more senior mentors, you don't need to wait for such opportunities. Who in the organization do you admire? Who might have insights to help you navigate the organization and difficult relationships? Tactfully approach such individuals for advice. You don't have to call them formally your "mentor" or "coach," but simply establish a relationship. And you don't always have to ask your supervisor for permission, particularly if your engagement is arranged outside standard work hours. Formal mentoring relationships and programs are helpful, but there are benefits in pursuing such support informally and quietly so you can establish your own direction and goals rather than feel dictated by organizational expectations for participation.

Talk with family members and trusted friends and co-workers. Consider utilizing informal networks to talk through specific challenges. This can be simply to feel heard and relieve the pressure valve or to seek advice on how they might manage the situation. Regarding co-workers, there is no rule that says you can't develop friendships with them and identify together means for addressing challenges common to both of you. Some cautionary advice: Select connections who can be constructive in helping you, not who will validate negative feelings or destructive behaviors. Have a constructive purpose in approaching them and a constructive process, even ground rules, for ongoing engagement with them.

Read. A lot. There are endless references that provide insight on managing interpersonal conflicts and relationship challenges. There may, in fact, be too many to sift through to find resources that will be most practical and avoid "noise." This link includes many of my favorites, including Crucial Learning's "Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability," Robert Sutton's "The No Asshole Rule," Beer and Packard's "The Mediator's Handbook," "The Anatomy of Peace" by the Arbinger Institute, and, of course, Fisher and Ury's "Getting to Yes." I also can't avoid mentioning in these conversations Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." I also recommend, as noted in previous articles, books on managing high conflict, navigating organizational politics, authentic leadership, and listening. Take your own journey as needed to address the challenges you face.

Talk with your supervisor. If you are starting out in a position, cultivate a relationship with your supervisor early on, including establishing processes for ongoing meetings and opportunities for giving and receiving feedback. Come to an understanding of preferred methods of meetings, their frequency, and the basic agenda for discussion. Inquire about expectations your supervisor has of you, how you will know if your supervisor has a concern with you, and the best process for approaching your supervisor when you have a concern. The more you do upfront, the better off you will be in managing the inevitable bumps, whether with your supervisor or with others for whom you will need your supervisor's support. If you haven't done this, can you reestablish your relationship for an improved exchange now? If not, or if your supervisor isn't doing their job to foster ongoing, supportive communication, consider other avenues discussed here to problem-solve the best way to address a difficult supervisory relationship before approaching HR.

Go to HR. Wait! What? The point of this article is to discuss avenues of self-help that don't require HR. But let's distinguish various HR functions. HR has become increasingly progressive, recognizing the need for informal processes for addressing conflicts and other workplace challenges. HR typically has a unit or specific individuals responsible for employee relations, which oversees HR policies pertaining to performance, conduct, and discipline, and who are responsible for managing formal processes such as employee grievances and discipline. Individuals within that same unit may also want employees to know they are available for informal advice and consultation, often with the intent to de-escalate conflict and address matters informally. HR professionals in other areas, such as training and professional development or the employee wellness program, may similarly consider themselves informal counselors to help direct employees to support and resources that don't involve formal, policy-driven responses. As you seek informal avenues of support, ask HR whether and how they provide such services and, if you consider them a viable, trusted resource, utilize them as you would the coaches, mentors, and trusted friends and co-workers noted previously.

Let's stop our dependence on HR when we can take measures on our own to address our challenges.

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