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.