“HR was useless”

One of the most frequent things I hear from folks who believe they were treated unfairly or even abusively at work is that “HR was useless.”  In other words, they brought their concerns to the attention of the human resources office, and the response was less than helpful, and perhaps even made the situation worse.

Of course, not all HR offices operate in such a manner.  It’s easy to bash HR, but to put down HR in general is like saying all politicians are corrupt, all corporations are greedy, all liberals are this, and all lawyers are that — OK, you get the idea.

That said, there are certain rules of thumb to remember concerning the role of HR in today’s workplace:

1.  In good and bad workplaces alike, HR answers to top management, not to individual employees.  Too many well-meaning team players have learned that lesson painfully, thinking that a seemingly empathetic HR manager is a sort of confidante or counselor. There are plenty of good, supportive HR people out there, but ultimately their job is to support the employer’s hiring and personnel practices and interests.

2.  When HR says “bring your problems to us,” it does so in part to keep a lid on anything that might boil over into a big problem, especially a matter that could lead to a lawsuit or bad publicity.  (Important note: In fact, in-house company rules may require you to bring your concerns to HR first in order to preserve your legal rights.  That’s why getting legal advice early in a brewing employment dispute can be essential.)

3.  In workplaces where the leadership is fair-minded, inclusive, secure, and transparent, it is more likely that the HR office will work with employees in the same way.  After all, when good leaders hire the HR directors, their positive values can radiate through the organization.

4.  In workplaces where the leadership is insular, insecure, exclusionary, and secretive, it is more likely that the HR office is there to cover for and protect the top leaders from hassles, scrutiny, and accountability.

In other words, HR tends to be a reflection and extension of the management philosophy and practices of the top organizational leaders.  Depending on where you work, that can be a good or bad thing.

26 responses

  1. All right, the major roles of HR were originally recruiting, payroll, and benefits. For the most part, recruiting is either done by hiring managers or headhunters and along with that element of outsourcing, payroll and benefits are also administered by third parties. Likewise, not knowing the intricacies of the actual jobs, HR is also a poor *screener* for resumes also.

    This makes HR a redundant dept in the company. Next, if HR’s ‘real job’ is to cover up for poor morale and negligent behavior of executives then HR should be an extension of the general counsel office and be staffed with attorneys to document everything, in preparation for either individual or class action suits. For the most part, HR does none of the above and is one of those depts which exists for its own continuity with a facade of being a human services and resource management division.

    • Jamison, I’ll agree and disagree, perhaps in a way that echoes my original post. Good employers can use HR to carry out good employee relations policies, including training and education programs that are part of a socially intelligent “learning organization.” As for the bad employers, well, I’m pretty much in agreement with you! HR is just another layer of bad stuff that workers have to deal with in the midst of a dysfunctional organization. Thanks, David

  2. :Good employers can use HR to carry out good employee relations policies, including training and education programs that are part of a socially intelligent “learning organization.”

    David, in good companies and perhaps the best way to articulate that is companies, which really want to grow for the long term, typically have well establishment educational a/o training depts, with inputs from all other depts within the organization. Human resources may or may not play an active role besides making sure that employees get their allocated time off, for those activities, which are not strictly billable to either a client or an operating cost center. All and all, it once again splits HR, into a shell organization which outsources itself onto educational, recruiting, payroll, and health admin types of internal depts or external partners. I understand the tone of my response has been a bit cynical but after a decade and a half of dealing with HR reps and leads, both for myself and others, I see the entity/org as at best, a redundant dept, or at worst, an impasse to productivity and success. And this was for five companies, not just one.

    • Jamison, the types of activities you speak of that you claim can be outsourced, are actually operational level functions performed by personnel administrators. True Human Resources Managers create, implement, monitor, and align strategies that affect a company’s human resources in an effort to help the organization achieve a competitive advantage within its industry. For example, HRM is about designing an entire compensation and benefits system that works to motivate employees both intrinsically and extrinsically to work more effectively and efficiently; it is not about administering payroll or processing benefits claims. And yes, external consulting companies may be able to do that for an organization, but for larger companies and those who are progressive and forward thinking, it is often beneficial to have an HR Manager or an HR Department working to continually align the HR strategy with the overall strategy of the company.

  3. Jamison, you articulate precisely what my experiences have been with private sector, the third sector, and governmental organizations. HR should be re-named INhumane resources because it is anything but HUMAN in practice. The name human resources is totally deceptive. This is why I claim in my book, How Organizations Empower the bully boss: a criminal in the workplace, that employees MUST understand there is no one in the organization willing to assist in any fight or survival of a hostile workplace with a bully boss. Workers are like a commodity treated no better than cattle in some workplaces where there is a bully boss waiting to devour them. I have witnessed the beaten up demoralized workers who were once exceptional, reduced to a far less productive individual, thanks to bully bosses. Frankly, the only message I am sending to folks is protect yourself anyway you can because there is no one out there coming to rescue you from the bully boss or those who protect the bully. http://bit.ly/8RUTJ. @ http://bit.ly/C2kmX

    • I’m not as ready to engage in a wholesale condemnation of HR as Jamison and Dr. Vee. However, I certainly will chime in to say that of the hundreds of severe bullying situations I’ve become aware of over the past 10 years, I have never had a target tell me that “HR was there for me.” More often than not, HR was been complicit in some way, either covering up for the bullying, engaging in some of the bullying, or playing an “objective” role that had the effect of protecting the aggressors. At times, HR played the role of “willing executioner” on behalf of the bully.

      I have no idea what it does to the consciences of HR folks who join in or condone such abuse, or even if they have a conscience about their role in supporting it. Of course, they are not alone. Oftentimes the employer’s lawyers join in on the fun and defend the abuse.

  4. Your article is spot on. The bullied employee cannot afford to be naive. If HR comes through with help that’s wonderful, but in a toxic organization the HR branch and its officers, along with written policies, company statements about respect and safety in the workplace, and other feelgood measures are deceptive.

    The bullied employee must record EVERYTHING, complete with dates and witnesses, supporting docments, and any other pieces of evidence that examples of documents, etc. Be willing to jump through all the hoops (and document that too) to demonstrate you’ve exhausted the so-called options your employer advertises as available to you, but ultimately you have to be prepared to use the courts to obtain redress. So save some of your energy and resilience for that process.

    I’m going through this hell now… have nightmares about facing firing squads, many other medical problems, depression and PTSD.

    I wish all those who have suffered the abuse of a bully boss both good health and strength. We stand together in spirit.

    • Thank you Sue. I suffered from workplace bullying that I believe was initiated by my being bullied by a Vice President of Student Services. The whole experience was a nightmare. To make a very long, horrific story short, when the recession hit and budget cuts were executed, my contract was not renewed. I met with our HR people throughout the whole experience and found that they either used me or treated me like they thought I was making the whole think up.
      I documented but probably not to the extent you mention. Documentation is so important. The president of the college was eventually let go and a new interim HR person was brought in to the organization to handle complaints. This new HR person was horrific. I was shocked and offended by the way he treated me.
      The problem with my situation is that I live in a right-to-work state and when I contacted a labor attorney, he told me that I did not have any rights.
      My viewpoint is that we need laws to protect workers from these extremely destructive, sick, workplace bullying behaviors. I am also suffering from PTSD. I have completed a master’s degree since I was “laid off” but have had a difficult time finding work. T

  5. Sue, I’m sorry that you’re enduring this (sadly not untypical) nightmare. Good luck with your situation, and take good care. David

  6. Sue, one of the most important points I stress in “How Organizations Empower the Bully Boss”, is telling everyone about the abuse by the bully. The purpose in doing this is to constantly remind yourself and others that YOU are NOT the problem; the BULLY IS the problem. Sometimes when we are constantly and persistently being harassed by the bully we tend to start doubting ourselves and that is exactly what HR and the bully want to happen. If someone is being targeted by a bully boss and starts to feel their health is negatively impacted due to the harassment, you should see your primary care doctor and also report it if you feel it is due to your job. So many targets who have been injured by the bully boss at work, fail to file worker’s compensation claims which the worker has every legal right to do. At the point where you feel your health is being impacted one should seek legal consultation with an appropriate attorney. It really is a “cold war” of sorts and no one in the organization is going to be honest for fear of stomping their own toe legally in case of a lawsuit. Employees need to understand learning your rights in the workplace is no longer an option, it is now an imperative for surviving the bully boss.

    I encourage you, Sue,and other injured workers to continue to speak up and out about abusive bully bosses and the leadership which empowers their criminal behavior. Leadership has the power to control or turn their head on the management style and culture in their organization; failure to do so makes them complicit in the bully’s criminal activities.

    • Thank you so much for all of this valuable information. However, I sought legal consultation about bullying behavior and a horrific experience I had in the workplace and was told that due to the fact that I worked in a right-to-work state and was employed with a year-to-year contract that I had no rights.
      I would appreciate your input on this issue, if possible.

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  8. I currently work as a HR Advisor after stumbling into the role from Training and Development. I was as cynical of HR as the average Joe until I actually joined the club. I try to approach all situations objectively as we are constantly faced with “your word against mine” scenarios. I tend to support the notion that communication is the key and often HR becomes the scapegoat for Managements lack of communication deliberatly or not (this includes the supervisor/employee relationship). Why oh why do so man supervisors find a one on one catch up with their staff so hard to fathom???
    Many also fail to understand that although HR aims to be a part of the ‘strategic’ team, HR is rarely involved in the decisions that impact employees, and even when HR is advocating (unbeknown to staff) for employee’s, Management will always do what they want to do. HR is a thankless job where people feel entitled to treat you with as little respect as possible, until they actually need you – thats when the sickly sweet attitude comes in.

    Currently my organization is faced with a situation where a Manager is a typical workplace bully, HR would like nothing more than to make this person accountable yet the employees come to HR stating that information they provide is confidential and they do not want it revealed – yet, they want us to do something with nothing to go on? We have asked them as a group to come forward, document everything, state it on their supervisors performance appraisal yet nobody stated anything negative. HR can not seriously be expected to do anything when the employees have effectively tied our hands. All staff need to realize that they are accountable to themselves and their standards first and foremost. If you want to change your workplace then make a stand and respectfully support your arguments. A good organization will be willing to receive feedback and open to change. If your organization is not like this then I would suggest reassessing your standards and whether this is the type of organization you would like to work for.

    • An article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, 23 may 2011 exposed William Tarnow Mordi, a neonatologist and director in the neonatal intensive care unit. Even obstetricians rescheduled their deliveries if he was on service to avoid him taking care of the babies. After 8 years, in 2008, an external investigation finally found that he should not be allowed to work in the neonatal unit.

      According to the same report Dr Michael Cole, another neonatologist in the unit, had repeatedly claimed to have been bullied for alerting management to the dangers faced by babies in the unit due to this lack of competence. These reprisals came from all levels of management including HR.

      A year earlier, in 2007, HR interviewed 43 staff members from the unit because of complaints of reprisals and bullying. Apparently every staff member decided not to say anything. They felt afraid to speak out because they had mortgages, family and careers to consider and they did not trust HR. They knew that HR cannot keep what is told to HR confidential. HR must release any complaint to the alleged bullies before any action can be taken. That would be normal due process and natural justice. Apparently no one disclosed any reprisals or bullying at all. Predictably HR found no evidence of bullying.

      Staff obviously felt more confident about discussing their concerns about William Tarnow Mordi’s lack of competence. This led to the external investigation in 2008.

      It appears that the staff involved in 2007did not trust HR and doubted HR’s promise of confidentiality. Proving allegations of bullying or reprisals would be difficult, especially in an organisation where the culture of bullying was endemic but denied (as found by the external investigation) and HR was part of that culture. Perhaps the staff felt on safer ground discussing their concerns about competence which is something better recognised and dealt with.

      All the staff involved, especially Dr Michael Cole, appeared to act as though they knew that HR is not the employee’s friend. HR works for and is paid by the organisation and is expected to work for the organisations benefit.

      Workplaces react to threats by eliminating the threat. It is often called ‘workplace bullying’ but is more correctly called ‘Mobbing’. HR is part of this mobbing unit. The process for removing staff, usually whistleblowing staff, is run by HR who could not accomplish the task without at least passive support by the administration.

      HR is not the employee’s friend.

    • You make some very good points. Thank you for your attempt at objectivity. The HR people I have dealt with have been awful. But as you state, I think the problems are complicated.
      I believe that if a manager of supervisor is a known bully that it takes more than one person coming forward. As you have stated, it takes a group of people. This comes from a person who came forward alone and suffered the consequences.

  9. Pingback: SHRM opposes workplace bullying legislation « Minding the Workplace

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  12. HR really IS useless. Employees and job applicants certainly are not usually fans. HR is trying to eliminate you from employment consideration, and once employed, is the guy/girl telling you that you haven’t signed that non-compete, or where is your annual independence oath, etc. etc. etc.

    And it’s not exactly at the top of management’s list of “must haves”.

    I’m no fan (in case you didn’t know). I’d love to see HR departments outsourced en masse! Just like they’ve overseen for the rest of us.

  13. I worked for HR. Both supervisor and director were the henchmen. I was threatened with loss of my job when I applied for ‘Workman’s Compensation’. Both supervisor and director would surprise me with closed door meetings and accuse me of poor work performance and security breaches.
    My supervisor exercised passive aggression. More surprise closed door meetings that now included HR Manager. The more i documented my daily activities and correspondence from appreciative internal clients, the more the harassment I received and the less work I would receive. My psychologist also deemed their actions unreasonable and they were the cause of my behavior disorder.
    Rather than my customary promotion I would receive from prior employees, I was now given a mental disorder. The last closed door bantering from management ended with my standing up and saying that my doctor had told me that when I feel detached from myself that I should leave immediately. They had broken me. Now I felt anger and the want to retaliate against those people who ravaged my integrity . I packed up my personal items. The HR Manager appears at my cubicle from know where and suggests I take the rest of the week off. More sick leave, bring back a doctor’s excuse.
    I was officially diagnosed with PTSD, severe depression and anxiety disorder. I now live on SSD and early retirement. At the age of 63, and during these economic times, a job is a fantasy. Besides I just don’t trust anyone anymore. When I asked my previous employer if they would take me back with a Disability with accommodation, they answered no, ‘your job has been eliminated’.
    Yes indeed people, I’ve worked for corporate HR.

  14. “to put down HR in general is like saying all politicians are corrupt, all corporations are greedy, all liberals are this, and all lawyers are that — OK, you get the idea.”

    You’d need to be more specific about the lawyers and liberals, but as for politicians and corporations you’re right on the money. HR is by definitiion a complete waste of time. Of all the companies I’ve consulted in, the most reliable indicator I’ve found as to whether they’ll be successful or not is whether or not they have an HR department. I’ve seen companies with less than ten employees that have one, and companies with over 100 employees that don’t. It’s always the ones that don’t that get along and get the job done.

  15. Pingback: “HR was useless” | Resistance

  16. In my experience HR people are the most useless people in every building. They the sit there and try to justify their existence by making rules that only benefit the company and the boss. They change benefits when it suits the company, I worked at a place where a 20 year kid found out he had cancer and all our benefits went up while having worse coverage mostly and HR just tried to candy coat it. Another time a place I worked at sent an HR to do inventory on absolutely everything in the place telling us that it was a way to run leaner and get rid of excess, 3 months later they shut that division down just like one of my co-workers said he would. Getting a job now you have to go through an HR department that has no common sense and asks stupid loaded questions such as “In the past I have been late for work, but I am not anymore, Strongly agree……..Strongly Disagree. Strongly disagree, well is that because you are late for work all the time no it’s because I have never been late for work. Strongly agree, oh so you used to be late for work, no I am never late for work” Those same HR people that hire people 99% of the time have NEVER done the job that they are hiring for which is absolutely pathetic. They are looking for complacent robots that sit and keep their heads down, don’t work to hard and don’t look to improve (ie:shake things up). Instead of meeting people they look at a book or a program that interprets those stupid tests. Valvoline Instant Oil change has a 100 question test just to change oil and a 150 question test to be a assistant manager. The worst part is these people generally make excellent money while being so useless that you could hire a kid going to school for accounting to take the payroll and managers/supervisors could do their job in their spare time.

  17. I worked at a company of less than 30 employees. There were no adequately trained Human Resource person to go to – the general manager was the “HR person”. There was a company personnel handbook, however no employee training or review of policies. The company was plagued with nepotism (fathers and daughters, sisters, and adult children) working there. There was the office bully who constantly criticized my work (although I did not report to her). Although it violated the personnel policy handbook with termination upon the 1st offense, she consumed alcohol (wine) in her office. I complained in writing to the general manager about this, however, he did not have an issue with it. This only created more of a toxic work environment, as then she began to compromise my work by avoiding deadlines and even fabricating lies to try to get me fired. She even called me into a meeting with the general manager and was upset because I didn’t wish her a happy birthday. When I discovered that she was changing my work to reflect errors, I knew I was dealing with someone who was desperate, diabolical and unpredictable. I even brought a formal complaint to an oversight committee, however, “No action was taken”. They did not uphold the company’s personnel policy manual when it came to all of the complaints and issues that I addressed, including excessive offensive profanity used by a coworker, pornography downloaded on my work computer by an unknown person, constant work interference and hostile behaviors, and frequent alcohol consumption on the job. I eventually resigned but wanted to share my experience as it seems to be a very common practice that bullying and mismanagement is very alive and well in the workplace. Nepotism, cronyism, favoritism, bad and irresponsible management breed and foster hostile and toxic work environments.

  18. I also saw the comment that, “Workplaces react to threats by eliminating the threat. It is often called ‘workplace bullying’ but is more correctly called ‘Mobbing’. HR is part of this mobbing unit. The process for removing staff, usually whistle-blowing staff, is run by HR who could not accomplish the task without at least passive support by the administration”. This is absolutely true.

    One I started filing complaints, the bully in the office and the manager recruited others to compromise my work and made the environment extremely stressful. The bully even called me into a meeting with the manager and said, “I always feel as if you are going to daddy and telling on me”. She also had an assistant who she was training who also started exhibiting hostile behaviors towards me. The bully could never say, “Please or thank you” to me and when I asked her why in front of the manager, she replied, “It is not her style”. When I asked the manager what he thought of her comment, he replied, “She is entitled to her opinion”. Abuse, disrespect, hostile attitudes – all reported and nothing done. I could and may write a book about this horrible experience. Bullies should be held accountable for their behaviors – they are a real danger to the workplace, forcing qualified and good employees to leave because true professionals will not tolerate working in an unprofessional environment.

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