Does HR have an image problem? Well, if recent articles in the press are to be believed, it does.

For example, a recent FT podcast asked what the point of HR was? Host Isabelle Berwick commented that “For some managers, the phrase “human resources” has become synonymous with the idea of needless corporate policies that get in the way of growth. From the employee’s perspective, there is often doubt on whether HR is there to protect them – or the company.”

Not good, right? Worse still, this doesn’t appear to be an isolated opinion. Writing for the Raconteur website, journalist Cath Everett believes HR’s credibility on the shop floor seems to be waning, with some experts suggesting that it’s lost touch with employees in its bid for a seat at the top table.

9 Brilliant ways HR can improve its image Cezanne HR blog

In the same article, Craig McCoy, an interim HR director and chair of the London HR Connection, went even further, saying that there is a “widespread distrust of the HR function. It’s broadly seen as being much more employer- than employee-centric, being there more to serve the needs of the organisation and less to represent those of employees.”

McCoy’s comments in particular do have a large element of truth. The fact of the matter is, that HR are first and foremost there to protect and advance the interests of the business or organisation it serves. For that reason, many on the outside of the HR department will often feel they always side with a business, rather than its employees. As a result, there can be an incredibly misguided view that HR is not a friend to employees and should never be trusted… hence the image problem.

But, there is another side to HR, and one that can often be missed by those outside of the profession.

HR: between a rock and a hard place

Of course, HR does have to protect the best interests of a business, and sometimes, that can mean having to have difficult conversations or make unpopular decisions. But, HR also play an instrumental role in creating places people really want to work in, and where employees want to do their best.

When on the top of their game, HR teams can foster trust, encourage open communications, ensure fair treatment, support employee growth and development, and enhance overall job satisfaction, productivity, and employee retention—all vital for a successful and harmonious work environment.

And doing all that isn’t easy! For all of it to truly work, HR must touch virtually every aspect of a business – from making the right recruitment decisions, to guiding company leadership teams to define the norms and behaviours required for ongoing strategic success.

When you look at HR’s role in that way, you can start to understand why HR’s perceived image problem is unwarranted, and perhaps even completely unfair. However, those often herculean efforts seemingly aren’t getting the attention they deserve. Because of this, that long-standing image problem – which HR has taken great strides to combat thanks to its growing standing within the C-suite – just won’t go away.

So, what can be done?

Bringing the positive work of HR to the fore

If you want to improve the image of your HR team and turn those unfair, unwarranted perceptions on their heads, there are several activities HR teams can undertake that can do exactly that. These include:

1. Engage in transparent communications

First and foremost, ensure that your employees understand the role of HR and how it contributes to the overall success of your organisation. A great starting point is how you onboard new employees – after all, HR teams play an integral role in a new employee’s onboarding experience. It makes sense, then, to introduce the role of your own HR team and what they do as early as possible.

For example, if you have a new joiner starting with the business, sending a warm welcoming email with a few essential documents – such as a formal offer letter, links to fill out digital onboarding forms, and company policy documents – can help make that all-important positive first impression.

In addition, communicate openly and transparently about important HR policies, decisions, and changes within the organisation. Keeping a transparent approach will help familiarise your employees with your organisation’s core culture, and can also help reinforce it, too.

“We regularly communicate our values, behaviours, and ways of doing business through our three pillars: technical excellence, investment in our people, and commitment to clients. As an HR team, we communicate these core pillars into our training and development programmes and place them at the heart of our performance management and structured training programmes.” Sharon Quinn, Head of HR for ByrneLooby. Download the full report here

2. Nurture a culture of approachability

The health and wellbeing of employees has proven to be one of the top priorities for HR in 2023. And, with the number of unplanned absences also on the rise – mainly due to mental stress and burnout – it makes sense to ensure your HR team is seen to be looking out for the best interests of its workforce. So, look to create a culture where employees feel comfortable reaching out to HR for assistance and guidance without fear of judgment or retaliation.

For example, and as we wrote about in this article, HR can play a key role in normalising discussions about mental health and creating mentally healthy work environments. When HR teams can be seen as actively supporting the wellbeing of a workforce, they can shake off that unfair image of being purely employer-centric in their focus.

3. Address employee concerns and feedback promptly

As part of HR’s more strategic remit of supporting greater employee engagement, HR should be seen (and heard) to be listening to and acting on employee concerns or feedback. With this in mind, establish clear channels for employees to voice their concerns, feedback or suggestions, such as anonymous suggestion boxes, regular pulse surveys or annual workplace surveys.

Remember, though: it’s one thing to be seen collecting the thought and opinions of your employees. You must also be seen to respond to employee concerns and feedback in a timely and effective manner. This demonstrates their wellbeing, thoughts, opinions and concerns are a priority for HR, and not just being paid lip service to. And, speaking of which…

4. Involve employees in HR initiatives

Any HR initiatives that directly affect your employees should ideally be created with their input. This will ensure more tailored and effective solutions by tapping into their insights and fostering both better engagement and ownership.

As mentioned earlier, this is where clear channels of communication can prove vital: be they regular pulse surveys, focus groups, or more formal annual surveys or workforce committees. When employees can see HR are working with them to create better workplace experiences, the less chance you’ll be viewed with suspicion or trepidation.

5. Ensure consistency and fairness

With HR being viewed as on the side of the employer, it’s vital that your HR policies and procedures are consistent across the entire business. Ensure consistency and fairness are at the heart of your HR processes – such as performance management, promotions, and disciplinary actions – and implement clear and unbiased procedures for conflict resolution and dispute handling. This helps build trust and confidence among employees, and remove notions of ‘one rule for them, one rule for us’.

6. Actively promote a positive workplace culture

The HR department will often be the first and last department a person interacts with when joining your business. For that reason, and to nurture that all-important better image, HR should be at the forefront of developing and monitoring company cultures that promote development, aid retention and enhance the employee experience.

You can help promote a positive workplace culture by fostering open communications, encouraging collaboration, recognising and rewarding employee contributions, and prioritising employee well-being and growth. The software your HR team uses can play a huge role in doing all that. To learn how, just follow this link.

7. Put recognition and appreciation at the heart of your company’s culture

Speaking of cultures, recognition sits at the heart of positive company cultures, and our survey into the state of company cultures confirmed this. When employees feel recognised and appreciated for their hard work, they’ll likely be happier in their work and stick around for the longer term – both vital for ongoing business success.

Look to tie in any rewards or recognition programmes into the preferred behaviours and values of your business. Encourage an atmosphere of recognition by celebrating success at all levels, and choose methods of rewards and recognition that truly resonate with your employees. When you’re being seen to be doing all this, you’ll be reinforcing a positive perception of HR’s involvement in employee development and engagement.

8. Support the career development of your employees

Another key finding from our report into company cultures was how employees genuinely value the opportunity to enhance and develop their careers. HR can play a key role in doing exactly that by showcasing a dedication to nurturing talent and fostering a culture of growth, attracting top talent and bolstering employee satisfaction and loyalty.

Supporting employees in their desire to develop their careers and skillsets communicates that HR values the professional advancement and well-being of individuals. In addition, this also contributes to a more positive perception of the organisation and – perhaps most importantly – the hard working HR department.

9. Seek regular feedback and improvement

Lastly, always look to seek feedback from employees on their experiences with HR. Use this feedback to identify areas for improvement and make necessary changes to how your team manages the needs of your workforce. In the same vein of addressing comments and concerns promptly, asking for feedback regarding experiences with HR shows your employees commitment to continuous improvement and show progress based on their thoughts and opinions.

By implementing these strategies, HR can enhance its image and build a strong, trusting relationship with employees that ultimately contributes to a more positive and productive work environment.

Paul Bauer author image

Paul Bauer

Paul Bauer is the Head of Content at Cezanne HR. Based in the Utopia of Milton Keynes (his words, not ours!) he’s worked within the employee benefits, engagement and HR sectors for over four years. He's also earned multiple industry awards for his work - including a coveted Roses Creative Award.

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