Sometimes HR just can’t win

Being attacked from both sides on social issues

Sometimes HR just can’t win
Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

I read an interesting but somewhat depressing post on LinkedIn today by author and consultant Jillian Medoff that was critical of the HR profession. The post and the comments that followed made me realize HR is in an unenviable position where we just can’t seem to win as a profession and are being criticized unfairly from all sides.

While we’ve come a long way as a profession, many people still don’t understand the nature and purposes of the HR function or who we’re ultimately there to serve. It feels like we’re being criticized from the right and the left and by senior management and rank-and-file employees at the same time — often for polar opposite reasons.

To some, we’re corporate henchmen, sellouts and defenders of privilege, power and the status quo, while others argue HR is too politically correct, inherently “liberal” in its biases and stifles free speech and “conservative” viewpoints. One group argues we’re not strategic enough and can’t seem to understand the needs of the business, while the other believes we always take the side of the employer and senior management no matter what, and will even defend or cover up unethical or illegal behaviour while forcing whistleblowers out the door.

Bigoted and outdated views

The post began by discussing a situation where Medoff was in a seminar relating to diversity and another participant (an HR practitioner actually) made some negative comments about transgender individuals that called their legitimacy into question. Medoff was disappointed no one intervened, although the facilitator did essentially say to the participant that it didn’t matter what she thought as gender identity and expression are protected by law in many jurisdictions.

While she stopped short of saying all HR practitioners are guilty of this type of bigotry, Medoff did suggest more than a few have such beliefs. She argued HR is the public face of an organization and should be held to higher standards relating to issues surrounding diversity and inclusion. As such, HR professionals shouldn’t be publicly stating such beliefs.

Investigating sexual harassment

Medoff then went on to discuss issues and challenges relating to HR’s dual focus in balancing the needs of employees with those of the organization. She suggested HR might not be up to the challenge of investigating allegations of sexual harassment and protecting employees (or in some cases protecting the wrong people — the wrongdoers themselves).

She argued it isn’t even fair to give HR the responsibility of eliminating discrimination and harassment and investigating wrongdoing, and HR has failed in its duty to protect employees from predatory people and behaviour. Medoff also said employees’ trust in HR has been eroded in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and all of the allegations of sexual harassment now coming to light.

Unpacking all of this, it almost seems like Medoff was surprised any HR practitioner would have bigoted views. However, HR is no different from any other profession in that there will be some people with bigoted, outdated and uninformed views. It is extremely unfair to judge an entire profession based on the words and actions of one person.

I was also disappointed in the attempt to connect this incident with sexual harassment in the workplace and allegations of incompetence and cover-ups among HR staffers. Of course, HR cannot do it alone and needs buy-in from the entire organization to get the message across that sexual harassment cannot be tolerated.

But HR is generally responsible for investigating and dealing with workplace harassment allegations, disciplining wrongdoers, developing, communicating and enforcing appropriate policies, and training managers and employees on appropriate conduct and potential warning signals.

To be fair, I believe there have been situations where HR has protected senior business leaders who were guilty of harassment or forced people out for making harassment complaints. But, more often than not, people simply misunderstand the role of HR and what happens after an allegation of harassment is made.

More so than the actual post, I was disappointed in many of the comments. People just don’t seem to understand that HR must fully investigate any allegations of harassment thoroughly and hear all sides of the story. While it is very important to believe the victims of harassment, misunderstandings and frivolous, vexatious or even false claims do happen, and HR cannot act arbitrarily as judge, jury and executioner when dealing with such claims.

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