The FQHC HR Department – Good Cop or Bad Cop?

Of all the functions in an FQHC, human resources seems to be the one that has a “personality,” frequently reflecting its leader, and that is very rarely a good thing.  Every function should have a clear mission in support of the mission of the organization, but HR sometimes seems not to support the mission, but get in its way.  To get on the right track, an HR department should have a clear understanding of its role, and it should not be self-defined.

The ideal human resources function should be a “business partner” — internal consultants who help organizations understand the regulations affecting the employment relationship, as well as the nature of the competitive environment, and administrators who make sure that programs run smoothly.  It should recommend realistic and sensible programs and policies consistent with the organization’s mission and strategic plans, train managers and employees on how and why they should act in certain ways, and ensure that the organization complies with the law and competitive realities.  They should help the health center build and develop employees to meet their highest potential in the organization, and strive for the highest levels of fairness and equity.  Moreover, they understand the need for balance.

Unfortunately, many FQHC human resources departments are built around employees who are not adequately educated or trained in human resources theory and techniques. Many are administrative staff, promoted for their long service and knowledge of company programs. Others are professionals from other functions moved over to fill in the roles. Frequently the HR function is not valued enough to attract the level of staff needed to manage the function in organizations that are rapidly growing and facing increasing levels of complexity.  Existing staff are often not given the opportunities for real education or career development, relying instead on whatever can be learned from power-points used at conferences the staff was not allowed to attend.  Given these limitations, some definite “personalities” can develop around the leader of the HR function.

The Documentation-Obsessed – These HR departments are all about documentation.  It is impossible for anyone to do anything in these organizations without seeking permission. There are forms for everything, usually filled out in triplicate and with multiple counter-signatures. Paper (and its electronic equivalent) seem to dominate.  There is very little strategic thought, and the objective of the department seems to be to move paper from one side of the desk to the other.  Management in these organizations, particularly in Operations, is frequently frustrated by the amount of time it takes for what it perceives as even the simplest requests, and has a hard time getting the help it really needs.

The Overly Risk Averse – Characterized by extensive policies for virtually everything, including ten page long dress policies and seemingly incomprehensible disciplinary procedures, the overly risk averse HR department often springs from its management being terrified by lawyers at conferences.  This department is not perceived as supporting the organization, but instead act as a risk manager focused primarily on stopping lawsuits and regulatory interventions.   Operational and other functional managers frequently find their ability to maintain order in their departments is curtailed, and see HR as failing to support them and simultaneously ruining their credibility.  Staff learn quickly how to play the system, and recognize that they are really not at any risk for serious disciplinary action.  Unsurprisingly, these departments rarely have time to develop and implement positive employer-employee relations policies and programs.

The Too Warm and Fuzzy – Unlike the risk averse and document-obsessed, this HR departmental style has time for everyone (even when it doesn’t), and makes sure that each employee receives individual attention.  Employees always have a sympathetic ear in these departments, and managers are guilty until proven innocent.  Unfortunately, this department is also characterized by policies that are not particularly clear, because of the fear that too many rules will limit the ability to help everyone.  Management and employees alike are continually frustrated by inconsistencies in administration of the rules that exist, and dismayed by the amount of time, money and effort spent on employees who are contributing very little to the organization.  Ironically, the very insistence on a customized solution to every problem is likely to lead to more employee dissatisfaction, regulatory investigations and potential litigation, as what seems like taking care of one employee may result in discriminating against another.

The best way to ensure that the human resources function is a business partner, and not a dysfunctional personality, is to give the function a distinct mission, and hire, and develop, professional human resources management and staff who understand their role.  From time to time, senior management should collect information from other managers on how the human resource department helps or hinders them, and build strategic and operational initiatives into the annual human resources plan.

For more information on the roles and responsibilities of a human resource department, and how to turn your HR function into an effective business partner, contact Ed Ura at


About Edmund B. Ura

Edmund B. Ura, MAIR, JD, works with governing boards, executives and human resources staff to develop methodologies for ensuring fair and equitable compensation programs that support achievement of organizations' missions. Contact Ed at
This entry was posted in Communications, Organization, Performance Management, Staffing. Bookmark the permalink.

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