Is HR the ‘fun police?’
Compliance watchdog or corporate cheerleader?
Dec 9, 2014
By Brian Kreissl
I’m always a little surprised every year around this time when I see so many articles and blog posts about the potential liabilities surrounding company holiday parties.
While such articles are no doubt well-intentioned and the advice is generally pretty sound, one would think HR practitioners would know by now what not to do when hosting the staff holiday party. It still seems that these pieces are extremely popular even though one would think HR professionals had heard the message many times before.
I’m not saying such dangers aren’t very real or that the advice isn’t good, but if you don’t know by now to offer non-alcoholic drink options and taxi chits or to remind employees not to drink and drive and be on their best behaviour, there’s probably little hope for you as an HR professional. While I suppose relatively few HR practitioners actually plan holiday parties, there is generally a role for them in managing risk and ensuring everyone is well-behaved.
The problem is the perception is sometimes that HR is getting involved where they aren’t wanted. They also end up being the bearer of bad news and can come across as being somewhat “goody two shoes.”
This all feeds into the stereotype of HR as the “fun police.” Unfortunately, a lot of people think of HR as killjoys who try to stamp out any kind of fun in the workplace with our bureaucratic and inflexible policies and excessive political correctness.
Because of that, people will sometimes stop telling jokes when someone from HR walks into the room. They also frequently roll their eyes and blame HR for instituting policies that stop them from doing what they want to do.
Being in HR can also sometimes feel a little lonely because many people in the organization don’t completely trust you. This can be difficult for people who decided to go into HR because they like people.
An organization’s compliance watchdog
There is no question HR is frequently tasked with being an organization's compliance watchdog. Most of the time we’re up to that challenge, but sometimes, as I've mentioned before, HR can actually be a little overzealous in worrying about compliance risks precisely because they don’t know enough about the law.
I have encountered several situations in the past where HR practitioners fretted about legal risks that were actually extremely trivial. But, because their knowledge of employment law and legal compliance in general was lacking, they didn’t realize that they were worrying about a risk that was very unlikely to materialize.
Developments like the Human Resources Professional Association (HRPA) introducing jurisprudence exams to their new certification framework will certainly help in that regard. Up until now, many HR practitioners didn’t have to take an employment law course as part of their academic program or professional designation.
Fun police versus corporate cheerleaders
What I find interesting about the whole “fun police” stereotype is that paradoxically HR is also sometimes accused of being the complete polar opposite of that. Many people think of us as corporate cheerleader types who are always trying to introduce some “fun” way of trying to engage employees through cheesy games and activities that people find patronizing and annoying.
While most of us understand the importance of employee engagement and organizational commitment, sometimes that kind of thing can go a little too far. We all understand the importance of having fun at work, but the idea should never be to treat employees like children or force them into participating in activities that make them roll their eyes.
Trying to introduce such activities – particularly where they aren’t compatible with the organization’s culture – can just make HR look like amateurs and add to the stereotype that HR doesn’t understand the business. It can also be difficult to force very busy people to take time out of their day to spend time on activities they simply don’t have time for.
So, which stereotype is correct? Are we the organization's fun police or its cheerleaders?
I would argue we’re generally neither, although, depending on the situation and the individual in question, HR is certainly capable of conforming to both extreme stereotypes. We should be involved in compliance and be able to advise business leaders on genuine legal and financial risks. But we shouldn’t forget that employees who can have fun at work and have a good opinion of their employers are more likely to be motivated and engaged.
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Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.