Why staff need to realise that HR is not your friend

In this photo illustration a woman appears to be stressed
Unfortunately, the role of HR is never to protect you and your colleagues. Their priority is to protect the business. Photo: Robin Utrecht/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Your boss has been making inappropriate comments and it’s making you really uncomfortable, especially when you have to have one-on-one meetings with them. And you’re not the only one who has experienced it either - the topic of your creepy manager has come up many times among colleagues in the pub.

Follow the advice of co-workers and friends, you document the things your boss had said before approaching your human resources department. They appear to be sympathetic and agree that the behaviour isn’t right, but despite this, nothing changes. If anything, your manager is even worse.

Unfortunately, the role of HR is never to protect you and your colleagues. Their priority is to protect the business. And although your boss might be a pig, he’s good for the company’s bottom line.

Most people are probably aware that HR professionals deal with issues such as recruitment, payroll, employment policies and benefits. They may also often act as a go-between for employees and managers, and can clarify basic company information such as maternity leave and sick pay. They may be involved in hiring and firing too.

And when workers experience problems such as harassment, unfair treatment or pay disputes, they’re often told to speak to HR staff. With HR working for employers rather than employees, though, the outcome may not be in their favour.

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“Put simply, the HR function exists to help a company deliver its corporate strategy and objectives,” says Matt Stephens, CEO and founder of employee engagement experts Inpulse. “It does this by effectively recruiting and developing people and managing their performance. In this sense its very existence is owed to the business.”

“In many ways HR has spent years trying to 'prove' its transformational worth to the employer, helping them grow the business through the performance of people. This is all true, but it's clearly focused on the employer achieving its goals and keep within workplace legislation. It's something employees do well to remember.”

Research has suggested the majority of employees don’t trust HR or their ability to resolve complex work problems. In 2018, a survey of the top US tech firms found that more than 70% of employees working at the four most valuable companies – Apple (AAPL), Amazon (AMZN), Google (GOOGL) and Microsoft (MSFT) – didn’t trust HR. A separate poll of 1,400 full-time employees in the UK found only 23% didn’t trust human resources, although the survey was carried out by the HR software provider CIPHR.

"The field of HR often attracts mission-oriented individuals who genuinely believe they can create positive and healthy work environments,” said Shainaz Firfiray, associate professor of human resource management at Warwick Business School.

"Nonetheless, recent surveys have found that a majority of employees do not trust HR’s ability to resolve complicated work situations. Most staff realise that HR professionals face several structural constraints in representing employees since they are first and foremost obliged to represent the interests of the organisation that employs them.”

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As a result, employees may suspect the motives of HR and worry about being penalised for reporting problems, particularly if they involve managers. This fear of retaliation and lack of confidence in HR’s impartiality may mean employees do not report issues when they should.

And if cases of bullying and harassment are rampant in the workplace and offenders are able to get away with such behaviour, victims are unlikely to believe their complaint will be taken seriously.

"Although it might be naïve to think of HR as an employee advocate, they do have an obligation to take employee complaints seriously,” she says. “For instance, if a manager is discriminating against an employee because of their gender, race or any other protected characteristic, the employer is required to act.

"However, even when complaints are investigated, attempts are made to shift the blame towards the victim by documenting an alternative version of events, appointing biased investigators, breaching investigation guidelines and bending their own HR policies.”

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Of course, not all HR departments are the same. According to Stephens, things are changing too. “Over the last few years many HR teams have changed the name of the function to the People Team,” he says. “Some People Teams realise that employee turnover is higher, aspirations and expectations are increasing, learning and development is a must have, purpose is more important than pay and wellbeing is far higher up the agenda.”

However, if this isn’t the case and your HR department is more interested in protecting the organisation rather than the victim, there’s not much employees can do.

“In such circumstances, it may be a good idea for employees to explore other job opportunities in case they need to make a quick exit,” Firfiray says. “Any organisation that ignores employee complaints and puts their well-being at risk is probably not an organisation worth working for.”