A few years ago while waiting to play a tennis match I got into a discussion with a member at my club. At the time I was working in Human Resources for a major Canadian bank.  During the course of our discussion the woman asked me what I did for a living.  When I told her she launched into a blistering tirade about people in Human Resources and what a terrible experience she had with the HR Manager at her former place of employment.  The essence of her argument was that this HR Manager lacked conflict resolution skills, was inept at dealing with employee complaints, and that she invariably sided with management over workers regardless of the issue.

Sadly, this isn’t an isolated experience.  I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed many times before.  The message from many of them is clear:  if you have a conflict or issue don’t go to Human Resources.

What is Wrong with Human Resources?

What is it about Human Resources, and in particular, the people who work in the field, that often inflames people’s emotions?  Are HR people inherently bad? Are they all inept and incompetent?  Is the field rife with people who are unethical and dishonest?

As one who has worked in the field for over 40 years, and who now teaches the subject at the post-secondary level, let me start by saying that the simple answers to these questions is “no”. Human Resources as a profession is not populated with incompetents.  The people who work in the field, as in any other discipline, are no more or less ethical, moral or righteous than anyone else. However, the profession in the past twenty-five years has changed, and this has precipitated a number of developments, some of which have been beneficial, and a couple that aren’t.

Human Resources people aren't often good in dealing with organizational conflict

Human Resources people aren’t always good at dealing with organizational conflict, and there may be some good reasons for it.
(Photo coutesy of mentatdgt from Pexels)


It’s All About Being “Strategic”

Go back fifty years and Human Resources as a discipline was called “Personnel”.  The training to get into the field was minimal.  More often than not employees who were promoted, transferred or dumped into the Personnel Department landed there because they “liked people”.  Liking people meant organizing events such as Christmas parties, golf tournaments and the like.  The work involved a heavy emphasis upon processing activities focused around benefits administration and payroll.

Fastforward twenty-five years.  Businesses changed.  Many organizations realized their most important asset was people.  CEO’s recognized the need for greater strategic alignment between people and the operations of their organization.  Suddenly, the skills and characteristics that previously landed people in personnel were no longer relevant in an evolving profession called “Human Resources”.  The field required new and different skills, notably strategic planning, analytics and project management.  Enter a new breed of Human Resources professionals who were much better trained and more knowledgeable in modern management techniques.

Something Gained, Something Sadly Missing

Today, Human Resources takes a place at the directors’ boardroom alongside many other departments such as Finance, Accounting, Marketing, etc.  Modern companies recognize and understand the impact that progressive Human Resources practices play in a modern organization.  However, while HR can take pride in having found a place at the executive boardroom one critical element is still missing.  Simply put, lack of employee trust in HR is widespread.

The experience of one of my clients is illustrative.  She works for a major corporation that she joined about two years ago.  The executive who hired her is in the process of transitioning out of the organization.  My client has been transferred and is now reporting to a new Vice President.  This new VP lacks my client’s experience and technical knowledge.  The new VP is uncertain, demanding, controlling, and has made the lives of both my client and her colleagues hell.  Clearly, the situation has been very frustrating.  When I asked my client if she had spoken to the Vice President of Human Resources about her concerns her response was “Our Vice President of HR always sides with senior management, regardless of the issue.  She doesn’t have employees’ backs”.

Sadly, Human Resources employees are now seen as too closely identified with senior management’s interests.  Simply stated, many HR professionals can’t, don’t or won’t investigate allegations or challenge actions, behaviours or activities that are suspicious, contentious, irresponsible or blatantly unjust.

Why?  From my experience I would submit there are three compelling reasons:

  1. The negative optics associated with taking a stand can be careerlimiting.   It takes personal courage to speak truth to power.  Standing up to an abusive Director or Vice President who is a peer, and may be connected to the President or CEO, can serve to undermine the position and credibility of those voicing the complaint.
  2. HR people are vulnerable to recriminations too. Often, it is easier to go along and get along rather than running the risk of becoming a sacrificial lamb.  Those recriminations may take the formal of isolation, ridicule or persecution.  One technique I’ve seen is for HR senior directors and vice presidents to receive poor performance reviews and reduced bonuses as a means of instilling organizational loyalty.
  3. No news is good news.  The final arbiter on issues such as harassment, discrimination or malfeasance is sometimes the President and CEO.  In the interests of securing organizational harmony problems, conflicts and disagreements get subsumed.

Righting the Ship

This raises the inevitable question:  if HR is supposedly the in house authority or neutral third party of workplace disputes, but for various reasons they won’t get involved, then what recourse do ordinary employees have who are enduring harassment, ill treatment, discrimination or unfairness?  Is it a case where their options come down to: 1) leaving; 2) transferring to another department; 3) unionization.  I would submit there is an alternative worth considering.

If I were the Chair of the Board of Directors of a public company, or even the head of a private sector organization, one thing I would mandate is the creation of a third party ombuds person.  This would be an experienced individual trained inconflict resolution techniques, not employed by the company, and a third party contractor on retainer.  He/she would be accessible to employees by e-mail or phone.  Aside from investigating and mediating workplace disputes this person would report directly to the Chair.  They would have the unrestricted power and authority to recommend disciplinary action, sanctions and termination involving anyone in the organization, including executives.  They would track disputes and problems, audit adherence to harassment and discrimination policies, and even provide recommendations into senior management’s year-end bonuses.

A Final Thought…

The notion of an ombuds person is not as radical as one may surmise.  The concept has been around for years.  Many large financial organizations have ombuds offices for both employees and customers.  Sadly, the error that these organizations make is in populating these roles with existing employees; in other words, individuals who bring to these roles their own pre-existing biases, impressions, opinions and perspectives.  If you really want real objectivity, openness and honesty the persons performing the function have to be neutral with no prevailing ties to the employer.

Time will tell on whether this idea catches on.  In the meantime, employees with issues who lack HR practitioners with a backbone will continue to face a difficult dilemma.