Amidst the routine chaos of an American’s typical workday, between coffee breaks and after lunch, employees are assured that should problems arise, those in the human resources department are willing and eager to create a safe environment. And yet, there is a sobering truth that many workers inherently know; HR may not really be your friend.
Following the #MeToo movement, it started to become apparent that for many toxic corporate cultures, there are equally toxic, and complicit, HR departments. The reason for this is because HR professionals understand that their existence in the organization is dependent on maintaining a good relationship with those who sign their paychecks. HR professionals who investigate complaints may not directly report to CEOs, reinforcing the notion that in some cases they may wield little to no leverage within an organization. Eric Nelson, a New York business and employment lawyer, told Fortune that "if they stick their necks out too far, they’re not going to get anything but the hatchet themselves," and that ultimately "until the people who make companies' money are made responsible for what goes on, nothing is going to change.”
The creation of HR occurred during the Second Industrial Revolution, in order to facilitate the allocation of the mass swaths of workers showing up to fill factory floors. And, although HR is still responsible for dealing with logistics such as recruitment, payroll, employment policies and benefits, and hiring and firing, today their roles may also include protecting the interests of their higher-ups. In an article with Fortune magazine, Kevin Mintzer, a New York-based employment attorney, explained that “employee relations is really about limiting the liability of the employer.” This idea is why HR’s branding as being a “safe space” for employees and their troubles can be quite misleading; while by law they are required to take discrimination complaints seriously, Shainaz Firfiray, associate professor of human resource management at Warwick Business School, notes in an interview that “even when complaints are investigated, attempts are made to shift the blame towards the victim by documenting an alternative version of events, appointing biased investigators, breaching investigation guidelines and bending their own HR policies.” Unfortunately, we need not look very far to realize this response is the truth.
Of course, not every HR department is the same. The #MeToo reckoning has been essential in shining a light on the problems with HR, and beginning the discussion about what it will take to truly create a safe environment, and what that means for employees and management alike. This isn’t to say avoid reporting workplace issues when they occur, but guard yourself from blind faith in the system (and any bureaucratic system for that matter). Ultimately the changes we need to see will have to begin with our refusal to ignore the twisted and often incestuous relationship between HR and management, and until then, we have each other to count on. We can’t wait for human interests to be prioritized over cash flow--the time to support and encourage your fellow employees is today.
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