Human resources is hardly a new profession, yet many are still confused about its purpose.

At the heart of the confusion lies this question—does HR exist to serve the needs of the employer or the employee?

Clearly, HR professionals are hired by the organization to further the organization’s goals, but if employees don’t have HR to go to when there’s a problem, who do they have? And when employees approach HR for help, if HR can’t be trusted, what’s the point?

The many faces of HR

Good HR is a delicate balancing act of employer and employee interests. The function exists to protect the company but also to serve employees—in fact, some HR job advertisements are very clear in their intention to attract professionals who’ll advocate for employees and keep them engaged and feeling good about their workplaces.

HR professionals are also tasked with keeping up with the laws that affect employees’ rights and making sure the company does what’s required to protect those rights.

Now that sounds like a group you can trust, right?

The reality of HR

HR professionals are people. As such, they’re as susceptible to abuse of power as anyone else, and no, not all HR professionals can be trusted. For whatever reason, some HR professionals don’t keep confidences, and they don’t have the best interests of the employees who rely on them for support at heart.

But this lack of trustworthiness is not a problem with the function. It’s a problem with the person assuming the function. And knowing whether you can trust the HR professionals in your company can only be learned in the same manner that you’d learn whether anyone can be trusted—by matching an individual’s words with his actions.

Still, HR tends to be around when something bad is going down (layoffs, disciplinary meetings, firings) and at those times seems like anything but a friend to employees.

So we ask again, can you really trust HR?

Well, that depends.

Markers of a trustworthy HR department

  • Does your HR department keep confidences? Tell it to you straight? Openly advocate for the fair treatment of employees? Display high competence in the execution of job duties?
  • Does HR demonstrate kindness and compassion? How about a willingness to listen?
  • Does HR have any power and a history of using that power to help employees?

If all these things are true, you can trust HR.

Of course, being able to trust HR doesn’t mean you should stop looking after yourself. Do the best job possible, and document anything that has the potential to go South, such as a conflict with your boss or a peer.

Finally, what should you do when you know HR can’t be trusted?

Again, HR folks are people. How would you protect yourself from being compromised by other dishonest people?

Here are a few suggestions for protecting yourself when you cannot trust HR:

  • Keep your distance. Spend as little time with HR as possible and say little when that proves impossible. In other words, keep the relationship superficial and pleasant. No complaining, no gossip, and no confidence sharing.
  • Take notes.If ever you’re summoned into HR for a chat about your performance or someone else’s—let’s say HR is digging for some dirt about a peer or your boss, even—document everything and give up nothing. It’s not your job to nail your coworker or your boss. (Caution: If you’re being interviewed as part of a formal investigation, you should cooperate as far as you are able without putting yourself in harm’s way. Although the law protects employees who act as witnesses in discrimination investigations you can’t rely on your company to avoid the funny stuff if its agents—i.e., HR—aren’t trustworthy.)
  • Don’t expect real help. If you have a complaint to file, go ahead and take it to HR, just don’t expect any real help. In other words, have a Plan B for when HR does nothing.

Unfortunately, unscrupulous HR professionals are a reality of the workplace. Again, however, a few bad apples is not proof that the function is rigged in the employer’s favor or that the entire profession is suspect.

On the contrary, there are plenty of highly competent, knowledgeable, HR pros who would go to the mat to support a deserving employee.

 

Does your company employ one (or two) of those? Make sure you know what type of HR rep you are hiring with help from our Omnia Target Report. Learn their strengths and potential challenges according to your benchmarks. Get started today!

 

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Freelance Writer, Editor, and HR Consultant in Philly. You can find more of Crystal's work at: www.crystalspraggins.blogspot.com

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