HR-splaining or why everyone loves to hate HR so much

albane bressolle
13 min readJan 5, 2023
“Let me interrupt your expertise with my confidence.”

Have you heard about HR-splaining?

I’ve been working in HR for the past 15 years now, and there’s one thing I’ve learned since then: everyone hates HR and everyone thinks they can do better than HR professionals.

I’ve called it HR-splaining.

Every time I see one of my team members frustrated about an employee (or a manager, or a leader) telling them how to do their job, I tell them about HR-splaining.

But, why is HR the most hated function in an organization?

1. Human (Resources) is personal

Well, the title says it all: the word “Human” in HR makes everything subject to judgment. I’m a human, therefore I know what’s best for me, right?

All my friends are always asking me why I work in HR and how much the HR function in their company… sucks. When I ask them about it, the most frequent answers are:

  • I’m not paid enough.” Aren’t we all? haha. I’ve worked in a company where our salary grids were 20% above market, and employees were still complaining about their salary.
  • I haven’t got the promotion I was expecting.” frequently followed by “X got the promotion, and they don’t deserve it”. Everyone feels entitled to have more, and when they don’t, it’s always someone else’s fault.
  • I have a very bad colleague, and they don’t do anything about it” or the contrary “They have fired one of my colleagues without any (good) reason”. You’re missing a (work) friend and most of the time you only have their/your version of the story, but is it the full picture? Employees often complain that HR members are dishonest. We don’t talk about how we handled an employee situation. But, you wouldn’t want HR to disclose your full personal file to everyone, why would you expect to be in the loop of what’s happening to someone else? It’s not transparency calling here, it’s privacy.

As you can see, all those remarks are based on personal reflection: it’s me against the world. And the world is not seeing me as the unique awesome person I am. Again, when you are with your friends trolling about your company, you’re not gonna complain about the accounting team making bad invoices or how the last marketing campaign didn’t have the success expected? It’s about your world, and the principal protagonist in it: you. We all have the tendency to divide up the world into two groups: Me/Us and Them. It’s easy to make HR people the enemy.

But HR is not here to focus on you specifically, HR is here to support an organization of several (sometimes hundreds, or thousands) employees. And the frustration of not being the only protagonist in this story is at every level: from a junior individual contributor to an executive leader.

In many companies I’ve worked for, I have been implementing salary increase policies to avoid biases and black-box pitfalls. I’m always driven by those objectives: simple, fair and transparent. Most of the time when presented, those policies are welcomed by leaders, managers and employees.

And then, I always have several requests for exceptional increases outside of the policy. The excuse is often personal, based on a single reasoning: I think the policy is fair, but my personal situation is above everyone else, I am unique. I am not saying exceptions shouldn’t be made, but most of the time they are not based on facts but on a personal judgment.

The issue here is that you only see your personal point of view, and “hey, X€ is nothing for you (the company), why are you denying this to me? It’s not fair.”. But what you don’t see is:

  • This individual exception never stays confidential: either you, your manager or your leader will tell someone who will tell someone…
  • It will be the rationale to every other exception requested after, and if we’ve done it once, then why would we be denying it to others?
  • Also in this particular example (salary increases), you need to understand that the global budget is limited, it’s like a pie. If you give a better slice to some, then the others will have a smaller one. So, who’s fair now?

So yes, HR is personal for every employee, but is it actually the contrary for us (HR professionals). We need to take out all the personal aspects to make the fairest policies, and while we don’t like to say no (believe it or not), it’s not because we don’t like you, it’s because we’re thinking about all the employees and not at only one (however awesome this person is 😉).

2. But what is HR doing wrong?

HR roles are still very blurry for most employees, and they don’t always understand the constant balancing act the HR organization has to achieve to perform its role responsibly.

HR must provide flawless administration services while also operating as a strategic partner to the business. The HR team communicates and advocates for employees, while trying to champion organizational change.

The first issue here is that HR makes you perform tasks you mostly dislike, such as:

  • Preventing you from hiring someone you ‘just know’ is a good fit,
  • Documenting and giving delicate feedbacks when there’s an issue,
  • Following internal policies such as office presence, on-time meetings, etc.
  • Attending mandatory training outside of your core responsibilities (eg GDPR or DEI).

HR directives affect every person in the organization, right up to the top, every single day. And while those tasks seem meaningless and annoying, they are — most of the time if your HR team is doing it right — crucial to the company’s well-being.

Structuring your recruiting procedures prevents you from hiring with biases, and generates better fits for the organization. Giving constructive feedback is actually getting your report better expectations and career development opportunities. Following legal regulations and attending mandatory training… well, prevents the company from lawsuits and fines.

The second issue of HR is that we are in the position of trying to get your beloved (or not) managers to follow procedures and practices without having any direct power over them. This is euphemistically called “managing with ambiguous authority,” but to those on the receiving end, it feels like nagging and meddling.

Most of the time, when I hear about an “HR issue”, it’s actually a management issue:

  • “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, I don’t have clear objectives”
  • “My manager is not giving me any feedback on my work”
  • “There’s a conflict in my team, and no one is doing anything”
  • “Why am I not promoted?”

For all of those issues, most of the employees are turning into HR to get answers, to solve the issue — and ‘come on’, do it rapidly. But we are not your manager — and that’s actually their job. We are of course here to help, implementing procedures, giving the tools, the training and support to make your manager perform those tasks, but we don’t have much power if they refuse to. A few years back, I heard a leader say: “oh, I don’t do annual reviews actually, it’s not necessary, my reports know what to do.” and then complain a few months later about the under-performing employees in their organization and the lack of managers’ follow-up on those issues: well, where do you think they’ve taken that from?

Finally, HR is by nature a long-term play and solving HR issues takes time:

  • Developing talent: have you heard about the 10,000 hours rule? Getting better at your job is not gonna be done in 2 minutes. So, why would you assume that an entire workforce of hundreds/thousands of employees develop their skills in one month or one quarter?
  • Building corporate culture: do I really need to explain how a corporate culture can not be built in one night?
  • Heading off problems with regulations: labor law (and especially the French one) is hard to swallow, and many times there’s specific delays and timelines that you cannot turn around. This is dictated, not a choice.
  • Addressing turnover issues, morale problems and disengagement: either individual or collective, those issues are psychological ones mostly, and we all know therapies take time, why should we assume that getting remotivated can be solved by a nice goodie or a single team building?

Yes, all of that takes time. And often, leadership teams and priorities change before such initiatives have paid off.

3. Everything that is not business or tech related… is an HR issue

Don McMillan says it best!

More seriously, let me explain.

A company is built basically on 2 core functions:

  • business is here to make money, find customers and make them buy your product(s),
  • tech/production is here to build your product(s) and make it appealing to your customers.

When you have a business issue or a tech issue, it’s quite easy to find the experts in the field to identify and solve the problem. Most of the time, you can find experts that have already faced similar issues and they know the way to solve them.

But when it comes to something that is not related to the core function of your company, then it’s harder to find the one person — or the team — that will handle the issue. That’s where HR kicks in.

  • There’s too many departures in your organization? It’s an HR issue.
  • There’s only white male in your leadership team? It’s an HR issue.
  • There’s a dangerous virus called COVID, infecting most of the world > your country > your company? It’s an HR issue.
  • The ‘new’ generation wants to find meaning in their job? It’s an HR issue.

For the past decade, the HR function has been assuming most of companies’ dysfunctions, in a more complexified world, with little support from other departments, assuming that those issues will be solved by HR only. Business and tech can focus on what they’re good at, because someone is responsible for the ‘other’ matters, and this someone can be blamed if it’s not solved in a timely and efficient manner.

And while the world gets more complex, we’re also expecting HR to be expert on all of the issues.

When searching for sources on this article, I stumble across this comment:

Well, thank you ‘Anonymous’, you’ve said it all.

Yes, we’re neither doctors, nurses nor training psychologists. But we’re not here to solve your medical or psychological problems. We’re here to provide solutions for employees to get the help they need: for example, finding a psychological support center for employees to call should they need it.

Also, why do you assume that HR professionals are not specialized? It’s easy to look at the HR function as a global (evil) institution where everybody does the same thing, but it’s actually not true. Inside the HR function, you find Compensation specialists, Payroll experts, recruiters, HR data analysts… For example, an HR data analyst doesn’t have the same skills as a recruiter (and vice versa), they are not interchangeable (see this article for more info).

For our tech counterparts, it’s as if you would assume that all engineers are the same. But a data engineer is not developing the same skills as a fullstack developer, nor as a network engineer.

But again, as the world gets more complex, and as HR is assuming responsibilities that they were not assuming before (for example, managing COVID, ensuring a diverse and inclusive workforce, or generating flexible remote policies), those skills don’t have many experts yet, it’s too soon.

Take for example a long-living “HR issue”: employee performance. Forced ranking — imposed by top executives who thought managers weren’t tough enough in their evaluations — was the rage about a decade ago. Now most companies (including GE, where the practice became famous) are stepping away from it as they realize: managers need the training, the time, and the incentives to have serious conversations with their reports about performance and growth.

What I’m saying here is that there’s no right or wrong answers (yet) on many issues HR are managing: there’s not enough distance already to know if you’re doing the right thing, or if you’re on the right path. It’s easy to blame HR for not taking the solution you thought about, but do you really have all the studies in your hands to ensure yours is the right one? We’re doing our best with what we have.

4. The evil HR institution

While all of the reasons above exist in every organization, and could explain why everyone hates HR, not all HR are bad. (#notallHR)

Most of the time, when you “hate HR”, it’s because you’ve had a bad encounter. And most of the time, this bad encounter with one HR professional spreads like a disease. And what we have built with great efforts for years is suddenly silenced by one bad decision taken, burying our legacy in one single moment.

The second most common reason is cyclical.

When you’re in a thriving company that is making a lot of money with only minor issues, and with a nice corporate culture, then you don’t have much to say about your HR department. They are — at least — not very useful to you, and at best quite nice people actually (even if you don’t know what they’re doing).

But when the company faces strong difficulties, either business ones that could lead to layoffs, or some nocive employees (or worse: leaders) that deteriorate your working environment, that’s where frustration and anger kick in. While most of the time, the HR team is not the core of the issue, we are the messengers and the designated owners of it, and as such the easy target of all evil in the organization.

I’ve seen so many Glassdoor reviews where an employee describes an issue they have/had, and ends by “this is the fault of HR” — because HR either hasn’t acted on it quickly enough from the employee’s perspective or that the decision taken was not the one the employee wanted. Merit is often praised to the managers/leaders while blame falls easily on HR. I’m not saying all comments are not true or constructive (I actually love feedback and I do rely on Glassdoor to take the pulse of companies’ well-being) but some comments are really self-centered and very irrational. And most of those comments end with “I hate you HR”.

And the worst part of all of this is that it’s very difficult to win employees’ loyalty back when they’ve formed a bad opinion of HR. Even when employees join a new company where the HR staff is competent, caring, and advocates for their workers, a bad experience can color the employee’s view of HR.

5. So what now?

Well, the conclusion is a bit different should you be an HR professional, or someone who hates HR and just wants to hate us a bit less. :)

For the latest, I understand your frustration and don’t think that your input is not valuable. I hope you start to grasp the complexity of what HR professionals deal with on a daily basis, and try not to see us as a global (evil) institution but as a group of people — most of the time — trying to do their best. What we’re implementing is also impacting us, as we are employees — as you are — after all.

Try also to trust that HR is an expertise, like any other in an organization, and while we won’t always do what you think is best FOR YOU, we are focusing on making things better for the whole organization.

For my HR counterparts, here’s a few tips I’ve gathered on how to avoid most of the HR-splaining in your life:

  • Set the agenda. Focus on issues that matter in the here and now, and make your roadmap transparent to all, so everyone knows what you’re working on. Just like a Product roadmap, it can evolve but it needs to be balanced — not everything can be done at the same time and not everything can be a priority. Make sure this agenda is aligned with your leadership team — and every time they have a ‘bright and new’ idea about what HR should be doing, re-share the roadmap and ask genuinely if this new idea should become a priority compared to the other ones.
  • Open the discussion. HR priorities should be based on both the leadership needs and the employees’ wishes. You need to gather feedback — however harsh they can be ;) — to make sure you’re focusing on what matters to the most. Be open to new ideas, and reinvent yourself. Something that was working before, in another environment or another company, or even another time and size of the same company, may not work as well in this particular situation. Also, be as transparent as possible on everything you implement, document it and share it broadly. It avoids the black-box pitfall of rumors, wrong-doings and politics. Not everyone will agree with what you’re doing, but they can’t tell you that you’re hiding it.
  • Trust your expertise. Gather feedback, but seek expertise. And make a sound decision on what you think is best. Don’t compromise on your core values (for example, one of mine is fairness). You’ll have A LOT of people with A LOT of ‘good’ ideas, make the best out of it and don’t fear to say no. But have the data to back it, and take the time to explain why you think an idea is not good, what would be the consequences and risks of going in this direction. Education is key to spreading knowledge. Surround yourself with experts on their field, seek external counterparts to choose what’s best for your organization. At the end, highlight financial benefits and performance data to support your decision.
  • Finally, take pride in the silence.I feel you beloved HR professionals. :) We haven’t chosen the most loving career, but believe that every silence from your employees is actually a discrete ‘thank you’. People will shout and complain in frustration, but when everything works, they won’t say a word. Take pride in this silence.

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albane bressolle

HR Leader for tech fast-growing companies. Chief People Officer at Back Market.