Human Resource Management: For the Worker, Company, or both?

Question: I went through a ghastly experience at work and went straight to our HR team. They said they would treat my experience with “the utmost seriousness”, but were not sympathetic or helpful. It was clear from the very start they didn’t believe what I was saying and intended to side with the person who caused me such grief, no matter what.

I spoke with a friend about it who said words to the effect “HR departments aren’t there for employees. They’re there for the company.”

It’s been months and I’ve finally had the issue resolved separate from the HR department. I don’t work for the company anymore. But my question is, is my friend’s advice true? Is going to HR a waste of time no matter where you work, or was this just a bad HR team?

Answer: I’m sorry for what you’ve been through, the experience itself but also the promise of remedy that has gone unfulfilled.

“The utmost seriousness” are three words that should elicit comfort: “Phew, someone will be approaching this problem with total sincerity.” But today they’re used as such a throwaway cliche that they generally connote the opposite of what they mean: “We will treat your concern with the same thoughtfulness as we treat this pledge, perfunctorily.”

Your question will be relevant to a lot of readers, I’m sure. Have you encountered an aberration or do HR departments protect the company’s interests even at the expense of fairness and employee wellbeing? We asked experts in the area and received some different responses.

Professor Emmanuel Josserand is a professor of management at the University of Technology Sydney and director of the Centre for Business and Social Innovation. He says your friend’s advice is broadly right. HR departments are there to primarily represent the boss’s interests.

“HR is there to represent the interests of the organisation first. I don’t think there is any ambiguity about that,” he said.

Sarah McCann-Bartlett, chief executive and managing director of the Australian HR Institute, told me “HR works for both the employee and the organisation”.

“It’s HR’s role to make sure that the organisation complies with relevant employment legislation and that employment processes are fair to all parties [and that] all employees are provided with the support and work environment they need to perform at their best.”

Sarah believes that a good HR department should never simply capitulate to the dominant or governing party.

“HR also has a role to work with managers to ensure that they’re doing their job of managing employees properly. HR has to be able to speak truth to power and give the executive and CEO impartial information and advice – this is an important role, as AHRI research shows that the CEO often sees the organisation through rose-coloured glasses. This can sometimes lead to difficult conversations.”

In summary, Sarah said it’s HR’s role to “deal with issues and complaints impartially, and according to the legal framework, the organisation’s processes and, importantly, what is right or ethical.”

Professor Josserand, on the other hand, reiterated that for human resources departments organisational interests always take priority.

“The role of HR is to make sure they get the best of human capital. It doesn’t mean that sometimes there could not be an alignment between the interests of the organisation and the interests of the employees or the workers. But at the end of the day, HR is there to support the objective of the organisation.”

Human Resource Management lecturer Dr Martijn Boersma from the University of Technology Sydney said human resources as a practice was “strategic”.

“HR departments exist to make employees as productive as possible in the interest of the organisation,” he says. “Conflict undermines this goal, which is why HR departments are not well positioned to deal with workplace disputes: they treat employees as a means to an end, rather than an end in and of themselves.”

This piece was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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