What if your HR is the problem?

May 20, 2023

Human resources should be part of the solution, not the problem. Too frequently I hear managers and employees express concern about HR.

And to be fair, HR frequently gets an unjustified bad rap because it can’t please everyone – and frankly, it isn’t HR’s job to make people happy. Frequently, employees think that HR is in the pocket of management and yet simultaneously management thinks that HR only supports employees. If this is the case, then HR is probably doing its job.

However, there are some specific issues with HR that should be considered.

First, when I conduct performance management training for managers, the participants will frequently complain that when they want to take action against a poor-performing or disruptive employee, their human resources team will not let them. HR will respond that managers delay bringing issues to their attention, and when they do, it’s not a good time to issue the discipline.

Second, when I conduct civility training for management, I tell managers if they are on notice of any claim of harassment or discrimination, they must notify HR immediately so that an investigation can be conducted. Managers will frequently complain that they tell HR and then nothing happens.

A recent settlement announced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission highlights the need for well-trained and responsive human resources departments.

The EEOC just announced that Kaiser agreed to pay $140,000 to settle a racial harassment lawsuit it brought against the company. In announcing the settlement, the EEOC contended that Kaiser permitted an employee to harass a Black co-worker by repeatedly using a version of a racial slur even after she explained she found the term offensive and discriminatory. The EEOC added, “Despite her reports of the co-worker’s use of racially charged language, Kaiser’s human resources department failed to adequately investigate subsequent complaints about the racially hostile work environment and did not take adequate remedial measures to stop the racial harassment.”

HR’s failure to investigate the allegations after being made aware of them violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, the EEOC said, “requires employers to investigate and take steps to prevent racial harassment in the workplace.” Having a policy is not enough, the EEOC said, and added that “the law requires employers to follow through on that policy by thoroughly investigating harassment complaints and taking effective action to end a hostile work environment.”

Some organizations fail to recognize the valuable role that HR plays in making sure that the organization functions properly and legally. In doing so, they undervalue the need for trained and experienced HR professionals who can objectively assist managers and employees in ensuring a safe, respectful, legally compliant and high-functioning work environment.

Employers need to first and foremost invest in their HR professionals. Well-compensated HR is part of the cost of doing business.

Employers should pay for their HR professionals to have membership in their local, state and/or national professional organizations and support their ongoing educational and professional development. The laws are changing rapidly, and they need to keep apprised of recent updates and best practices.

Employers should also support HR certification, although decades of experience are as good if not better than a certification so long as the HR professional keeps up with the laws and best practices.

Any HR professional charged with investigating allegations of workplace harassment or discrimination must be trained on how to conduct an investigation, in addition to being trained on the laws and policies surrounding that investigation. When HR is made aware of a complaint, HR needs to have the freedom and autonomy to objectively and fairly investigate the allegations and render recommendations as are appropriate based on the findings.

If HR brings a concern to leadership, HR should be supported in its efforts to resolve the issue and should not be retaliated against for pushing back against illegal, unethical or inappropriate practices. The EEOC recently announced a $460,000 settlement with Fischer Connectors arising from an age-discrimination lawsuit filed by a 67-year-old human resources professional who said she was terminated after she questioned age-related discrimination by the company.

Employers also need to support HR by giving them the autonomy to implement necessary policies and programs.

In turn, HR must be prompt in conducting investigations and working with management in delivering coaching, counseling and discipline.

HR should not be the backlog or the reason that weeks or months go by and low-performance or disruptive behaviors go unaddressed. HR also needs to get out of the business of saying only “no” and make sure that managers have the tools to properly address employee performance or misconduct.

Employers can avoid overly risk-adverse HR by having well-educated, experienced and confident HR professionals.