I’ve been working in Human Resources for fifteen years now. When I first started, I didn’t know what HR did beyond being the folks that got you in trouble if you did something wrong. I’ve been around long enough to remember when we started to talk about how the profession needed to evolve in order to survive. I have been among the voices calling for the proverbial ‘seat at the table.’ I’ve noticed that there are lots of companies out there arguing that they don’t really need HR. Even worse, there are plenty of employees who are happy to say that we don’t know what we’re doing, can’t trust us and that we’re only out to protect our bosses. If that’s the reputation we’ve earned in our time since sending up the red flag, we deserve the slow death we’re suffering.
This was the conclusion I came to when, last week, I listened to the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC. During a call-in segment on the Uber sexual harassment scandal, I heard a number of calls from women in tech, recounting terrible stories of harassment. They reported that they couldn’t go to HR because they couldn’t trust that team to represent them fairly. The department worked for the company, not for the employees – after all, who was signing their paychecks? For those that weren’t sure, even in 2017, women are lagging behind men in wages and achievement due to problems exactly like these (I elaborate much further on this here).
This goes to HR’s central problem: the callers were not wrong. We are indeed paid for by the heads of the companies they are interested in complaining about. Those leaders expect us to protect the company. They often expect us to help them bend the rules to let them do things our ethical standards wouldn’t prefer. Those of us who carry SHRM certifications or memberships sign ethics pledges, but what do we do when our livelihoods depend on turning a blind eye?
Another complicating factor in this matter is that HR is primarily a female-dominated profession. There would be an implicit hope that the proverbial HR Lady would be understanding. Maybe she herself has experienced harassment and knows how humiliating and painful it is. Maybe she’ll help you stand up for yourself. How do you deal with the second disappointment that comes from her failure to simply do her job?
Here is my thesis: HR, you need to be better. If you haven’t recognized yourself as a bridge between the employee and the company, and proved that every day with your actions, you’ve failed your profession. If you haven’t been willing to say no to an unscrupulous boss who wanted you to mortgage your ethics to pay your mortgage, you’ve made it harder for all of us, including yourself, to make things right. If you’ve meekly stood in the corner, nodding and taking direction, rather than advocating for what is good for employees and business (because they are mutually beneficial), then you’ve missed the entire point.
I’m happy to say that I know plenty of dedicated HR professionals who would have handled the Uber scandal much better (Travis, let me know if you’re looking to replace some people, I have some great referrals). However, we have to admit that the national conversation is not in our favor. We must next decide to turn the tide, and the best way to make a change is starting with the man or woman in the mirror.
Lastly, to business leaders: STAHP. You need HR. But you need good HR. You don't need to put a body in a seat to push papers, post job openings and process leaves of absence. You need a strategic, market-oriented, competitive individual who wants to supercharge your business in all the best possible ways with your primary profit-driver: your employees. When you're ready to have that conversation, let us know.