Why don’t employees trust HR?

Mistrust may be caused by a misunderstanding of the mandate of HR

Why don’t employees trust HR?
Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

I’ve mentioned a few times over the years how the internet seems to be full of comments from rank-and-file employees who are critical of HR. “Don’t go to HR with any problems you have with your boss,” they say. “They’ll only go right to your boss and tell him everything you’ve told them.”

Another recurring theme I read is “HR isn’t there for you. Don’t trust them because they’re only there to keep the company out of hot water.”

According to a survey conducted by workplace community app Blind, 70.3 per cent of their users stated they didn’t trust HR at their current company, while nearly 43 per cent wouldn’t feel comfortable reporting sexual harassment allegations to HR.

It is surprising just how prevalent these types of feelings are. While senior executives often think HR isn’t strategic enough and doesn’t have a deep enough understanding of “the business,” many employees and job candidates often have a very different perspective. They often believe HR is a bastion of corporate power, privilege and hegemony that will sweep wrongdoing or unethical behaviour under the rug.

Misunderstanding what HR does

I believe there are several reasons for this, including a deep misunderstanding about what HR actually does and whom we’re ultimately there to serve. As I have argued before, all else being equal, HR is likely to come down on the side of the employer rather than the employees in the event of a dispute.

After all, the mandate of any HR department is to try to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of an organization’s human resources (or human capital, if you prefer). That sounds rather cold, but HR is a management function and in many ways an organization’s senior leadership team can be seen to have delegated personnel management to the HR function.

However, this does not mean HR doesn’t care about the welfare of employees or won’t advocate for the needs and interests of employees at times. HR will often coach and counsel Neanderthal line managers when their conduct crosses the line not only with respect to potential legal and financial risks, but also in the interests of having a happy, productive and engaged workforce.

The truth is that it is often possible for HR practitioners to balance the needs of their employer with the needs of employees to create a win-win situation. We recognize that old-school command-and-control leadership isn’t usually the best way to motivate and retain workers, and that a happy workforce is usually a higher performing one.

When I mention HR is there to get the most out of an organization’s workforce, I don’t mean the goal is to obsessively cut costs, do away with employee entitlements, find loopholes in the law, discourage whistleblowing and complaints, silence dissent and generally engage in a race to the bottom. While there are some HR departments and organizations like that, most employers these days recognize the impact of employee happiness, wellbeing, morale and engagement on the bottom line. They also tend to be aware of their public image and employer brand.

Incorrect assumptions about HR

I believe several things are responsible for this type of thinking. Paradoxically, I believe a great deal of employee mistrust of HR is caused by employees thinking HR is about one thing and then being totally disappointed when their original impressions turn out to be false.

Many people assume HR practitioners are there to act as some type of social worker, counsellor or psychologist to help solve employees’ problems. When they go to HR with a problem, people sometimes just want to vent or have HR act on the problem unilaterally without conducting a proper investigation or hearing all sides of the story. While HR has to treat sensitive information confidentially, they have a legal and moral obligation to conduct an investigation into certain types of allegations.

The way recruitment is handled in many organizations turns many people off the HR function. Yet, many HR professionals don’t do any recruitment and a lot of recruiters don’t even consider themselves to be HR. I also believe the job market and unrealistic hiring manager expectations are causing many jobseekers to unfairly blame the HR function for their difficulties landing a job.

Next week, I am going to discuss some potential solutions to employee and public mistrust of the HR profession.

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