The Awesome Power of Standing Up For Yourself in HR

by Alan Collins

Years ago, I made an honest, but frustrating mistake many HR professionals make.

It was one that taught me the value of standing up for yourself and sticking to your guns — when you  know you’re right.

It occurred when a hiring executive called me and wanted me to make an offer to an outstanding engineering candidate.

The position had been tough to fill.  We’d been searching for months and interviewed tons of candidates.  But we had finally landed our person.

I called the candidate. Made a verbal offer of $130K plus our standard bonus and benefit package.  The candidate was overjoyed and he verbally accepted over the phone. Everything clicked.

Except one thing.

When the offer letter was expressed mailed to him, there was a typo. The amount in the offer letter was $135K (not $130K).

I discovered the error a few hours after the letter went out and immediately called him. I let him know that we’d be getting out some new paperwork, because of this error.

That’s where the problem started.

He said we discussed and he verbally accepted $135K, not $130K.

He was partially right…we did discuss $135K, but we agreed on $130K.  I was 100% sure of it and remember him verbally confirming the $130K figure with me twice before accepting the offer…and then he talked extensively about how excited he was about coming aboard.

When I reminded him of all this, he very politely accused me of being shady and lying to him.  He also made a subtle threat not to accept the offer. But, since he already had put his condo up for sale, he said he was willing to come aboard if I honored the written offer of $135K.

“Uh-oh,” I thought to myself.  “What a horrible mess.  How the hell did I screw up such a simple HR transaction?”

Frankly, earlier in my HR career, I might have given in to him and worked to get internal approval to let him have the higher salary. 

After all, it was my error in not reviewing the offer letter before it went out.  I needed to honor the documented figure.  And hey, an extra $5K is peanuts to a multi-billion dollar global organization like PepsiCo.

And besides, the hiring manager wouldn’t care because we’ve been trying to fill this job…like well, forever.

So, I seriously considered giving in…

But.  It. Just. Didn’t. Feel. Right.

This was an honest mistake I made in the candidate’s written offer. Mistakes happen every single freaking day in HR.  And I needed to own up to it. But that didn’t mean I needed to ask the organization to cut a check to cover my butt.

If the government screws up and sends me a tax refund of $100 million, they aren’t going to let me keep it. In fact, if they send me a tax refund for $2 more than I should get, they aren’t going to let me keep it.

And here are couple of things I knew about myself:

1. I’m not unethical.
2. I push back when I believe I’m in the right..

So, I told the candidate: “No thanks, we’re staying with the original offer of $130K that you verbally accepted. But I completely understand if something has changed and you now don’t want to accept the verbal offer. That’s your choice.”

He calmly reiterated that absolutely nothing had changed and that he was merely accepting what we verbally agreed to.

After a few more moments of fruitless back and forth, I ended our conversation by telling him that he was our number one candidate, the verbal offer was still available and if he changed his mind to call me back.

That night, I couldn’t get this frustrating situation out of my head.

Was all this worth the risk?  Was the hiring manager going to be pissed at me if the candidate rejected our offer because of $5K misunderstanding?  It was possible. But I knew that I had a great relationship with her.  And she trusted me to negotiate an appropriate comp package and look out for our mutual best interests.

Was I being a jerk for pushing back over chump change? Possibly. But I was also putting my own reputation at risk by backing down to this candidate and letting him believe, “Yeah, Alan is just another unethical HR guy trying to low-ball job candidates to pinch pennies for his organization.”

None of which was true.

But admittedly, maybe my pride got in the way…just a little bit.

In any event, I stuck to my guns.

I knew I was right. After discussing this with the hiring manager, she agreed…though a little reluctantly, at first.  We were prepared to walk away. Knowing that it could prolong our search.  But knowing that we were in the right….and had some other good candidates to consider as well.

Before telling you how this situation ultimately wound up, here’s my message to you in all this.

Be willing to stand firm and stick to your guns,
when you know you’re right.

To quote Sue Meisinger, the former CEO of SHRM:

When your finance counterparts make a mistake, they’ll just redo the spread sheet. When marketing screws up, they’ll simply redesign the campaign. When the sales group misses their quota, they focus on the next quarter. When R&D fails to discover or develop a new product, they’ll just try again.”

But unlike these other groups, if HR makes a mistake, it’s very personal and can sour the individual on the HR department (and YOU) for years. But if you’re making an honest mistake, correct it, own it…and stand your ground.”

Honest mistakes are made every day in business — and in HR.

It could be that an error was made in someone’s merit increase, dental program deductible or the effective date of their promotion. Your responsibility is to fess up to the mistake and correct it quickly. Not ask the organization to cover your rear end and pay for your honest mistake.

That said, let’s wrap up this story.  You’re probably wondering whatever happened to that job candidate?

Well, we wound up hiring him.

And he enjoyed a great career with our company for five years.

It seems he made an honest mistake too and called back the next day.  He had mixed our offer up with another competing offer, but preferred our organization more (or at least, that’s what he told us…hmm…).

Anyway, he apologized.  I did too.

…And he accepted our original offer of $130K.

How about that.

Onward!

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Please view the comments on this article or add your own below by clicking HERE.

Want more insights for handling tough HR situations.  Then check out:  WINNING BIG IN HR: 100+ Powerful Strategies For Accomplishing Great Results Faster & Getting Your Clients To Rave About You As A Human Resources Professional!   For more detailed information about this book, go HERE.

About the author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of a variety of best selling books for HR professionals including WINNING BIG IN HR.  He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

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22 Responses to “The Awesome Power of Standing Up For Yourself in HR”

  1. Jan Says:

    Integrity is everything. Some people practice it or believe in it when it benefits them or someone close to them. However, when it makes them look bad or guilty then it does not exist. It is sad to see but people choose to be dishonest or honest everyday. What a person values is displayed in their attitudes, actions, words and thoughts. You either have integrity or you don’t. There are no grey areas. Very few people have and or practice integrity.

  2. Nkechi Says:

    Everything all bores down to being integrity nd being honest in everything you,weather @ work or in other aspect of your life.

  3. Alan Says:

    How true. Well said, Jan & Nkechi.

  4. William Charles Quao Says:

    Very intetresting

  5. Siddhivinayak Says:

    Yes, you are right, Alan. It requires lot of courage to own up our mistakes. It requires inner strength and integrity. Good one indeed !

  6. Wilbroad Says:

    Guess what? I was preparing to give a talk about being assertive to our Management trainees when I received your article! it could not have come at a better time, I have just shared it with them! Good stuff!

  7. Ellen Says:

    Once again it points to INTEGRITY, which is in short supply these days. As an HR professional I do my best to ensure everything is correct as much as humanly possible. If I make a mistake, I immediately own up to it, correct it and move on. When I was reading the first part of the article when you disclosed the error to him, my first instinct was to think that he was not who you thought he was to handle it the way he did. Glad it all worked out. Thanks for reminding us we need to stand our ground!

  8. Olayemi Says:

    Interesting. Notice there are 2 sides to this. Ability to own up to YOUR own mistake, and standing FIRM or being assertive as the need arises. Both of these were possible because you already had a good relationship with the hiring exec. You knew she wouldn’t tear you apart for the mistake, plus she’d expect u to stand for what is right.

  9. Sharon Says:

    Good article and true. I’m going through something similar but not in finance. It’s that HR intuition and belief on one self. Thanks for article.

  10. James K Muguzu Says:

    I have quite often carried the guilt when i make such a honest mistake. Your article gives me a great relief on how to treat such a situation. Thanks

  11. Dele Olomide Says:

    I see Sue Messenger’s point play out at every point of my career. At first, it’s hurtful. But then, I got to accept it as reality. Assertiveness is one key attribute every HR person must have. You’ve got to be assertive in the value of the function, in righting a wrong and making HR related business contributions. But ultimately, for the benefit of the organization and the function, HR colleagues must be supportive of one another while trying to constantly doing things right in every aspect every other time.

  12. Qazi Ata Says:

    Interesting. If we are good human beings and take care of the Ethical values, i firmly believe, you will not have disturbing problems. People around you and in business circles, you will get acceptability and respect too.

  13. Jean-Louis bernardin Says:

    Hi Alan,
    Your story reminds me of when I stuck to my guns, some years ago.
    We had a manufacturing plant some 45 minutes north of the city and there were employee productivity as well as process waste problems. I spoke with the HR manager as well as floor supervisors and employees and made the recomendation to our head office that we needed training at all levels at the plant, especially new employees.
    The VP operations said that was not the case. Eventually, after several months of lost time, increased waste etc, head office decided to send in a management consultant to analyse the situation. Bottom line: the consultant reported that my assessment was correct in that training was required.
    My boss, Ted, was always beside me in my assessment of the plant situation. We both had ear to ear smiles on our faces when the company finally decided to implement a needs analysis, instructional design, facilitation of programs and thorough follow up on all training.
    You said it Alan, stick to your guns!

    Jean-Louis

  14. Penny Says:

    Awesome article as always Alan! Your article was just what I needed to remind myself that I made the right decision a few years ago when faced with a similar situation. I ultimately lost the job for not cow-towing to a request that I felt was unethical, but I kept my self-respect. I am a much happier person because of it. Thanks for the reminder.

  15. Kaosara Says:

    This is awesome. I cherished the way it ended. I have learnt 2things: Stick to the gun when you think you are right and own up and take responsibility for your mistakes to avoid your employer discovering it and you ll be punished for an innocent mistake. Thank you Collins. You are my source of inspiration. Thumps up!

  16. Charmaine Callender Says:

    I like the quote from Sue Meisinger that you shared. Very interesting and so true.

    It gives me confidence going forward.

  17. Mono Says:

    Hi Alan, this is good article again. Many thanks for sharing. Mono

  18. LL Says:

    Good stuff. Thank you for sharing.

  19. SJ Says:

    Inspirational as always Alan! If you let your internal compass waiver just once, everyone remembers it forever!

  20. Muhammad Tahir Says:

    Hi Alan. Stand firm on what you belief at all time.

  21. Marf Pang Says:

    A ha! Standing up—along with showing up & speaking up—that is what leaders should do in every moment in their lives. ..Thank you Collins.

  22. Vijaykumar shinde Says:

    Hi, Alan, Thanks for sharing this article.
    HR Manger has more responsibilities than line manger, Finance Manager recheck financial calculation and correct it before forwarding to senior, R&D personnel can change his parameter if he failed in research work and keep carry on research, HR Manager has to deal with employees, of course while working any mistake could be happen in day to day work. that mistake must be corrected.
    In your verbal communication as offered by you and due to else error, you got troubles because of unseen offers given to candidates.
    first, candidate had not accepted what agreed on, but looking your stand he might be accepted and decided to accept truth.
    There is theory of Action (Karma),What ever we get not more than that we deserve,if we get more than we deserve, it will not useful for us, we have to give return more than we deserve in other way.
    We always have to follow action theory, we follow right path and stick to it, suppose we follow right path no one stop you on way of success, because you followed action theory……

    Thanks with Regards,

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