Are Human Resources representatives advocates for employees, or shills for the corporate bigwigs?

I suppose you’ve been following the story about how Amazon (1) is the worst place in the world to work, (2) no it isn’t, (3) anyway, the New York Times didn’t do good research and based its story on too many anecdotes, and (4) yes, it did do good research, and anyway how are you supposed to do a story like that without anecdotes?

That controversy is not what I’m writing about today – at least, not directly.

After the initial NYT story ran, saying the workplace at Amazon is cutthroat — still uses “forced rankings” and even encourages employees to secretly bad-mouth each other to their bosses, has employees who break down in tears on a daily basis, and put one woman on a Performance Improvement Plan the day after she returned to work after her child was stillborn, among other horrors — CEO Jeff Bezos sent a communication to employees. He said that this did not describe the Amazon he knew, and he told employees to come to him or to Human Resources if they experienced anything like it.

Now, here’s the part that I found interesting: the reaction in the internet comment boxes to Mr. Bezos’ invitation to employees to go to HR. Pretty much, the commenters said “Everybody knows HR is in the can for the corporate bigwigs,” “HR doesn’t give a hoot about the employees,” “If I were having a problem at work, the last place I would go is HR.” OK, those are not actual quotes, but here are a few real ones, and be sure to look at the upvotes they got (all from Daily Mail Online):

Click here to view image.

Ouch.

Click here to view image.

That’s not good.

Click here to view image.

Stupid or evil. Take your pick.

Click here to view image.

Not even human! And I thought lawyers were unpopular.

Click here to view image.

Yikes! And here is an HR person who doesn’t like HR:

Click here to view image.

Is this right? If not, why is there such a widespread perception?

Part of the problem, I think, comes from the fact that HR really cannot be an “advocate” for the employee — not like the employee’s lawyer, or his mother, or his best friend. The HR rep works for the company and has to do what’s right for the company. I think this is where the “HR doesn’t care” perception comes from.

But just because HR isn’t an employee advocate doesn’t mean HR doesn’t care about employees. First, the HR rep is responsible (at least, in part) for ensuring that the company stays out of employment-related legal trouble. Second, the HR rep is usually responsible for recruiting and retaining good employees. Usually the best way to stay out of legal trouble and to recruit and retain is to have a decent work environment in which employees are treated fairly, and maybe actually enjoy coming to work.

In short, there are many selfish reasons for employers to want to treat employees well. So the fact that your HR representative serves the company doesn’t mean she can’t serve you at the same time.

Do they always succeed? No. Sometimes the HR rep will be weak, or inexperienced, or insecure. Sometimes the powers that be consider the Human Resources function to be nothing more than an “expense” and will not give the HR rep enough authority to stand her ground when needed. An HR representative without the support of upper management is not going to be able to do a lot, no matter how much she may want to.

But in my experience, those substandard HR Departments are not the norm. Not by a long shot.

Here are a few true “HR hero” stories (notice I said “true” – I can personally vouch for every one):

  • An African-American manager gets a final warning (last step before termination) from his white boss. He goes to his HR representative to protest the warning and says that his boss is a nightmare and that he is stressing out to the point of getting sick from having to work with her. HR rep investigates (a little skeptical at first) and finds out – it’s true! Everybody thinks she’s an ogre! Final warning is rescinded, and boss from you-know-where is ordered to go to management “charm school” to learn how to interact with employees.
  • Older employee with medical condition needs reasonable accommodation to do her job. Employee’s manager says no, making special allowances for her would be unfair to the other employees. HR rep steps in, educates manager about the Americans with Disabilities Act, manager relents and agrees to accommodate employee. Employee enjoys several more years of productive work before she voluntarily retires.
  • Young, female, low-level employee is being sexually harassed by older, male, higher-level employee. Victim is afraid to come forward because of her low status. Co-worker tells HR what is going on. HR rep investigates, confirms allegations, and fires harasser. Meanwhile, victim stays on, and gets promoted.
  • Upper management has a terrible idea – for example, to change all non-management employees to “independent contractors” in the hopes of saving on overtime, benefits, and payroll taxes. HR rep tries to stop it, but no one listens to him because familiarity breeds contempt. HR rep calls company’s employment lawyer, and asks lawyer to write a “legal opinion” explaining risks associated with misclassifying employees. Lawyer writes opinion, which HR rep shares with upper management. Upper management heeds lawyer’s opinion even though it did not heed HR rep’s identical opinion. (Lawyer was able to cite a few court cases to make it look more scary.) Upper management scraps the rotten idea, and all those employees get to keep their overtime and benefits, and everybody avoids getting in trouble with the IRS.

I could go on and on. Disgruntled employees, HR is on your side more than you may think. (Maybe they can straighten things out at Amazon, too.)  :-)