HR Function

Which side is HR really on?

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Updated on: 9/6/2023


It may be difficult to know if you can trust HR, or how HR supports employees when it comes to difficult situations. 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. Can you turn to HR for help?

Well, HR is more than just the “hiring and firing” department. Behind the scenes, HR is one of the busiest departments in any organisation, 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 lap dogs who ignore your struggles, and who act only in the interests of productivity and profits? We’ve gathered a variety of opinions from companies, HR and the public to see whose side HR is really on.

HR work for your company, not you

According to Brazen, HR is 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.

Only 15% of people who answered our Twitter poll believe HR is on the employee’s side. 

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 support employees and listen to your concerns, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will take action, or be on your side. If a particular manager is crucial to growth for the business then HR may well overlook any bullying tactics that they’re using.

Protecting employees also protects your organisation

It’s understandable that HR ‘work for the company’ and have their best interests at heart. But why should this mean they have to take the company’s ‘side’ rather than take the employees’ side? According to TotalJobs, HR supports employees by looking after working conditions, equal opportunities, and staff welfare. It makes very little sense for HR to ignore supporting employees in order to secure a few short-term gains for the company.

TotalJobs also says that it is HR’s job to take care of working conditions and staff welfare. 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.”

How can you start trusting HR?

So, is HR ever on your side? We know that there are two sides to the coin, however a lot of this discussion stems from the fact that the question is such a popular one amongst employees. We spoke to consultant, speaker and forthcoming author Perry Timms, who helped us 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.” 

He continues, “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 employees 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 we asked him which side he thinks HR is on, he told us that the question itself was wrong in its entirety.

“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 determine which side HR is on for every company out there. We’re sure that some HR departments do indeed act on the behalf of the employer rather than the employee while others serve the far nobler role of stewards of organisational justice.

But after speaking to everybody mentioned in this article it’s worth thinking about HR from a new perspective and consider if you can trust your HR department. And there are five key things that we’d like you to take away:

  1. A lot of people worry that HR will always side with the people in power
  2. This isn’t always true, but the belief is rarely challenged – because HR people don’t do enough to manage their public reputation
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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

Overall, managing employee relations is a tough subject to approach, and HR need to undertake it with care, organisation and impartiality - but still with the companies, including the employees, best interests at heart. Investing in HR software is the best way to centralise employee records and streamline processes, making handling employee relations easier.

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Rich Newsome
By Rich Newsome Digital Content Writer

Rich is a content writer at Access PeopleHR and has a wealth of experience within the tech space, including HR software. Passionate about providing website visitors with informative and easy-to-understand content, Rich is committed to helping SMBs find the best solutions for their needs. With a flair for writing, Rich's content engages and educates readers, guiding them towards informed decisions.