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How to Make HR Happy This Holiday Season

Wish lists of college and university human resources directors
University Business, Dec 2008

WHETHER YOU BELIEVE IN Santa Claus, Jesus, or someone else with spiritual clout, this is the season when many people create their wish list for the holidays.

Recently I began wondering what kinds of things would be on the wish lists of HR professionals. What would help them like their job better? A designated parking space next to their corner office? Employees who never complain, sue, or quit? A remote office in Maui?

I decided to ask HR professionals at colleges and universities around the country to share what they truly want—all the stuff they dream about or even drool over that would make their jobs more fun.

Suzanne Boyer wants employees to continue their conversations when she walks into the room. As director of HR at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore, she says conversations abruptly stop the moment she walks through the door. Since Boyer doesn’t have cooties, there could only be one reason for this strange behavior: co-workers believe she’s some sort of institutional spy.

Faculty and staff who understand HR jargon is one wish from the HR director at the College of Notre Dame.

Boyer explains, “Conversations stop cold [even though] I may be coming by to just say, ‘Hi, have a great weekend,’ or to invite them to lunch.”

Worse yet, she says nobody tells her any dirt. Like most people, she enjoys hearing harmless gossip, such as who is dating whom, who bought a new house or car, or maybe who’s planning on retiring. But she does get invited to happy hour, which is a good start.

The remaining wishes on her list include a silent phone for just one day, faculty and staff who understand HR jargon—everything from FMLA and STD to OE—time sheets turned in on time, every time, and the ability to make work friends who don’t have ulterior motives.

“I always wonder if they just want to be my friend to find out all the good stuff that’s going on,” she says. “Will they still be my friend after they find out I won’t tell them stuff?”

That’s obviously an ethical issue that HR professionals face every day. Since Boyer is not the kind to kiss and tell, her request is legitimate. Can her work friends still like her in the morning?

As the vice president of HR at Austin Community College District (Texas), Gerry Tucker would be happy to have a full-time crew dedicated to kitchen duty in the employee break room. These individuals would be responsible for keeping the area clean and performing the one job everybody everywhere hates doing—cleaning out the fridge. Maybe if she was extra good this year, she could also request that they possess culinary skills. Who wouldn’t enjoy a personal chef who does the dishes?

Still, Tucker says there’s a higher calling, something that would help everyone on campus, not just her own staff. After all, it’s the season of giving. In that spirit, she wants just one wall in HR’s office painted a soothing color like pastel blue or green to help calm employees down who may be anxious, nervous, or upset when visiting HR.

Last fall, she got her wish, but it turned out to be temporary. Tucker says she persuaded one of the college’s painters to transform one stark white wall into a very comforting green wall. And no, she didn’t bribe him with any green. It was just one wall. No biggie. Or so she thought at the time. That soothing green wall quickly turned into a source of irritation after she received a directive from above to repaint the wall white. No explanation was given.

Now white is not a bad color. It reflects light, matches everything, and is always stylish. Still, it doesn’t help people unwind. Have you ever heard of people relaxing in a white room before they appear on TV?

Since HR couldn’t keep its green wall, the department spent some green on toys. The team converted its office area into a quasi-playroom filled with puzzles, games, and even a Slinky that employees can play with while waiting to speak to an HR representative. My suggestion would be for HR to add two more items to its wish list: (1) a box of crayons for employees who have trouble communicating—they could draw pictures, possibly even on that same wall, that describe their problems or feelings; and (2) a small corner stool. HR could then place any employees who misbehave in time-out.

Last on Tucker’s list are overstuffed office chairs and a big, comfy couch—but not too comfy. The last thing HR needs is employees snoozing in the office during their breaks or lunchtime.

Some HR professionals contacted about their holiday wishes provided traditional responses, like the ability to offer free health-care benefits to employees. As far as I’m concerned, those answers rank right up there with world peace in the unrealistic wishes department.

George Cartsonis, director of college communications at Oakland Community College (Mich.), asked the college’s chief HR officer, Catherine Rush, the same question on my behalf. When she offered a traditional wish, his response was, “So when are you entering the Miss America pageant?”

But Rush did end up sharing part of her wish list with me. She wants to ban all full moons as well as lock her office door and stop answering phones at noon on Fridays and the day before any holiday or college break. She can’t explain why it happens, but during these times, employees invariably show up in the HR office with some sort of crisis that can take hours or even weeks to resolve. They either want to discipline someone, fire an employee (who inevitably should have been terminated months ago), or have their entire benefits package explained to them.

Although Rush would be happy if just this wish were granted, she couldn’t resist mentioning an additional request. She was on a roll. Apparently, many members of the college community routinely approach her and other members of the HR team to share their ideas about how that office can solve its challenges. They’re not in the least concerned that they have absolutely no background or experience in HR, don’t understand how the college system works, or lack a full understanding of federal employment laws.

Most faculty ignored the 28 open sessions about a new University of Idaho health plan but stopped in to HR on their own to complain.

“We very much appreciate the gifts of the magi, their wisdom, input, and insights, but my wish is that they would understand they hired me to do this job,” says Rush of people on campus who approach her with just the right answer. She compares the situation to a well-intended aunt who gives a Christmas present to her niece—a sweater that is three sizes too small. Her intent is golden and the thought is appreciated, but the sweater still doesn’t fit.

Likewise, Paul Michaud wouldn’t mind a little more respect. His wish? Faculty members who are just as smart as they think they are. He explains that many are brilliant in their area of expertise but that when it comes to HR, they flunk.

Michaud, director of HR at Georgia Southern University, explains that the University of Idaho, where he worked until last month, recently switched to a consumer-driven health plan. To explain the new plan and address employee concerns, HR conducted 28 open sessions. Most faculty never showed but instead stopped by the HR office to complain that the new program was terrible. So the department had to provide a lot of one-on-one counseling, he explains.

There’s something else that bugs him. Some faculty members take sick leave but never charge sick leave or tell HR. They either cancel their classes or ask peers to cover for them. This may be for just one day or several days.

“Sometimes, they’re missing in action,” Michaud explains. “We would like to put their name and face on the back of a milk carton asking, ‘Have you seen this person?’”

While University of Idaho administrators track down their MIAs, Kyle Cavanaugh wants an early holiday present—the sooner, the better. He simply wants to smile again after the stock market closes each weekday.

“I would like a repeated positive outcome at 5:01 each day regarding the equity market,” says Cavanaugh, senior vice president of administration at the University of Florida. “If we had that, my life would be a lot less stressful.”

What’s more, he says the university’s faculty and staff would then stop walking around as if they were auditioning for a remake of Night of the Living Dead. Which is worse—losing the majority of your retirement savings or turning into a bloodthirsty zombie? Sounds like a tossup. On one hand, you couldn’t enjoy life. On the other, you couldn’t enjoy death.

For those among the living, I hope your holiday wishes come true. You deserve it. After all, HR helps deliver the best gifts of all year-round: health, happiness, and prosperity.

Send your own wish list (from HR or any campus office) to for possible publication.

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who specializes in covering HR issues.