How risk and harm are part of HR’s evolution

There is a risk of harm to employers from poor practices by unqualified, unprofessional HR practitioners

How risk and harm are part of HR’s evolution

Over a short span of time, the HR profession has evolved at rapid speeds. It started way back with the British Industrial Revolution, when factory workers and child labourers were suffering an unenviable plight in unsafe conditions with six-day, 60-hour workweeks, leading to the creation of industrial welfare inspectors. Evolving workplace standards led to the organization of workers who demanded that their rights and safety not be compromised by employers, which then led to trade unions and employment legislation, followed later by globalization and technological change.

This history matters because there is an assumption built deep into our contemporary and westernized DNA that suggests the ills of our working past are in the past. It assumes workers’ rights are protected by law and that worker performance and overall productivity increase when they are treated well.

Make no mistake ― we have advanced and evolved by leaps and bounds. Together, employers, employees and HR teams have made incredible strides to protect workers and improve working conditions. But we need to acknowledge the great pockets of vulnerable populations and workers that continue to face hardship.

Most importantly, I want to ensure that the HR profession helps workers and mitigates the harm or risk they endure. When practised at its highest levels of professionalism, HR is an essential tool to help business leaders and workers come together and enhance overall corporate performance.

Risk and potential harm at work

The notion of a thriving and highly profitable business is not at odds with maintaining worker rights. In fact, profit and freedom from harm can coexist and often have a positive influence on each other.

I’ve had the privilege of working at and bearing witness to highly progressive organizations that believe a talent-first agenda will create competitive advantage. I’ve also seen the opposite ― where workers are still viewed as commodities and treated as such.

Today, many workers’ rights are not being upheld. Regrettably, the drive to achieve bottom-line results persists. The examples are many: workers in staffing companies forced to accept cash payment with no health and safety protection; unsafe conditions where minimum health and safety laws are ignored; and workers facing bullying, intimidation or harassment.

These risks impact business overall. Precarious work or high-risk environments can easily derail a company’s strategy, CEO’s reputation and customer confidence.

The role of HR must be to help drive shareholder and stakeholder value for the organization, while actively seeking to remove risk and harm faced by employees.

Researching professional risk

Recently, the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) has focused on the area of professional risk. This is about the risks faced by a company, workers and leaders if human resources professionals don’t perform well. We call this “risk of harm” arising from the malpractice of HR. It is a business reality that is largely misunderstood, under-represented and not adequately measured.

In partnership with research firm Environics, HRPA used evidence-informed approaches to understand the risks of harm that stem from the practice of HR. The research suggests the following:

  • Many employees still see HR as a fairly transactional business service focused on paperwork, hiring, discipline and onboarding.
  • Employers tend to see HR as an important resource to protect them, to avoid risks involved with safety, employment and human rights laws.
  • Lawyers generally see HR as credible and able to navigate workplace matters effectively but warn that context counts and oftentimes HR professionals are asked to practise outside their scope. 
  • HR professionals are spread thin and often not consulted in advance of key business decisions where their expertise and insights may have resulted in different decisions.
  • HR is playing an active role in protecting their organization from harm by avoiding and managing human capital risk that enhances the reputation of and confidence in the employer.

Well-run businesses are essential to a thriving society. If organizations want to stand apart from their peers or competitors, that starts with their people. The practice of HR should drive performance and raise standards. Simply put, better HR makes business better.

There is unquestionably a risk of harm to businesses, workers, teams and leaders from poor practices by unqualified and unprofessional HR practitioners. But, of equal importance, businesses and business leaders derive direct benefit ― both tangible and intangible ― from strong HR contributions.

HR professionals have advanced skills to help a company optimize their use of human talent and to create positive change that unlocks organizational potential. If a business wants better results, it should adopt a firm commitment to the best and highest use of HR professionals.   

Louise Taylor Green is a member of Canadian HR Reporter’s advisory board and CEO of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) in Toronto.

Latest stories