3 Misconceptions About Your Company's HR Professionals

10/30/2014 03:09 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

There are numerous misconceptions about the human resources function. Many employees do not fully understand the obligations, influence and benefits of HR professionals. I know this firsthand, because throughout my career, I have been in situations where I had to make unpopular choices for the greater good. Here are three of the most frequent misconceptions about HR professionals that would be good for all employees to know.

Misconception 1: HR is a sounding board for employees.

As HR professionals, we are ethically obligated to follow up on complaints or issues when they are brought to our attention. Many times, employees come to us to vent or share a frustration in confidence. While we will try to help, our obligations are to the employee and the employer. That means, we are not bound to confidentiality and unfortunately, we are not allowed to passively listen. We understand and empathize with your fear of risking your job or retaliation and we will reiterate that bringing forth a legitimate complaint is protected under federal law. Just as employees have a protected right to come forward with a complaint, we have a responsibility to take action on the complaint. HR cannot sit idly by if you complain of inappropriate workplace behavior. If you seek HR's help, we cannot (and should not) keep it confidential. However, we will protect your confidence to the best of our ability and only share the information with those that "need to know."

Misconception 2: HR only has the company's best interest in mind.

While we would love to just be a sounding board for you, it is helpful for you to understand HR professional's true function. Some employees will believe HR only has the best interest of the company in mind. I disagree. HR straddles a fine line between ensuring compliance and guarding the best interest of all parties. Many HR professionals have stories of managers who wanted to terminate or demote employees without having proper conversations with the employee first. Our role in these circumstances is to make sure the employee receives a fair chance while at the same time, the company makes a smart decision and mitigates any risk. Typically, an employee will never know this happened, because it usually happens behind the scenes and the employee will never learn of these discussions taking place. In the best case scenario, an employee is made aware they are not meeting the expectations of the role and they manage to turn things around. In the worst case, the employee (after failing to turn things around) loses their job. Our job is to make sure the employee has a chance to address performance issues, while the employer complies with relevant laws and regulations while considering past practices.

Misconception 3: HR can help you negotiate

You always have a friend in HR. But your company's HR person cannot tell you how much of a raise to ask for or how much severance pay you should receive. This is essentially asking for private information about other employees and puts the HR contact in an awkward position. However, behind the scenes, we review pay equity, promotional opportunities, policy development and adherence to policy and past practice. These efforts are to provide a fair opportunity for all, even if it is not visible to the employee. Remember, if you have specific concerns about your pay we can investigate them as we would any complaint.

HR professionals can be a thankless job, hopefully this will help you better understand the role of HR Professional within a company and prevent disappointment or misunderstanding.

Let me know if you have any questions about the role of HR or send me examples where someone misunderstood the powers -- or the obligations -- of human resources in your company.