When HR Gets It Wrong

Beginning July 17, the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) published the first in a four-part series of articles—“When HR Gets It Wrong”— by Dana Wilkie, that explores the challenges HR faces when confronted with allegations of misconduct, inequity and other problems at an organization.

I’m writing this post for my HR colleagues, who, like me, need to recognize and understand the implications of the situations spelled out in these four articles.

Let’s explore one aspect of the first article: “When HR Gets It Wrong: At Fox, Uber, and Mizzou, Where Was Human Resources?”  It focuses on sexual harassment at the first two organizations and racial discrimination at the third, and how it affects HR.  I’m simply going to zero-in on this latter piece in my post.

Walking the Tightrope

The article cites the tightrope all HR folks walk with their senior leadership.  Here are some of their thoughts and advice:

“I have always said that … to be an ethical HR leader, you need to always be prepared to lose your job,” said Fran Sepler, who is president of Minneapolis-based Sepler & Associates.”  Now she tells me!

“While it’s best for HR professionals to keep executives at arm’s length in case they ever have to investigate them, cronyism nonetheless happens”, said Karen Kruse, an employment law attorney in Seattle.

“In addition, HR leaders may find it hard to remain objective about executives while trying to prove their worth to these same people, said Patty Wise, a partner with Toledo, Ohio-based Niehaus Wise & Kalas Ltd. and co-chair of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Labor Relations Special Expertise Panel.”

HR business partners try to learn as much as they can about the ‘business’ from their line and executive partners. Working closely together on projects usually builds trust and collegiality between HR and their business partner.

“HR professionals are often seeking approval and even membership among the senior management group. The goal may be a ‘seat at the table,’ and so what might be viewed as cronyism may also demonstrate professional success and achievement.”

See the tightrope?

“Another reason that HR may turn a blind eye toward an employee’s misdeeds is because the person accused of misconduct is a top performer.”  I would add to this that my experience has been that leadership has taken this position and HR has to deal with it.

“HR professionals often encounter another problem when asked to pursue allegations against executives: their fear of retaliation.

But retaliation happens, and HR professionals know it.”

Debra Katz, a partner with Washington, D.C.-based Katz, Marshall & Banks who has litigated employment discrimination, civil rights and whistle-blower protection cases for more than 30 years, says, “That’s very problematic, because HR officials often are at risk if they go to the mat on some of these things,” she said.

So, what should one do?

Hire the Right HR Person

“When considering an HR candidate, interviewers should ask how comfortable the applicant would feel questioning executives and mid-level managers about their behavior and holding them accountable, said Alisa Shorago, an attorney and owner of San Diego-based Shorago Training Services, which provides anti-harassment training.”

Here’s a new and interesting piece of advice.  “It can also be helpful to arrange for a company’s HR department to report to someone other than senior leaders, said Stephen Paskoff, president and CEO of ELI, an Atlanta-based company that helps organizations address bad behavior in the workplace. That could be an ombudsperson, outside counsel or board members.”  While I have never heard of this practice before, I can easily see why it is suggested.

Just looking at the several excerpts contained in this one article, it’s clear to see the potential pitfalls and double-edged sword which HR folks will face and need to be wary of at all times.

I’ve had the good fortune to have been in the HR field for a long time.  I’ve worked with a lot of different HR and line business leaders – all different, including their work styles and personalities.  All of these examples cited are real and affect us.  If they haven’t happened yet, they likely will.

In the final analysis, sometimes HR does, in fact, get it wrong.  We’re only human.  When it happens, own up to it, fix it if you can, and you will likely never make that same mistake again.

While I appreciate the excellent advice these four articles have afforded me, at the end of the day, HR should always try to: do the right thing – and it’s certainly not always going to be easy to do.  I hope you will agree.

Good luck.

the HRmeister