Which side is HR really on?
Maybe you’re being bullied. Maybe your manager isn’t playing by the rules. Or maybe you feel like your employer is treating you unfairly. Where do you turn to for help?
HR is more than just the “hiring and firing” department. Behind the scenes, HR is one of the busiest departments in any organisation. As well as handling everything from benefits administration to employment law, HR is also the go-to department for ironing out employee relations issues, when the rubber hits the road.
But is HR ever on your side? Can you really trust HR to fight your corner and treat you fairly? Or are HR practitioners nothing more than CEO lapdogs who ignore your struggles, and who act only in the interests of productivity and profits?
“Never trust HR – they work for your company, not you”
According to Brazen, HR is definitely not on your side. At least, not unless it’s in the company’s interest. In fact, they emphatically claim that “HR works for your company – not you”, and warn employees to never assume that their conversations with HR are confidential.
This is just one of many things they say that employees should know about HR – but that HR will never admit. And according to a poll we conducted on Twitter, it looks like a lot of people agree.
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss an article like this as sensational and provocative clickbait. But even Forbes reports that employees should only go to human resources as a last resort. Their article states that while your HR department should indeed take time to listen to your concerns, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will take action, or be on your side. If a particular manager is getting results, then HR may well overlook any bullying tactics that they’re using.
Good HR practitioners should realise that protecting employees also protects their organisation
I can accept that HR people ‘work for the company’. But why should this mean they have to take the company’s ‘side’? According to TotalJobs, an HR director’s responsibilities include looking after working conditions, equal opportunities, and staff welfare. To me, it makes very little sense for an HR practitioner to ignore all of this, in order to secure a few short-term gains for the company. And it seems I’m not alone.
Employment lawyer and HR counsellor Charles Krugel says that legally speaking, HR has no obligation to take the employee’s side. However, he is quick to point out that the company itself has legal obligations to the employee – and that it is often HR’s job to ensure these obligations are being taken care of.
In other words, HR can take the employer’s side, by actually fighting for the rights of an employee. Or, as career expert Trent Silver from Nerdster puts it, “HR’s responsibility is to always protect the organisation. But sometimes, the way HR does this is by defending individuals within the company, and helping the organisation avoid lawsuits or PR disasters.”
HR is fairer than you think – but it’s fair to say they need to work on their reputation
But is HR ever on your side? I mean, like, really on your side – not just because they’re worried about lawsuits or PR nightmares? I’d like to think so. I spoke to consultant, speaker and forthcoming author Perry Timms, who helped me to understand why this question comes up so often.
“Organisational trust is at an all-time low, both anecdotally, and according to research contained in the Edelman Trust Barometer” he explains, echoing his recent remarks at CIPD’s Future of Work conference. “But the belief that HR is not to be trusted is – at least in my view – a bit of a distorted take on things. I’ve seen many cases where HR has fought hard in the background to ensure fairness in disputes or decisions, which aren’t just about protecting the organisation, but are also about ensuring a fair outcome. People rarely see these counter examples, because they rightly don’t make the headlines. For example, when HR has mediated an irretrievable relationship in the workplace, or protected parties from damaging court proceedings. Maybe it’s more that the best security is the one less visible… but if HR were a bit better at managing their public image and reputation about workplace fairness, then I think we’d see far less of this stereotype.”
Timms says that HR has a key role acting as the steward of organisational justice. And in an ideal world, they should be bolder about taking responsibility and credit for keeping the people, and the organisation, in as much harmony as possible. Let’s not ignore scandals that make the headlines, and instead let’s balance them against the many millions of people who have supportive, professional and fair HR colleagues.
…are there even any sides to take?
Maybe we’re missing the point though here. Ken Fee is the head of Organisational Development and HR, for Sense Scotland – a large charity, managing over 1,000 employees and 500 volunteers. When I asked him which side he thinks HR is on, he told me that I was asking the wrong question entirely.
“HR’s responsibility is to the collective organisation” he says. “I’m always mindful of being fair to individuals, but I must also be mindful to the needs of other people in that organisation – people who may not be in the room.”
Fee explains that instead of acting as the mediator between two ‘sides’, HR should be facilitating constructive decisions that push all parties towards a unified set of goals. He says that people need to stop thinking about organisations in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – there is only ‘us’, and that’s the organisation as a whole.
“HR serves the organisation” Fee explains, “but the organisation includes everybody. Not just the CEO, not just the managers, but also each individual employee.”
Five key points to take home from this article
It’s impossible to apply a single rule to every organisation out there. I’m absolutely sure that some HR departments do indeed act as the CEO’s lapdog, while others serve the far nobler role of stewards of organisational justice.
But after speaking to everybody mentioned in this piece, I’m definitely looking at this question in a new light. And there are five things that I’d like you to take away from this article:
- A lot of people worry that HR will always side with the people in power
- This isn’t always true, but the belief is rarely challenged – because HR people don’t do enough to manage their public reputation
- While HR has no legal obligation to take any particular side, they should still protect the rights of individuals – as this can, in turn, protect the company’s interests
- If companies are made of ‘sides’, then HR people should be taking a balanced approach, and looking to maintain a fair level of organisational justice
- However, we might do well to lose the ‘us’ VS ‘them’ mentality – an organisation is made up of everybody, not just the people in power
If you think I’ve missed anything important, then don’t be afraid to leave a comment and set me straight.
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