How to Make Sure Your HR Department Doesn’t Fail Your Employees

Uber isn’t the only company with weak HR. Here’s how to avoid letting ride-sharing giant’s fate.

One of the common misperceptions of Human Resources Departments is that they are there to protect and advocate for the employees. They should be there to protect and advocate for the employees because happy employees are necessary for a business to succeed. That doesn’t mean that HR should always take the employee’s side. They should take the overall picture of employee happiness into consideration. If you’re a slacker or a jerk, HR should be the department advocating for you to be “transitioned out” of the organization.

But, in many companies, HR is spineless. I received the following email from a reader. His company had changed the schedules without consulting employees. The employees complained and this followed:

Many employees complained to HR and HR said, “If you feel that the new work schedule will not work for some of you and you don’t agree and don’t sign the paper consider yourself no longer an employee of the company. We are not here to accommodate to you but to what’s best for the company.” Most of the employees took this as they were being threatened with their job if they did not agree and didn’t sign the paper. Why didn’t HR protect us?

Why indeed? Now, not knowing the details behind the working hours change, I have no idea whether the request was reasonable or unreasonable, but the employees obviously didn’t feel like it was reasonable. Why didn’t HR stand up and say “Hey, you can’t do this to the employees?”

Well, maybe they did. HR is never the boss. There could have been many heated meetings where the head of HR went to battle with the CEO. Maybe she presented numbers and graphs and gobs of evidence that this would be a bad move, but in the end, the CEO said, “This is how we are going to do this.”

At this point, HR’s job is to back up the CEO. Presuming what the company is asking is neither illegal nor immoral, HR needs to get in line. And sometimes when it is illegal or immoral, the HR person needs to consider her own job.

After I wrote an article about an incompetent, law breaking company who fired someone after denying her legally required ADA accommodations, (I’m Gay, Disabled, Litigious, and Recently Fired. Wanna Hire Me?) I received an email from an HR manager. She said:

I do consider myself a competent HR person and had my supervisor come to me to fire this individual, especially after having accommodations through the ADA, etc., I would definitely recommended against a termination. However, what it seems by the above paragraph that you……… and I know that many, many, many people DO NOT understand is that HR does not always MAKE THE DECISION to terminate. That decision, at least in my company, comes from ownership or a level much higher than my position. If I am told that someone is being fired, or as in most of the cases, I find out the next day that someone was fired, I can make all the recommendations in the world. It is not going to change the decision of someone in power who has decided to fire someone for whatever reason they want.

HR people get a bum rap by being blamed for people being terminated when often it is out of the control of the HR office. Situations like the above may not accurately reflect the competence of the HR department involved in this matter.

Please keep this in mind when you refer to the competence of a department when a poor decision is carried out. I can speak from experience that I have been the victim of blame of poor decisions in which I was not even consulted when they were made. Some of us do the best we can to try to keep the company in compliance with all of the rules and regulations despite the efforts of many of those around us who don’t want to or refuse to comply.

She’s absolutely correct. Many times management makes decisions without consulting HR, or ignores HR when they do consult. I had one spectacular case where I advised the company to offer raises to a certain group of employees. The business said absolutely not. What happened? A lot of shrieking from the employees and a special budget put together to give them retroactive raises. It could have been avoided by listening to HR.

If Susan J. Fowler’s account of her nightmare year at Uber is true, it seems that HR acted illegally, stupidly, and without regard to the long-term health of the company. While the CEO said he knew nothing, that doesn’t mean that years ago they established a policy of ignoring the bad behavior of high performers. This could have been implicit or explicit. While the HR department could have just been dumb as rocks, it’s also possible that they knew the answer would be “move the new lady,” so why ask?

A good HR manager needs to go toe to toe with the CEO (and for the love of Pete, please stop having HR report into anyone below the CEO). A good HR manager says, “If you fire this person, it is a blatant ADA violation and I will testify to that should we be sued.” Yes, that might get the HR manager fired as well, but that’s how it should be.

Reality though, is far messier than the ideal. Did I threaten to resign after my suggestion was ignored? No. If I had, would they have changed their mind? No. Is every decision black and white? No. There’s often a fine line between say, an ADA violation and a malingering employee who is taking advantage of the company. The reason employment related cases cost so much money to litigate is that many things are not obvious. Good, hard working HR people can come to different conclusions about what the right thing is. Then add in a layer of management that has a different opinion, and things are not straight forward.

So, if you’re wondering why HR didn’t stand up for you, this is why.

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