Some crisis situations burst on the scene and are in plain view for the world to see. Others can simmer for months or years out of sight, out of mind and under the radar of corporate executives.
The distrust that employees have in their company’s HR staff is an example of a simmering internal crisis that can boil over and scald the image, reputation and credibility of organisations and their leaders.
But before business leaders can address the problem, they need to understand what’s causing it.
‘A Natural Distrust’
Rachel Fiset is the managing partner of law firm Zweiback, Fiset & Coleman. She said, ‘’Employees have traditionally had a natural distrust for human resources because the department generally prioritises the company over the employee.
‘’Human resources will often field complaints by employees — but the actual response to the complaints may look like the company is only working to ensure its own legal compliance in a given situation and not to improve the employee’s working conditions,’’ she noted.
Serving The Bottom Line
HR consultant Claire Brummell observed that, “Many HR departments can be seen to approach employees as little more than a resource to serve the needs of the corporate bottom line, where the needs of the leaders, departments and business are considered and prioritized over that of, and often to the detriment [of], the needs of the employees.
“HR Departments that function from this place of utilising humans as little more than another expendable business resource have already failed their employees and will garner their distrust.”
Insights From Surveys
Two surveys provide these important insights into the trust problem.
Human relations platform Cezanne HR recently surveyed over 1,000 workers at organisations with more than 250 employees in the UK. They found that:
- Almost half (47%) of employees don’t trust HR to help with conflict resolution.
- 48% don’t trust HR to make them aware of internal promotion opportunities.
- More than two in five (45%) of respondents don’t believe HR will act impartially, while 43% believe senior staff members are favoured.
Last year, U.S.-based Zeneefits, an HR, payroll and benefits company, released a report called “Human Resources: Helpful or Horrible?” According to their research:
- 38% of employee respondents feel HR does not equally enforce company policies for all employees, with 18% of that group believing managers get special treatment.
- 71% of HR employees in the survey stated that less than 30% of complaints they received in the last 2 years resulted in any disciplinary action. Having less than a third of cases result in disciplinary action led employees to wonder — if they bring complaints forward, will anything even result?
Lesa Hammond is a 30-year veteran of HR and was the chief human resources officer at three universities. She is now an instructor in the HR certificate program at San Francisco State University and CEO of workplace platform Attaché for Business.
She pointed out that, “Much of the distrust in HR come from an historical bias employees and management hold or a lack of transparency by the HR department. If the leadership of the company, of which HR should be a part, does not have respect for the department, it is not given much power and becomes a bureaucratic bottleneck, rather than a strategic problem solver.
“Employees also lose faith in HR when they come with a problem and it appears it is being held against them or nothing seems to be happening regarding the problem,’’ she commented.
Unequal Treatment Of Co-Workers
Employment attorney Jonathan LaCour, of Employees First Labor Law said many of the cases he handles lead straight back to problems in a company’s human resources department.
“One common reason employees distrust HR is that they see unequal treatment of co-workers due to friendships or connections within the company, or because of someone’s status as a manager. Company handbooks almost always state that human resources policies will be implemented fairly, consistently and impartially. Everyone can see when it’s not,” he observed.
Lack Of Qualifications
LaCour noted that, “Another area where companies create problems for employees and themselves is when they put people in charge of human resources who have no business being there. In one recent case, a man with no experience in human resources was hired to help run the department. He turned out to be an aggressive sexual harasser and cost the company a lot of money.
“In another case, a company with 160 employees made a payroll accountant their human resources manager — for half a day every week. This person had no prior experience in anything HR related and was impossible for employees to get hold of. And when they handed out advice, it was entirely ignorant of applicable law,” he recalled.
Sue Lingard, marketing director of Cezanne HR said, “HR teams have to get out and get in front of employees—and do it on a regular basis. The research found that the better-known they are, the higher the level of trust, and that’s good for the way the whole business works together.
“Start with the onboarding processes, but then ensure there are other opportunities where HR can be seen by more people. Perhaps by championing diversity, equity and inclusion or climate change initiatives, hosting drop-in days or sitting in on wider team meetings,” she advised.
Sebastien Anderson is the founding partner of Labour Rights Law Office in Canada. He recommended that HR staff be transparent about their role and refrain from misleading employees that the HR department is on their side or is their friend. “In my experience, too many naive employees believe that HR advisors are like neutral ombudspersons troubleshooting potential conflict between an employee and their manager(s),” he observed.
“HR advisors who mislead employees about their role give all HR professionals a bad name and seed distrust between employees and management,” Anderson concluded.
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