Back in the day HR was nothing more than the compliance police. Did they sign their form? Are they legally allowed to work? Do they know where the bathroom is? To the functions credit, HR has evolved to the point where we not only have a seat at the table, but we are seen as critical to the success of many businesses. This took decades to accomplish and the pressure on HR leaders to stay at the table has shifted the functions focus from making sure employees are seen, heard, and protected, to a laser focus on protecting the business.
The result is HR onboarding training focused on processes and policy. Sacrificing employees for the sake of protecting problematic executives is commonplace. A workplace free of harassment and discrimination is not right for all but a privilege for a few. “Enabling the business to be successful,” has essentially become the last line in the HR pledge of allegiance.
Some would argue this has always been the case, the only difference is now people are speaking up. I’m inclined to believe that considering the rise of several movements like #metoo and #blm exposing years worth wrongdoing that had been swept under the rug. Now HR is having its day with the unrelenting wrath of twitter. The stories with receipts of employees being fired after reporting to HR, executives leaving with all their benefits and stock after being blatantly racist/sexist, and inconsistent application of policies based on who is being accused have ricocheted through the interwebs of social media and companies have nowhere to hide.
The infamous Google Walkout in 2018 was arguably the start of the war between HR and employees. This realization that HR didn’t care about employees and was only there to enable the business to be successful (protect the company) quickly laid the groundwork for informal
employee unions, lists of demands, and hesitancy to engage with HR at all.
So what really happens, when employees don’t trust HR. Harassment, racism, discrimination, in the workplace doesn’t suddenly stop happening. It just gets reported less. Employees are faced with the risky decision to report to HR and be labeled as problematic (or worse) and slowly pushed out, do nothing or quit. None of which are great options. Time and time again employees are rightfully choosing economic security over demanding their right to a workplace free of harassment, discrimination, and hostility be upheld. Often at the detriment of their mental health.
None of this stops companies from publishing colorful annual DEI reports every year though. Bright and shiny with pictures of marginalized employees scattered about designed to distract from the fact that the data has been chopped, screwed, and remixed to tell a story that enabled the business to be successful, this time through external brand management.
As a black woman in HR, I cannot tell you how many times I've been invited to calls with other black and POC employees that started with, “We just wanted to talk to you to see what you think before we go to HR because… well you know how that goes.” My blackness deemed me a safe and knowledgeable confidant and a step before actually reporting to HR even though I was HR.
No stranger to being wronged by the function myself, I honored my role in that space. Simply a listening ear. At the end of these calls I always asked the same question, what do you want me to do? Most of the time they asked me to do nothing. Getting it off their chest, validating they weren’t crazy, and getting my advice was enough to calm them for now. But if anything changed they would be back.
So where do we go from here? How does HR undo the harm and gain employees' trust again? I have a few ideas but it's honestly not my focus. There are hundreds of thousands of DEI consultants doing incredible work to help companies create more inclusive, anti-racist, physiologically safe work environments. For now, I’ll focus where I have always focused, on the people. Caged Bird HR gives employees something they never had, HR advice from someone that isn't trying to enable the business to be successful.