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When was the last time you contacted someone in HR? When you first joined the company? for your appraisal? or perhaps when something bad happened at work, like a redundancy or disciplinary?

Human resources teams aren’t just the bearers of good and bad news; they can also offer you support in your job, help you to climb the career ladder and generally keep you happy and productive at work.

Just how much your HR team can offer you is largely down to the size of the company you work for. While international companies have large HR departments with different people specialising in various areas of expertise, such as training or pensions, smaller companies often have a handful of HR advisers who cover all aspects of this role. In very small businesses you may find the HR ‘team’ may actually be the company director donning his HR hat whenever the need arises. Whichever rings true for the company you work for, understanding what your HR department offers can be key to your worklife happiness.

Help with your day-to-day work

Achieving that elusive work-life balance is a struggle for most of us. However, most bosses recognise that there is a ‘you’ beyond the four walls of the office, and understand that it’s in their best interest to have a healthy, happy workforce. As such, most companies have policies in place to help you achieve a healthy balance and can advise you on childcare and flexible working schemes.

Some companies actively promote a healthy attitude to work, too, with leisure activities planned outside of 9-5 and deals with local gyms and healthcare providers. Some also have concession schemes with local shops, discounts on food, travel and even mobile phones and computers. Who knows, if you’re in luck, you might even get a discount on your daily caffeine fix, too.

HR teams can also assist when life gets tough. If you face illness or suffer bereavement, companies have policies in place to help. Some offer financial support and counselling services to employees, and will be able to offer advice on taking leave during extenuating circumstances. HR can also help if you’re facing difficulties at work.

From workplace harassment to health and safety issues, human resources teams are there to help you do your job properly and make the workplace a productive, happy and safe place.

Career planning

HR departments can also be useful in career planning, yet most people don’t take advantage of this opportunity. Remember that your HR department is often involved in every aspect of recruitment, from the company’s long-term recruitment strategy to placing job ads and interviewing, so it’s a team well worth rubbing shoulders with if you want to move up the career ladder or side-step into a different role.

And besides knowing what jobs are coming up, some HR teams also run work-shadowing schemes for existing employees and mentoring schemes for more junior team members. However if your company doesn’t run such schemes, there’s no harm in asking if you could run one in your own workplace.

Training also comes under the remit of HR teams. Check your company’s intranet and you may discover that HR occasionally run workshops in ‘soft’ skills such as time management, managing conflict, negotiation skills, presentation skills and effective communication; all of which are great to add to your CV. Most companies set aside budgets for training each year, too, and your HR team may also be able to advise on any job-specific training you need and offer advice on recommended external training providers.

Planning for the long term

If you’re planning to stay with your company for a reasonably long time, it’s worth talking to a HR adviser about a pension. Depending on where you work, company pension plans can be more lucrative than private schemes, so it’s worth getting your head out of the sand and starting one early. Also look into life assurance schemes and any mortgage advice deals your company may offer as part of its benefits package.

And if maternity or paternity leave is on your radar, or perhaps you’d quite fancy a sabbatical in the not-too-distant future, find out your company’s policies from HR.

Where to start

Your boss is probably your first port of call for all things HR-related. Ask if you have a HR adviser for your division and take a look at the company intranet, where you should be able to find HR policies, guidelines, schemes and contacts.

If you want to move up in the company, make yourself known to HR: businesses want to retain good employees so making contact and letting the right people know your career goals could really pay off.