When employees say, “HR, you’re not the boss of me.”

“And I told her I didn’t care because she isn’t the boss of me.” That’s what the woman at the table next to mine said at dinner last week. She launched into a saga about battling the dress code and tyrannical rule of HR at work. And I was bummed about the HR situation at her organization.

Even though most employees don’t report to us, as members of HR, we monitor things like dress code, performance, and inappropriate behavior. Most employees are cool with that, but some retort with the playground defense mechanism that kept pushy classmates off their backs: “You’re not the boss of me.” That’s a clue that your employee may be feeling oppressed. Here are a few questions you can ask to learn what the real problem is:

Is what’s happening fair?

Reasonable people don’t usually object to reasonable, fair things. If you feel hostility from employees, it may be because what you’re asking them to do isn’t rational. If the performance management process is ruffling feathers, employees roll their eyes at the dress code or object to any other HR guideline, it’s worth evaluating the value of that guideline.

Drill down to the purpose of the process or rule (e.g. performance reviews = meaningful feedback for employees; professional dress = the last CEO said so). Is the purpose still meaningful? Does the process accomplish what it should in a fair way? If not, it might be time to adjust what you’re asking of employees so they will feel less controlled. If it is fair and reasonable, keep on keepin’ on.

Am I on a power trip?

It feels good to be right. But you don’t always have to be right, and you don’t always have to be in charge. That’s called power trippin’. And that will make employees resent you quickly. Take a good, hard look at the way you interact with employees. If you’re digging your heels in on little things, you might want to loosen up.

You’re a resource for employees, not a ruler. They can usually tell the difference between someone who wants to help the workplace and someone who wants to control it (you want to be the helper). Be sure to remember that when you’re going head-to-head with an employee who tells you to back off. Even though they should be nice about it, they may actually be right.

Does this employee just have a bad attitude?

Sometimes (hopefully not often), you may have an employee who simply resents authority. Give them a deadline? They’ll push it off just to show you don’t control them. Tell them flip-flops are against the dress code for safety reasons? They’ll make a point to wear them even if you live in Calgary, and it’s January.

This is the toughest situation to handle. There’s little you can do about it because their behavior is largely out of your control. The best solution is not to hire these types of employees (regardless of how talented they are) in the first place. If you do end up with an anti-authority employee, try to work through the problem together (after the situation has cooled off). That type of behavior will only fester if left alone, so see if you can help the employee make some changes.

Bottom line: Everyone deserves respect in your organization. Employees should respect the rules HR needs to enforce, and HR should ensure rules and processes are fair and reasonable. Before you label an employee as a rabble-rouser, look for a legitimate reason he or she might be peeved. At the same time, require employees to be respectful of your job. While you might not technically be their boss, there are things HR has to patrol, and you deserve respect too.

I don’t know which situation the woman at the table next to me at dinner last week was in. She may have been right. The HR organization at her company might be unreasonable. Or she could just be a complainer bent on breaking the rules. Either way, I’m guessing this week isn’t going much better for her or her HR department and won’t until they ask themselves a few questions and figure out how to be respectful of one another.