Thursday, 17 November 2016

Meeting the 'Real needs'of Customers by HR

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This article written by me in 2001, was published in the Management section – “Avenues” of the reputed Deccan Herald newspaper published from Bangalore  . Allowance may kindly be given for the time warp… For one you will see the word “Personnel “also used along with “HR” to refer to the function.

As I go down the memory lane, an incident in the early eighties comes to mind. I was then a young personnel officer.It was around 3 PM in the afternoon. I was accompanying my colleague who was few years senior to me in age and experience, on a visit to the shop floor. Even as we were passing through some shops of the factory, my colleague kept dishing out  his comments- "These shop floor fellows are all crooks. They don't want us to come here since all their shortcomings will be exposed.These engineers generate a lot of scrap and wastage which they don't want us to see." For my part, I was feeling very uncomfortable. I was hoping to myself that he at least speaks softly. What if someone heard us? What would he think? I was still fresh from college and was not aware of the "they"and "us"mindset.

Later on I realized that the engineers and technical personnel reciprocated similar feelings. They see the personnel guys as problem creators rather than problem solvers; people who are to be avoided and feared rather than to be looked up to for help. At best they can be useful for passing on some HR or disciplinary problem. To cite an example, here is an incident that happened during an  evening class in October 1989 when the students at Max Muller Bhavan including me, were taking a tea break in between German lessons. One of the participants asked me the company I was working for and the functional area. The moment I answered "HR", she became visibly hostile and agitated. This person who was working in a manufacturing company, it appears  had had an unpleasant experience with the personnel department. On hearing the commotion, some others who were mostly working in software firms intervened.They could not understand what the fuss was all about.To them HR guys were quite nice and certainly not obnoxious or harmful.

The functional approach to management, over the years has defeated the very essence and  purpose of service departments. They tend to forget the big holistic  picture of the total organization. HR, finance and other staff functions were envisaged to provide service to those engaged in core activities such as that  employees are free in the mind to totally concentrate on their work , ensuring the standards of quantity and quality. Unfortunately the "Service" departments got bogged down in establishing their importance by insisting on rigid rules and interpreting them  as they deemed fit at different points of time.  

Such interpretations were more to establish their supremacy and not necessarily in the overall interests of the organization or the employee.If some money is due to an employee as arrears, the accounts department does not pay it automatically but expects him to approach them eagerly and make a formal request in writing. Given the attitude and approach of the service departments it is no wonder that an employee expends a good deal of time worrying about correctly getting his salary/ fringe benefits and fairly his promotion/ placements etc. These worries and distractions mean that the performance of the employee is adversely affected.

Marketing employees working directly in the field know the importance of taking care of the customers. They can immediately see the impact of any complacency reflected in loss of orders/business. Yet the question arises as to how the end product given to the customer can be excellent if all the processes in between do not maintain a standard of excellence? Here the concept of internal customer becomes very important. It is only when the maintenance department provides a thorough and prompt service to its customer namely production that the commitment to the external customer in terms of prompt delivery and quality can be ensured. The same is the case with all areas including staff functions whose quality of service impacts the end product.

It is clear that  HRDians will have to devote more time to understanding the business of their companies and focus on the actual needs as perceived by their internal customers.According to Ms Annie Fisher, a New York based management thinker, the HR personnel need to sit down and figure out the 'real work' and see how they could make themselves essential to its execution.The 'real work'may include addressing company's travails in the market place, deadlines that must be be met,and competitions that must be bested. In this regard, instead of reeling out words like change management, diversity, team work,, learning organization etc.Ms Fisher stresses that the focus should be on what those engineers/ internal customers are concerned about ( absenteeism? high turnover? attracting talented employees?) and coming out with concrete ways to help.

Conscious effort to get the entire team tuned to serving "internal customers"is the need of the hour.The mindset that "things should be done the way we have always done" is a major obstacle to a shift in approach.Yet as Eric Hoffer, author says "In times of massive change it is the learner who will inherit the earth, while the learned stay elegantly tied to a world that no longer exists." HRDians would do well to introspect on the "Nine sins of HRD managers"enumerated by professor T.V.Rao namely (1) Not knowing enough about the business of the company (2) Not knowing much about the customers of the company (3) spending 10 percent more on recruitment and visiting campuses for it (4) not spending enough time on performance review and feedback of subordinates in HR departments (5) not visiting employees at their work places (6) undue efforts to furnish HRD department and make it look distinctive and attractive (7) influencing rewards and promotion decisions (8) playing "Yes sir" to CEO (9) overemphasizing only one HR system like performance appraisal or training.

Addressing the above points would to a large extent contribute to the basic theme of this article viz healthy relationship between the customer and the supplier for mutual benefit and benefit of the organization.For what place does mistrust have in a partnership or in a customer- supplier relationship? There cannot be any doubt that mistrust has to be removed.It has to be replaced by mutual respect and concern.If there is a tiff in a marital relationship, it may be a point of debate as to who, whether the husband or the wife should take the first step at reconciliation.

However, there can be no such doubts when the relationship involved is between a supplier and his internal customer. HRDians who are the suppliers will have to take the first step to gain the confidence of their customers- articulate that they really care about them and can contribute meaningfully towards accomplishing the 'real work' as perceived by the customers.Having gained the confidence of the customer that his basic concern and that of HR is the same , the supplier and customer can together take bigger steps for building a healthy, harmonious and charged work environment. 


  1. HR people are not looked in a friendly way by rest of the organisation. May be because HR actually delivers letters related to performance, creates KRA and they are privy to how an employee is performing. Rest of the organisation actually fear HR.

  2. So true Abhijit. It is high time that HR took steps to change this image.Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

  3. I thought the atmosphere of trust will also depend on the company culture? We certainly need trust based cultures.

  4. Company culture & trust in organizations is undoubtedly an important aspect. The subject of discussion in this post, however is about the need of HR to have a customer orientation towards the employees and the internal customers in order to serve better the customers and the organization in general. Thank you for sharing your thought Mridula!

  5. Exactly, even I maintain distance with HR folks for they have that mindset of judging you.

    If they become friendly with us, we won't see that virtual demarcation between us...that's where they need to focus on.

  6. Happy that you could relate to this post Alok! HR needs to take the first step in this connection to remove the distance...