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How to get the most from your HR department

I am reversing the focus of this column today: What is your view of HR?

Close your eyes and picture the human resources function at work. It could be a deep department or it might be led by an office manager. Either way, I bet your picture is incomplete.

Key roles of good HR will help you during your career. Plug into them. Ask the right questions. Expect good service. Be patient when things seem too slow.

Timely trains: HR makes the trains run on time in most businesses. Incredible complexity, regulation and risk are behind every paycheck, every 401(k) deduction or match, every group health claim dispute, every payroll deduction form, every voluntary benefit, every stock or bonus plan and every performance review. We take them for granted. Stop and thank HR. It is really impressive that these things work almost all the time. It is equally impressive HR gets anything else done.

Truth teller: Effective HR tells employees and leaders the truth. If you want to hear the truth and are ready to act on it, ask HR how you can grow. Ask HR strategies to work with your manager (they already know you have an inexperienced manager and how that feels). Allow HR to help you understand the negative comments on your performance review and how easily most things can improve. Ask HR how you can change career paths at your organization. They have heard it all before and usually have good advice to give.

The CEO and senior team really need someone with the information, credibility and neutrality to tell them the cold, hard truth when that truth is needed. Great HR does this well.

Ombudsman: The toughest role for HR is finding the right balance between advocate for management (and its business goals) and the employees. Good HR finds a way to do both. Know that human resource professionals struggle with this balance and usually do see your side of things. Talk to them about this balance, about management’s position on an issue and whether employee needs were considered. Most of the time, you will come away with a clearer view.

Gatekeeper of talent: The biggest impact from really good HR is who gets hired and who gets fired. The “who” affects everything that follows. The who makes strategy work (or fail). The who makes it a nice place to work (or awful). The who supports company values and engagement (or destroys them).

Guardian of the culture: HR has to make all this happen in a way that improves company culture: how people behave when no one is looking. If the trains run on time, truth telling is valued, employee needs are balanced with business goals, we hire (and keep) the right people, then a good culture will usually follow.

Get to know your HR. Each of its roles is useful at some point in your career.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit