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Killer phrases in HR: don’t use them, or you’ll erode trust

The Evil HR Lady looks at how certain boillerplate phrases used by HR professionals can erode trust and confidence among employees – and suggests more effective communication strategies.

Suzanne Lucas
Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne, the Evil HR Lady, shares expertise, guidance, and insights based on 10+ years of experience in corporate human resources....

Everyone hates HR.

Okay, not everyone. We love ourselves – most of the time. But sometimes, we say things that make people hate us, and it’s our own darn fault.

Alan Collins, the author of The New HR Leader’s First 100 Days, wrote a post on LinkedIn where he identified three “killer” phrases that HR Leaders use. They are:

  • “Please Copy Me on Everything…”
  • “Look, It’s Company Policy, I Can’t…”
  • “I Know I Promised This to You, But…”

I agree with Collins 100%. These phrases will destroy all confidence that people once had in HR. (And, in reality, every leader who uses these phrases.)

Collins suggests asking for updates rather than asking to be copied, explaining the reason behind the company policy (and supporting it even if you, personally, disagree), and never making promises you can’t keep. HR leaders can do much better if they adopt these ideas and eliminate these killer phrases.

They aren’t the only killer phrases, though. You probably have some in your vocabulary that are destroying confidence in your organization, and you don’t even realize it.

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Here are a few more:

1. “Recruiting isn’t really part of HR, so, you know, I can’t explain why the process sucks.”

What the employees hear: “Yeah, HR is a bad department. We all know it stinks, and we don’t care.”

There’s often a battle between HR and recruiting, with recruiters often being the loudest opponents to being included in the HR umbrella. Whether recruiting should roll up to HR is an entirely different question, worthy of discussion, but here is the hard truth HR (and recruiting) needs to face: Employees and candidates believe HR and Talent Acquisition are one and the same department.

When HR insults TA or TA insults HR, it weakens the respect in both groups. It shouldn’t be a battle. Both groups are supposed to be people experts, and you need to get along and support each other.

Find out if you don’t understand why the recruiting process is X. Work together to make recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and retention work.

And, FYI, the flip side is also true – when recruiters undermine HR, employees lose respect for both groups.

What to say instead: “Tell me what parts frustrate you, and let’s work with the talent acquisition team. They, of course, will be better at explaining the process, but we all want to work together.”

2. “I don’t handle paperwork. My role is strategic. Now, what we should do here is …”

What the employees hear: “I don’t care about your problems at all.”

The larger the organization, the more likely this is to be true. So, if it’s true, you should be able to say it, right?

Just like the TA/HR fight, the paperwork vs. strategy battle rages as well. HR is paperwork heavy – and there’s not a thing HR can do about it. People have to be paid. They have to receive benefits. Hours have to be tracked. The government demands reports. It has to be done.

The average employee doesn’t notice at all when those things go smoothly. But, boy oh boy, do they notice if their paycheck is wrong. (Cue HR Business partner: “That’s payroll! They report to finance! Stop blaming me!”)

To employees, it’s all the same organization. And an organization that messes up someone’s paycheck or health insurance can’t be trusted to provide strategic guidance.

When I was new in HR, I had the pleasure of working for Denise Peppard, who used to tell us that if we can’t get the paperwork right, no one will trust us with the higher-level work. She was right then, and HR needs to remember that now. Ignoring paperwork problems will destroy your relationship with managers and employees.

What to say instead: “I’m so sorry about that. Here’s how we can fix it …” (Even if that is just a referral to an 800 number for your outsourced benefits group.)

3. “I’m not the decision maker here; I’m just doing what the CEO wants.”

What the employees hear: “The CEO doesn’t trust me and my ideas, so you probably shouldn’t listen to me either.”

Again, this is a true statement. HR is always subject to company leadership, but this kind of statement just announces that you’re a worthless lackey without input or influence.

“What? That is completely untrue! I do have influence; it’s just that the CEO overrides my good judgment and …”

If you can hear yourself sputtering that, you can see why it’s a problem. If you want managers to think you have influence and you want to have influence, you need to act like you do. The CEO does have the final say, but you need to be fully on board with whatever that decision is. Your battle is behind closed doors.

Just as you can’t hide behind policy, you can’t hide behind the CEO. You need to be all-in in public. If that’s not possible, find a new job where you can be all-in.

What to say instead: “Yes, the leadership team decided to do X. How can I help you with this change?”

The TL;DR version of this whole article is to lead rather than follow, take responsibility, and take action. It makes for a much better HR department; as a bonus, people will respect you more.

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