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The do’s and don’ts of ‘the talk’ with HR

Three pros demystify some of the ins and outs of dealing with your workplace's people ops team.

A team at work. (Photo by Pexels user Christina Morillo, used via a Creative Commons license)

This editorial article is a part of Workplace Culture Month of's editorial calendar.

Human resources departments can run the gamut.

There are good HR departments, there are bad HR departments. Good design of HR departments, bad design. HR departments with power and those without. There are those with only the goal of processing paper and getting people through. The question is: How do you tell where your HR department lies on the spectrum? And once you know, what happens next? chatted with three people ops pros about how to navigate the department that often sets the tone for the workplace. To introduce them, we’ll lead off with three key quotes:

Colette Colclough. (Courtesy photo)

“We’re not there just to tell you no. We’re here to tell you what the rules of the game are and to lend advice,” said Colette Colclough, VP of human resources at Maryland Public Television.

Joey Price. (Courtesy photo)

“HR should be an educator. They should be an internal consultant and they should make sure everyone understands what [human resources] means and their rights and responsibilities are,” said Joey Price, CEO of Jumpstart:HR, a downtown Baltimore-based HR services company for small businesses.

Keirsten Greggs. (Courtesy photo)

“Look at HR as a partner, collaborator and source of information,” said Keirsten Greggs, founder of Trap Recruiter, an HR and recruitment firm for tech startups.

HR department green flags

Colclough said HR departments work best when “they develop initiatives that help employees rise.”

She also likened gauging the capacity of your HR department to sizing up a date. “You won’t know until you step across the door,” but “you can tell in a date if that person has your best interest at heart.”

Price gave many key signs of a healthy HR function. These boiled down to: “You know that it’s taken care of if you’re taken care of.”

Examples include:

  • If the offer letter came in a timely matter
  • When an organization has a vision and direction for not just your first day but the first 90 days
  • When you know what your job responsibilities are
  • Little things that show the Is are dotted and the Ts are crossed

“There are more progressive HR organizations,” said Greggs. “They do a better job of collaborating and sharing. And what type of things HR is empowered to do depends on the organization.”

As Greggs broke it down, HR can have a reputation at bigger corporations for being a department where “they sit at the table but don’t have a voice.” At smaller organizations, she said, there’s a lot of duty share and knowledge share “that creates a more collaborative and innovative environment where folks feel comfortable interacting with HR on a level outside of their problems or ‘I’m about to be hired or fired.'”

It comes down to having a presence that goes beyond those moments of conflict.

“If they’re absent, if you can’t pick them out of a lineup, if you don’t even know who to go to,” said Greggs, “that tells you that your HR is very transactional and not strategic.”

HR during the pandemic

Price articulates that the workplace doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

“Workplace culture is influenced by the circumstances that we live in, and we’re living in a circumstance we’ve never seen in our lifetime,” said Price, referring to the pandemic. “So if you want to ensure that workers are contributing and productive but being able to bring their best selves to work and bring their best selves home, sometimes they need that listening ear, counselor, that coach [from HR], and that will help them live a healthy life.”

Colclough emphasized that the response of an HR department, or lack thereof, sends a message about what a team values.

“During this COVID period, it was absolutely a period for HR folks to shine,” said Colclough. “If they didn’t reach out in some way, that says something about your HR department, and maybe there’s a particular reason, but my feeling is the best HR departments became more visible, more vocal, and more proactive on how they could help employees.”

More quick tips on chatting with HR

  • Your HR department should lay out what’s confidential and what is not. And as an employee, you should get clarity on that.
  • Keep your expectations in check. You should know what you want before seeing HR, but keep it within reason.
  • If you only want a sounding board, let HR know that so they can respond accordingly.
  • HR can be useful as a mediator. Remember, mediator doesn’t mean “Agree with everything I say.”
  • Have all your receipts. Have a track record, paper trail and documentation to draw on for support in complaints, grievances or even for salary inquiries.
  • They’re not the enemy. Remember, HR is here to assist you.
  • HR professionals are people, too. They’re human and make mistakes like everyone else.

Last words of advice

Colclough has found her mindset on HR’s role.

“As I learned more I also became more valuable by being more than just a yes and no or fire and hire person,” said Colclough. “A good HR office and a reason to go to that office is they yield more than yes and no. They are actually strategists.”

When it comes to approaching human resources, Price stresses being practical, but firm in your expectations.

“In any role, no one is going to be perfect,” said Price. “However, there should be certain standards you should expect from your HR department and the HR function. And those things would be timeliness, effective communication, great listening skills and an understanding of the law.”

Greggs sees the workplace as a microcosm of the world at large. People are fighting to change the status quo, and there are HR professionals who want to do the same in the workplace.

“A lot of us are trying to do better,” said Greggs. “There are a lot of us who are trying to be a catalyst for change and improve the employee experience. We, too, are embarrassed by, sick of and do not tolerate our peers who are racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist, ableist. We don’t like that either. And more of us are speaking up against it. Challenging those notions that we are just maintaining a status quo. A lot of us are deliberate and intentional in being catalysts for cultural change inside our organizations.”

Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.
Series: Workplace Culture Month 2020

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