I started working in Human Resources (part of the management section) two months ago, and I'm leaving my position next week, so please take this post big a big grain of salt! That said: one of my main missions when I joined the HR department was finding out why HR always seems so... dysfunctional.
Here are my findings.
1. IT'S YOUR PROBLEM
The biggest problem for HR, as I see it, is that people have really high expectations of what we can do for them. It seems like most employees think that HR folks have a set of magic keys that grant them access to every single computer file or system, and that we hold sway over finance or security-related issues as well. This, unfortunately, isn't true.
HR can’t just update or fix personnel files, or figure out in the wink of an eye when people arrived at post, what their rank is, who they supervise, etc. We're not info-central. Moreover, we don't have influence over the security-related aspect of hiring, and we're not trained in most financial matters (that's what the finance department is for).
Of course, employees don't want to hear about that. In my experience, they want us to at least point them in the right direction, even if the question is actually unrelated to what we do in our section, or even here at post. When people walk all the way to the HR department, they want to leave with solid advice. And in some cases, they want us to do their work for them, like finding their records and other information while they stand back and watch, undoubtedly not taking notes so they'll have the same problem next time.
2. THERE ARE LOTS OF RULES - AND THEY CHANGE
Many customers expect HR to know every rule and regulation by heart, as well as every office, acronym, and software system. But that's hard, especially if we've only just started our jobs (which for diplomats seems to be most of the time) and when new rules and systems are being put in place all the time. Far more than in other sections of the embassy--political, economic, consular--we're constantly in the midst of some updating, streamlining or improvement process. So even if we know the answer to a question, it might be outdated and we have to check to make sure it's still valid.
The fact that things change is challenging not only because we may not have the right answer for you--at least not ready to go--but also because we hardly have time to gain expertise on anything. For example, this year’s employee evaluation process was totally different from last year's, so we had to figure out all the logistics at the same time that we were running the process.
3. ALWAYS ONE STEP AHEAD
More than any office I've worked in at the embassy, HR has to anticipate things. Before policy changes and new deadlines come out, we have to already prepare offices so they can get started on things like creating positions, writing award citations, and drafting their own evaluations (for promotions).
Moreover, planning and establishing timelines are extremely important for HR, because if we miss a deadline, or we're slow on things, we look TERRIBLE. Unfortunately, few of the other offices share these concerns and they usually wait until the last minute to deliver whatever we need from them to make the process go smooth.
4. IT'S PERSONAL
People wonder in and out of the HR section all day long. Besides planning and processing, we're also customer-facing, which means that our work is constantly interrupted because people need stuff from us. And the biggest problem, as I see it, is that everyone's question is important and urgent. After all, HR matters include things that affect people both personally and professionally, like salaries and promotions, travel authorizations, and hiring and firing.
I only have to think back about my own interactions with HR to be reminded that people can get really upset when HR screws up, aka: doesn't do what you want, immediately! I harbor all kinds of grudges towards the HR people who tried to cheat me out of 5,000 dollars by offering me a lower salary than I clearly qualified for. And the HR folks that were so slow in processing my application that I almost missed out on starting my current job altogether.
I wonder if now, after having worked in HR, I will have more patience when it comes to these matters. It's really hard for me not to lose my cool when it comes to administrative stuff, so I'm not sure, but at least I've learned a lot about how it all works so that 1) I'll be able to do a lot more stuff on my own and I know better where to ask for help and 2) I will lower my expectations of what HR can do for me--not because they're not competent but because of all the issues I just described.