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Who's your master?

As HR professionals, do we owe our allegiance primarily to employees or to the organization?

By Brian Kreissl

Earlier this year, my colleague Todd Humber touched on a theme in his blog that related to the mandate of the HR profession as a whole. His post summarized some interesting comments posted on the Toronto Star’s website in response to a story about a Canadian HR Reporter/Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) Pulse Survey on problem managers.

Many of the comments were pretty scathing in their contempt for the HR profession. One recurring theme was how people can’t trust HR in going to them with problems, and HR doesn’t keep what employees tell them in confidence.

I read the comments too, and commented as follows:

I read many of those comments myself, and I think there are at least three reasons for this:

1. Many people don't really understand what HR actually does. They're familiar with the hiring and firing part, but some of the more strategic aspects of the HR function are still unknown to many people.

2. A whole lot of people totally misunderstand the mandate of the HR department. They think of HR as being employee advocates and psychologists/social workers. People then get surprised when HR comes down on the side of management (or if the HR professional actually talks to the other party when there is a workplace dispute, rather than just listening to the employee vent). Many members of the general public (and even some HR professionals themselves) fail to realize that human resources is a management function. Sure, HR is there to counsel Neanderthal line managers when their conduct crosses the line, but ultimately the reason for that is to protect the organization from liability.

3. When people are unsuccessful in applying for a job or they're downsized, they often blame HR. A hiring manager can refuse to hire an excellent candidate for a ridiculous reason, but somehow it's HR who gets the blame. A CEO decides that headcount needs to be reduced by 5%, but again, HR gets the blame.

It really is down to education. As a profession, we need to do a better job of educating managers, employees and the general public about what we do and whom we are ultimately there to serve.

I’m interested in discussing my second point above. Who are we ultimately accountable to – managers or employees? Even among those within HR, I’ve heard different opinions. No doubt, we frequently need to balance the interests of the organization and its employees, but if we must choose, where are our loyalties?

I personally come down on the side of management. That’s not to say I think management is always right, or ordinary rank and file employees aren’t deserving of someone to advocate for them. Someone in the organization has to consider employees’ needs, but both sides should be satisfied in a way that’s mutually beneficial.

While HR’s role isn’t to exploit “loopholes” – or employees for that matter – we’re there to ensure organizations maximize efficiency of their human resources (or “human capital”). It sounds cold, but that’s our mandate.

We recognize tough decisions sometimes need to be made for the greater good. But we also recognize a productive, profitable organization won’t exist without a workforce that’s properly motivated, engaged and fairly compensated.

Many people still misunderstand what HR’s all about. They think of us as counselors or quasi-psychologists in many respects.

This might be because of the “human” part of human resources, or the stereotype of the “touchy-feely” HR professional. Also, traditionally, many HR practitioners had backgrounds in the social sciences – especially psychology. While a psychology background can be highly beneficial working in HR, some people – both inside and outside HR – take this to mean we’re there to provide counseling.

We’re seeing a shift away from this mindset, probably because practitioners are increasingly getting their HR education through business degrees with majors in human resources, as opposed to falling into a career in HR after completing a degree in the social sciences. The drive to be more strategic as a profession also results in more of a pro-management orientation.

Of course, pockets of HR are purely employee-driven: some organizations have an employee ombudsperson. An Employee Assistance Program (EAP), while normally outsourced, often falls under the HR umbrella. But usually, when HR comes down on the side of the employee, it’s because a manager or the organization is in the wrong and there’s potential liability.

What do you think? Is HR there primarily to act as an employee advocate? Should we come down on the side of management, or does it really depend on the situation?

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. For more information, visit

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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