Fixing HR's Image

Systemic changes need to take place in HR's function, job requirements and reporting structure if employees are to regain their confidence in human resource professionals as ethical, moral leaders.  

By Donald Wood

The spouse of a CEO berates an employee for failing to introduce the CEO to various individuals at a fund-raiser. When the employee lodges a complaint with the HR department, the head of HR tells her this type of behavior had happened before but that she should just let it be.

A large newspaper discovers that city employees are being given extra vacation days, costing the city thousands of dollars, and that the head of HR is a major abuser of the policy. When confronted, the individual states that "she deserves it because she works hard."

A senior vice president has an opening in one of her divisions and wants to bypass the company's job-posting policy in order to appoint her choice. HR informs her that she will not be allowed to bypass that policy but "we can write the posting so that this will be the only individual who qualifies for the position."

An employee has a "confidential" discussion with his HR representative and is shocked to have the topic of the discussion brought up in a meeting with his boss.

These are examples of "willing blindness" -- a knowledge that something wrong is happening but a failure to take action to correct the situation, and unwillingness on the part of HR to take a stand and do what should be done.

What do employees expect from their HR departments? Simply that they:

* Develop, implement and enforce policies that are fair to everyone. Fairness is crucial for developing an organization in which everyone is engaged. As a teacher in my early career years, the one compliment I still value the most from my students is "you were always fair."

* Maintain confidentiality of discussions, except when the actions are illegal, immoral and unethical, or place the company in a compromising position. Using HR as a sounding board for issues between manager and employee should remain a confidential exercise.

* Not tolerate abuse or bullying by anyone in the organization. A high-level employee had a reputation for foul language, yelling and making up false data to prove his points. This behavior lasted 10 years and was documented, but HR took no action. The bully was finally let go in a downsizing that served as the reason for HR to take action.

* Be the advocate for employees and their treatment. This does not mean ignoring the company's need to make tough decisions, demanding a high level of performance or ensuring that the company is doing what is right for the shareholders. It does mean that the company follows its established procedures, bullies are dealt with and HR is the keeper of "doing what is right."

Similar instances such as those noted above occur every day in companies all over the country. There must be a reason that these behaviors and the lack of a strong ethical stance on the part of HR professionals are so prevalent. Seldom are we placed in a position where we must make a choice between ethics and our future, but we have placed HR in that position -- and some HR leaders have decided to make the career choice rather than the policy/ethics choice. By having the head of the HR department report to the CEO, we force that individual to make career choices that the individual would not have made otherwise.

What changes can be made to better align the actions of HR personnel to the policies of the company and to reflect the expectations of employees? We can:

* Expect and demand that any conversation between any HR representative and an employee is confidential. As a senior manager, I often received requests from employees to talk about their boss. I always accepted that request with the caveat that: 1) I could not honor the confidentiality if the issue was illegal, immoral or unethical, and 2) maintaining confidentiality meant that, in most cases, I could not address the issue.

* Expect and demand that everyone in the company adhere to the established company policies. If the policy is to "post" all job openings, then all job openings must be posted and the descriptions should not be manipulated.

* Review policies to ensure they are fair to all employees. Research shows that employees who trust their management are more engaged, and companies with engaged employees are more profitable than those with unengaged employees.

* Expect the CEO to demand enforcement of these principles and to articulate to all employees that these principles are part of the written policy of the company, that they will be enforced across the company and that failure to abide by these policies is a serious offense.

* Change the HR reporting structure -- the chief human resource officer should report to the personnel committee of the board of directors, not the CEO. There are good reasons why internal auditing departments and risk-management divisions report to a board committee -- it provides certainty of independence. This logical thinking should also apply to the HR department, where following policy and doing what is right is sometimes in opposition with the wishes of senior management.

Human resource professionals are held to a different standard by employees. They are expected to maintain confidentiality, they are expected to be objective and not to make subjective evaluations based on discussions (sharing frustrations or asking for advice is not a weakness), they are expected to demand that everyone in the organization adhere to the policies of the company, and they are expected to have higher moral and corporate standards than anyone else in the organization.

Donald Wood is a former bank executive from Portland, Ore., with years of experience leading teams and coaching and motivating groups and individuals to reach corporate objectives. Send comments or questions about his Perspective to hreletters@lrp.com.

Jun 17, 2014
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