Wheat and JailI like attorneys. Really. Some of my very best friends are attorneys! Have you noticed, though, how some attorneys use a lot of words? I have worked with fantastic labor attorneys over the years, and owe much of my knowledge today to them. But I’ve also learned how easy it is to make something simple really complicated, and HR is an example.

Take wheat, for instance. Want to get your daily whole grain by eating a few wheat keme1s straight off the stalk? Healthy, yes … exciting? No. I like my wheat harvested, milled, mixed with some other ingredients (Do I hear sugar? Butter?) and baked into something a little more palatable—–say, a cupcake, perhaps?

As an HR professional, I believe that the field provides tremendous value to business and offers many tools to navigate employment issues. Yet, boiled down to the basic kernel, the point of HR is to help employers get the best use out of one of their most expensive investments-people-and get into the least amount of trouble while doing it.

If we, as company owners and managers, could accomplish what we needed to do without having to hire, train, pay, incent, care for and otherwise have employees, we would. And, if we could figure out by ourselves how to hire, train, pay, incent, care for and otherwise have employees without breaking laws we didn’t know existed and entertaining all manner of drama in the workplace, we certainly wouldn’t hire HR people to help us. Previous columns have offered great information and resources to help sift through these laws and solid advice for bringing in the right people. But how do we decide what really matters?

Let’s go back to our wheat and attorneys for a minute and let me share with you two quotes from former attorney colleagues that I think get to the basic kernel of what HR is all about. The first quote is, “They may go to hell, but they won’t go to jail.” This was said to an employee who protested his termination. He was angry and came for a meeting about how he had been treated badly. The employee had some valid points–some of the people involved in his termination had not been very kind-but everything had been completely legal, and, eventually, the employee was able to understand if not forgive.

The moral of this story: The law does matter and finding a reliable guide who helps you stay on the right side of it is important. I have a lot of clients who are “good guys;’ but the best intentions in the world won’t protect you if you are breaking an employment law. “I didn’t know;’ is not a defense. ”I’m doing it this way because my employee(s) asked for it,” is not a defense. “Every other company I’ve worked for (or in this industry I or this state/ or whatever) does it this way,” is not a defense. The best quick resource around for employment compliance is at www.dol.gov. Be warned, however: a minute or two using their compliance too1s may have you hiding under your desk while dialing your HR person on your cell with shaking fingers.

I told you there was a second quote, and here it is. “People don’t sue you because you did something illegal. People sue you because they think you’ve been unfair.” Just obeying the law is not enough. It is critical to get to know your employees and, more importantly, to communicate genuinely, honestly and consistently. We avoid genuine and honest communication because we don’t like conflict; but a good HR person can help coach you through those discussions so that even the worst messages are delivered and received with respect and dignity.

These two quotes were from different attorneys in unrelated organizations separated by time and distance, but together, they get to the heart of HR. Unless you are a business of one, you have  employees. If you have employees, you have human resources. Are you being honest? Are you being legal? Is this a good time to make sure?