Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Human Resources and the challenge of divided loyalties: some thoughts on remediating a fundamental imbalance

Posted in HR and personnel by Timothy Platt on February 8, 2018

There is a biblical admonition against seeking to serve two masters that I find myself thinking of as I set out to write this posting. And it begins:

• No man can serve two masters for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. (See Matthew 6:24.)

I cite this here, because Human Resources and its professionals are in effect required to do that and serve two masters, and as part of their basic job descriptions, and certainly if they are to behave fairly and ethically towards both their employers and to the employees who they work with.

This does not become an issue and in fact it does not become overtly apparent either, in the course of day-to-day routines or when carrying out normal business processes. But this does become both very apparent and very real as a challenge of conflict when any of a wide range of possible disruptive problems arises. Workplace discrimination and harassment come immediately to mind there. And I add that I write this note at a point in time when the #MeToo movement has very justifiably really taken off, with large numbers of women speaking out about the sexual harassment that they have faced on the job, and with threats of retaliation thrown at them if they say anything of that to anyone. But as big and painful a problem as that is, #MeToo and its issues only touch upon part of a still larger problem with racial, ethnic, religiously based, age based, gender and gender identity based and other forms of discrimination and harassment all still occurring too, and still way too prevalent and with all of that still so under-reported.

Some managers and bosses are ineffectual and bumbling and that can and does create stress and friction in the workplace. But the general professional incompetence that leads to that behavior is not usually directed towards anyone in particular – usually, if that is all that is happening. The deeper and more pressing problem that I write of here is that some managers and bosses are sadists, and some are bigots and some are viciously discriminatory, and very manipulative in that … and yes that some are sexual predators who see those working for them and under their authority as fair game. And this leads me to the issues of Human Resources and the challenge of those two masters.

The senior manager or boss who is reported to Human Resources by an employee seeking help, is probably in a strong position, at the very least to control the continued employment of the HR personnel who are reached out to. But at the same time, those same HR personnel have a moral and an ethical, and in many cases even a legal responsibility to protect employees from abuse at the place of employment that they all work at and regardless of who might be acting abusively there.

This, and certainly in the United States, means a legally mandated right that all employees hold, to be offered access to an employee rights advocate who would be provided to them through Personnel or Human Resources and at no cost to themselves. But I have seen a same HR executive give a new employee orientation presentation that covers this right, along with other “must know” issues, then turn around and adamantly argue against an actual individual employee having any such a right when the matter stops being hypothetical and when an actual and even ongoing harassment has been brought to their attention.

• A harassed or abused or threatened employee needs protection and the right to exercise their rights there. Just notifying them of those rights as part of a generic employee orientation talk cannot suffice if they cannot actually be available and freely so and without challenge or impediment.
• But just as importantly, Human Resources employees, and from entry level on through service chiefs and department heads, need protections too so any threat or challenge faced out of a claim would not simply move to their shoulders if they seek to do their jobs there.

I write this note to add to my blog, as I read of and hear of new allegations of sexual harassment, and seemingly every single day now as the dam has burst on that issue and with so many stepping forth now, seeking redress for harm faced and pain endured. I also write this, thinking back to my own career and to the good and bad that I have seen transpire at a wide range of places of work. And I wonder how many of those who I have worked with, were carrying even the pain and shame of having been sexually harassed too, and I did not know of that because part of the harm inflicted on these victims is in fact a sense of shame – however undeserved on their part. And part of it is the enforced silence that threats of retribution impose too.

It is not enough to go after and prosecute specific offenders and even particularly egregious ones, or to have a process in place for doing so – if that is only there in principle. A more robust and stable system has to be in place for both reporting abuse and for protecting its victims and its potential victims and preferably proactively and before such harm can be done to them. But none of this can work for these direct employee victims if it does not work for the people in their places of employment who they would have to report these offenses to, and without that creating fear based ambivalence on the part of those gatekeepers in services such as Human Resources who could at least potentially facilitate or block a positive resolution to this type of problem.

And as a basic part of their training, everyone working in Human Resources, or in Personnel if this service goes by that name, should be taught in detail that they do work for and serve two masters. And both of them need to be cared for and held to, to at least paraphrase the wording of Mathew 6:24. HR personnel may work for their employers who pay them, and they may owe them a measure of loyalty in what they do there. But they work for the employees there too and owe them matching loyalty too. And ultimately, they cannot serve the needs of their employers if they do not serve both masters there too. And if that message is not deeply instilled in these professionals as part of their basic sense and understanding of their jobs and what they should do in fulfilling them, when everything is routine and normal and trouble free: if this only comes up when real problems and challenges arise, that is too late to make a real difference and for the employees under duress, for the business they work at as a whole, or for Human Resources and its professionals there as they find themselves caught in a bind, in the middle.

I am going to conclude this note here by explicitly stating that I am not just writing about full time employees of significant tenure on the job here. When I write of employees here and of harassment and abuse, I of necessity also include new hires who are still in their probationary period, and part time and temporary workers and contract workers. I add that I include unpaid interns here too. If someone is working at a business they need to be covered there for these issues. And for any reader who might question that, consider the following scenario:

• Assume that you are the HR director in a business and you get a phone call from a reporter from the largest newspaper or the most widely watched television news program in your area. And they are calling to ask for a response from you about harassment or abuse allegations that they are just about to go public on with a prominent news piece. And they are planning on citing you by name in that piece as well as the name of your business that you work for. If the employee, or employees who are claiming this mistreatment are not working there full time as fully vetted in-house members of your company’s staff: if they fall into one of those “less protected” categories of being new hires or temporary hires or the like, would that give you a sense of relief?

I have at least touched upon this topic in at least some earlier postings to this blog. See, for example my series: Confronting Workplace Discrimination, as can be found at HR and Personnel as postings 57-60. And unfortunately I am certain to return to it in future postings too, as the issues that I write of here will not simply go away. No single #MeToo effort at achieving visibility and redress for these issues, can resolve their challenge long term and for all possible victims. So I will return to this topic and make note of it on an ongoing, recurring basis.

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