Human resources in the middle

Does HR take a stand or play it safe when employees raise concerns?
By Kunle Akingbola
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/05/2002

I recently read an article by Alan Weiss titled, “The Only Thing in the Middle Is Pressure.” Written about the bust in the dotcom sector, Weiss argues HR should take a stand on issues in the workplace. With the dotcom meltdown, many HR departments found themselves reduced to pink slip distributors with little input on human capital management. Once again HR found itself stuck in the middle — the bridge between employees and management.

No one will deny that HR has grown in professional stature over the past two decades. The recovery from the recession of the 1980s, the introduction and ascendancy of lean management and information technology have aided the professional profile of HR.

As HR professionals, we talk constantly about the importance of strategic recruitment, performance enhancing training, cost-effective compensation systems, stable labour-management relations and aligning HR strategies with corporate strategies. I don’t know any HR professional who is happy with just processing documents, without contributing to the decision-making process.

HR’s push for a permanent seat at the highest organizational level continues, but there are some positive signs that we are succeeding in capturing the attention of top management. Executives have started to acknowledge the strategic importance of HR in the overall productivity and effectiveness of the organization. Line managers have to see HR as a contributory partner to the outcome of their units. Progressive line managers often invite HR perspectives when making decisions about operational strategies.

One group that remains largely unconvinced about the benefits of HR is employees. While HR is achieving success in highlighting its strategic importance to management and line management, the same cannot be said about how employees perceive HR. Employees are certainly aware of the importance of HR’s administrative role. But in terms of a big-picture strategic role, they tend to see HR as playing the role of “enforcer” of management wishes.

Employees complain that HR does not intervene or protect them. They question how HR responds to layoffs (and who is laid off), harassment, questionable dismissal, discrimination and racism. They wonder why HR often sides with the supervisor when there is conflict or when staff think their boss is not supervising effectively. Employees complain that HR does not promote equitable compensation and reward systems, that HR does not stand up for them when an underperforming colleague is promoted. They complain HR never even blinks when management ignores policies and procedures.

As an HR practitioner, the questions they are raising are worth reflecting on. Whenever employees ask about inconsistency in the application of policy, HR professionals need to take notice. We need to ask if we are taking a stand or playing it safe? Do we apply the rule of objectivity or just let it go?

The reality for human resources practitioners is that we have to perform roles and responsibilities that place us right in the middle. Issues like layoffs, racism, sexual harassment and terminations in questionable circumstances are examples of challenging issues that we have to deal with at one time or the other. In addition to the legal aspects of any issue, employees will judge HR on whether or not it intervenes to ensure the issue is addressed in the most objective, equitable and respectful manner possible.

For example, when companies have to layoff employees, does HR suggest what criteria should be used or does it simply co-ordinate the process for management? Do we do as we are told or ensure that the perspective of HR in the layoff process is thoroughly considered before any final decision is taken?

Does HR intervene in employee-supervisor conflict from the standpoint that the supervisor must always be right? When there is concern about racism or discrimination, do we play neutral or tell management what we think? These situations may be difficult, but HR professionals must ensure that the process is undertaken in a careful, legal, objective and respectful manner.

These are “pressure situations” that place HR in the middle of the workplace storm. I’m certainly not about to pass judgment on HR, but I think it is important to start generating discussion about these questions. One way of gauging how we respond to these issues is to listen to formal and informal discussions among employees in our organizations.

Kunle Akingbola is the manager, employee and volunteer resources at the Canadian Red Cross, Toronto Region, and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.

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