Have you ever seen someone in HR cry? What about appear sad, anxious or even angry? It’s not likely.

In fact, HR often gets pegged as the emotionless, paper-pushing office entity that enjoys enforcing corporate law and making people suffer.

They are plotters of doom. Bearers of bad news. And messengers of career death.

They are faceless. After all, they constantly lurk behind closed doors so you never see them.

And, if you do catch a glimpse of HR, they are NEVER crying.

Am I right?

I said– Amirite?!

NO. No, I’m not right.

As a nearly ten year HR veteran, I can say that yes:

  • HR does unfortunately need to handle some unpleasant things and deliver difficult news
  • SOME HR professionals (just like any other vocation) are NOT good at their jobs and should not have them

But! I can also say that:

  • MOST HR professionals (just like any other vocation) ARE good at their jobs and should have them
  • At the root of good HR is a caring for people
  • HR does not like having to tell employees bad news
  • HR cries when employees hurt

In my previous HR related post, I discussed the joyous occasions that HR gets to be a part of– and all of the feels that go along with them.

But for today, we are going to focus on when HR feels sad, anxious or angry– and when they may even actually cry.

There are several points during the employment spectrum where HR hangs their head in sadness, feels truly upset or has to deal with anxiety.

They are when an employee is:

  • disciplined
  • fired or laid off
  • ill
  • deceased
  • distraught

Let’s look at these individually.

When an Employee is Disciplined

Contrary to popular belief, HR does not enjoy lowering the boom on employees. It’s not their idea of fun to sit down with staff and tell them they are getting written up or suspended.

From a selfish standpoint, HR has enough to do without having to fill out disciplinary paperwork and lead meetings to deliver admonishments or punishments.

More altruistically, HR (usually) feels bad for the employee getting in trouble. Often times, HR likes this person as a person, but has no other alternative but to call out bad behavior, a poor choice, a big error in their work or a rule violation.

HR may know that something is going on in the employee’s personal life that is impacting their work. Generally, HR will try to find work arounds and accommodations for these situations whenever possible. But, they don’t always work and disciplinary action becomes unavoidable after a certain point.

I will admit that there are times when HR feels less bad when administering discipline. This occurs when an employee does something particularly egregious and where it’s 100% obvious that they were involved in wrongdoing.

However, HR would rather that situation hadn’t occurred at all. They much prefer a harmonious work environment where everyone is happy, compliant and effective in working towards organizational goals.

HR can dream, right?

When an Employee is Fired or Laid Off

Along the same vein, HR really doesn’t like firing or laying off people.

They get a true thrill when onboarding a new employee that seems like the perfect fit. So when they are faced with forcing them out of the organization, it’s painful.

They also feel genuinely sad and worried for the employee. HR knows that a job loss means a very precarious financial situation for most. They also worry about those employees who are reliant on employer sponsored benefits, like health insurance or tuition reimbursement.

HR literally hates that they make people’s lives change for the worse instantaneously.

Of course, when an employee does something like steal from the company, commit acts of violence towards another employee or is found guilty of harassing another worker, parting ways becomes much easier.

But for the most part, HR sees a generally good person who is going to need to regroup very quickly. HR will try to offer assistance like severance pay and outplacement services when appropriate and when possible. But that’s really all that they can do.

On the selfish front, HR dislikes firing people because it then means that they are tasked with recruiting the former employee’s replacement (ie: more work for HR).

When an Employee is Ill

HR professionals unfortunately hear the phrase “I have cancer” (or some other horrible malady) all of the time. And even though employees aren’t as close to HR as their own family and personal friends, it hurts to hear it. It’s hard to process.

But like an employee’s doctor, HR has to be mostly business. It’s time to get out the FMLA/disability paperwork, check the employee’s PTO balances, make schedule or task accommodations and do whatever the employee needs to ensure work is the last thing that they have to think about.

HR will show emotion here. The employee will see concern on their face and sadness in their eyes. But HR will be strong because that’s what the employee needs.

HR will keep tabs on the employee when they are out of the office. They will send flowers, make sure their disability payments are being processed and that there are no hiccups in their health benefits.

They will talk to the employee periodically partly to get a sense of when they may be returning (if at all) for staffing purposes, but largely because they care and want to know an update.

HR will cry when the employee tells them that their doctor will never clear them to work again. They are permanently disabled. HR will feel deep sorrow for the employee and will worry for their entire family’s well-being.

It’s extremely hard for HR to see their employees sick, but there are worse things still.

When an Employee Dies

Anyone in HR long enough has gotten the call from an employee’s loved one notifying them of their passing.

It doesn’t get any easier with repetition.

It’s one thing when HR knows that they won’t see an employee anymore because they took another job or got fired. But when HR hears that an employee has died, they really struggle with keeping it together.

Death is a loss of potential– potential contributions, potential growth, potential interactions. HR has to quickly come to grips that suddenly, the employee will no longer be there.

In my career, I have sadly had to process the news of three employee deaths.

Two were middle aged men that just stopped showing up to work. They had passed in their own homes. Alone. If the company hadn’t called for a well check, they would have gone unfound for an extended period of time. That is frightening on a lot of levels.

I can only hope that they passed quickly and without pain.

The Saddest Situation of My HR Career

The third was the most tragic. A young woman had been dealing with severe mental health issues. Shortly after being released from the hospital due to a psychotic break, she shot herself in the head while on the doorstep of another employee that she was dating.

He was there when it happened. They had dinner together just moments before.

She didn’t die right away, but the damage was so severe that there was no hope of recovery and the family took her off life support.

When I heard this story, my jaw was on the floor. All I could say was “oh my God”. She wasn’t even 30 years old. The demons in her mind had won.

Her boyfriend, wrought with grief, and unable to comprehend what he had witnessed, took off for several days. At points, it was hard to contact him. His manager, my boss and I feared for the worst.

Fortunately, he ultimately returned to work and slowly started acting like himself again. But I can’t even imagine the trauma that will stay with him for the rest of his life.

I know it doesn’t change the outcome for that poor girl, but I am so thankful that she didn’t take her life on company property. There would have been a lot more traumatized people.

I attended her funeral with my boss. That was easily the saddest moment in my HR career. I had only interacted with the girl a few times, but the circumstances were overwhelmingly sorrowful.

I couldn’t help it– I drew comparisons between she and I.

We were about the same age, both had significant others and families who loved us, and, even though we worked in different capacities, both of our careers were on the rise.

This was the closest suicide had ever touched me. I didn’t understand it then and I still don’t. I just hope that she is no longer suffering.

The Silver Lining

Death unites those who remain. Every petty little thing is at least temporarily forgotten, and the load of grief is shared to make it less burdensome.

It also prompts action.

After one of the deaths, the first employee death I had experienced, I implemented an employee assistance program (EAP) for my company. Unfortunately, we didn’t have it in place when the tragedy occurred, but it was better late than never and I can only hope that it helped people moving forward.

When an Employee Has Really Devastating Personal News

When HR hears that an employee is going through a really difficult time, they hurt for the employee.

Unfortunately, over the course of my career, I have seen employees endure many personal tragedies. I have seen total home loss due to fire, a parent lose their child, a grandmother lose her grandson and so many others.

HR will leverage every benefit and option at their disposal to make the situation less bad. Or, at the very least, they try to ensure that work doesn’t make it worse.

They often utilize their own resources to assist when they can. On multiple occasions, I have personally contributed to fundraising efforts to assist an employee in need.

While HR generally needs to keep some professional distance in order to maintain objectivity in the workplace, they separate out the worker from the person in these cases.

They are not Sally, Social Worker. They are Sally, woman who lost everything and needs help.

Final Words

HR professionals that are a credit to their vocation are empathetic and generous.

HR feels a great deal of emotion. They are merely good about keeping it in check when needed for professionalism’s sake and to be strong for those around them.

They are anxious when dealing with stressful situations, angry when bad things happen to good people and sad when an employee– or their family– feels pain.

And yes, sometimes these emotions are so powerful, HR is actually moved to tears.

When have you seen HR display real, human emotion?

Did you know that HR can also be happy and actually smile? Check out: Does HR Smile?

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