Whose side is HR really on?
“HR works for the company, not you.”
“I don’t even consider HR as an option when subjected to harassment or sexism.”
“PSA: HR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND.”
These are just a few of the comments users posted on Blind, an app that allows employees to anonymously discuss what’s happening in their workplaces.
These posts from tech employees speak to a specific problem plaguing their sector, but also a broader one affecting all industries. In a time when NBC’s Matt Lauer had a button under his desk to lock doors, when CBS chief executive Les Moonves allegedly harassed women without recourse for decades, when female workers at Nike say a hostile work culture persisted for years — how can employees feel their human resources department is on their side?
“Our app wouldn’t exist if everyone trusted HR,” says Curie Kim, spokesperson for Blind.
She says users on Blind have a lot to say about HR – and most of it is bad. In a recent survey of Blind users in the tech sector, nearly half didn’t feel comfortable reporting harassment to their HR departments, and another 41 percent of those said that’s in part because they’ve witnessed retaliation as a result, or even experienced it firsthand.
But how founded are those fears? And who does human resources work for, exactly: The employees, or the employer?
Understanding how HR works
The answer is more complicated than most employees would like to believe, says Johnny C. Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resources Management.
“I’m often asked, ‘Who does HR represent? The company or the employee?'” Taylor says. “And I think I often unnerve them when I say ‘both.’ That’s what makes this a difficult role.”
There is a process that includes employee orientation and training, those portals through which HR communicates with employees proactively, both about how the company responds to complaints and follows up on them, as well as how the company sets its priorities and rules, what an employee can see as “OK” or “not OK” per legal standards and a company’s values.
“The HR process is foreign to so many people, and there are so many things that I think as women that we’re conditioned to brush off, when they’re issues that should be reported,” says one female journalist. She said she left her former employer after her HR department repeatedly ignored escalated incidents of sexual harassment. She did not want to be identified, for fear of continued retaliation in her industry.
“The unfortunate thing is your first experience with HR a lot of times, besides the hiring process, is going to be negative,” she says. “That makes it much more intimidating.”
Many employees distrust HR professionals because they view them as putting the company’s best interest above their own. Taylor says trust can be eroded if, for example, an HR department brings an employee’s complaint to senior management, even after the person who made the complaint asked that it be kept confidential. That can happen partly because HR has an obligation to protect the enterprise from damage — but primarily, it wants to protect other employees in case of serious misconduct.
“At times, you go to HR and HR has to do something with it. They have to report it,” Taylor says. “And I’ve heard people say, ‘Case in point. That’s exactly why we don’t trust HR.’ And, well, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
HR often finds itself in the awkward position of maintaining confidentiality in certain cases, Taylor says. When an employee makes a complaint to another colleague or even to the HR department directly, they may ask HR to tell no one. But instead of lobbing that comment into a black box, that comment can instead train the department’s spotlight on a particular problem.
HR, crucially, is but one piece of an overall whole.
“I feel like HR is perhaps unfairly getting dumped on for needing to be able to fix a lot of internal morale and problems,” says Leslie Culver, identity and diversity expert and professor at California Western School of Law. “I don’t know that any particular office can take on the role of fixing human behavior, and it gets dumped into HR’s lap.”
Taylor says he sees a future in which HR can rebuild its reputation, even after a particular workplace suffers a scandal. But first, he says, HR professionals have to do the hard work of ensuring their credibility.
“From the day that one takes on the task or becomes the HR professional, it’s about building your own credibility,” he says. “That’s tough and it makes these jobs lonely. You can’t go to other people in the organization, because they might be subjects of these complaints.
HR can rebuild its credibility by first being transparent, Taylor says. That could mean something as small as following up with someone after they make a complaint, to giving an update as they decide whether or not to begin an investigation.
Even having lost faith in her HR department’s ability to follow through, the journalist said she continued urging her colleagues to make formal complaints.
“Other women had things they wanted to report to HR and they said ‘I don’t know if I should now,'” she says. “They’re here to protect the company, not to protect you. But I still encourage people to report things. Not to trust HR, but you still need to go through the process. It’s all you have.”