The HR profession has always had a tightrope to walk. While it exists to ensure that employees are paid correctly, receive the training they require and have somewhere to air grievances in confidence, for instance, it ultimately serves the needs of the employer.
In recent times, though, questions have been raised about whether it’s been getting this tricky balance right. Research published by Harvard Business Review in Q4 2022 suggests that, at the very least, the profession has an image problem. When conflicts inevitably arise from time to time between their interests and those of their employer, people realise that HR won’t be taking their side, but the study reveals that most workers, if they had a serious problem with a colleague’s behaviour, “would rather reach out to most anyone before turning to someone in HR”.
This apparent lack of trust poses a challenge for the profession, which generally considers its goals to be twofold: to have a seat at the top table to advise business leaders on cultural matters and to speak up for employees while in that position.
Caroline Walsh, managing vice-president at Gartner’s HR practice, is not surprised that people are becoming less willing to approach HR for help. She believes that this is mainly because the function’s remit has become more complex and strategic in recent years.
“It’s not that employees don’t trust HR. It’s that they trust managers more, as they interact with them more frequently,” Walsh argues.
It’s a view broadly shared by Chris Brook-Carter, CEO of the Retail Trust, a charity looking after the wellbeing of the sector’s 3 million-plus workers.
“An employee’s first port of call should be their line manager. I don’t think it’s HR’s role to deal with their day-to-day challenges,” he says. “Its role is to ensure that the culture of the business facilitates open conversations and that line managers are equipped to have supportive discussions with their staff.”
Brook-Carter adds that the “real battle is not about whether colleagues trust HR or not. It’s about ensuring that employees remain at the top of the board’s agenda. If HR hasn’t got the ear of the CEO or CFO, it doesn’t matter how trusted it is. It won’t effect real change.”
Why is HR so mistrusted in some organisations?
Kate Palmer, director of HR advice at employment law consultancy Peninsula UK, believes that nurturing trust is a vital part of the profession’s role, as this forms the basis of any constructive relationship. In her experience, the level of trust tends to vary from employer to employer based on how the function is positioned.
She explains: “Some businesses simply use HR to swoop in if there’s a problem or redundancies need to be made. They see it as a reactive, firefighting team that sits on a different floor, which is where mistrust can come in.”
Palmer adds that the behaviour of line managers can sometimes reduce employees’ trust in HR too.
“You hear managers saying: ‘HR told me to say this,’ rather than owning their own decisions,” she says. “This can create a silo mentality, with employees thinking that HR is awful.”
Another problem is that line managers tend to front new wellbeing schemes and other positive developments, such as celebratory events, even though such things are usually devised, planned and organised by HR. The upshot is that the function’s role in these gets overlooked, while the faces of these initiatives are happy to take the credit.
Is HR losing connection with the workforce?
Craig McCoy, an interim HR director and chair of the London HR Connection networking forum, believes that the trust problem goes deeper still. In its pursuit of a seat at the top table, the profession has “gone too far” in identifying with employers, he says.
As a result, there is “widespread distrust of the HR function. It’s broadly seen as being much more employer- than employee-centric, being there more to serve the needs of the organisation and less to represent those of employees.”
A key factor underlying all this, McCoy believes, is that HR has been under intense pressure to prove its worth in recent years. To do so, it has focused its policies on adding value to the business – for instance, by finding ways to boost employees’ productivity. In some cases, HR professionals have lost their connection with the workforce as they spend too long formulating their strategies away from the shopfloor.
Another factor is that there’s been a long-running “obsession with status and a feeling of inferiority compared with functions such as finance”, he adds. “The chief people officer generally hasn’t been on the board whereas the CFO has, although that is starting to change.”
HR’s recent elevation has resulted from a realisation among firms since Covid that a people-centred approach is “critical to business success”, as they continue to face skills shortages and high churn rates, according to McCoy. This is leading the profession to accept that “it must inject more of the ‘human’ back into HR to address these challenges”.
Balancing employer and employee advocacy
Walsh notes that most HR professionals will find it tricky to balance serving as both a leadership adviser and an effective employee advocate.
“I wouldn’t want HR to take a step back from the boardroom,” she says. “But you need to have your ear to the ground too, so it’s a difficult job. It takes a lot of time and discipline to continually push for feedback on how the culture is doing and how best to interpret measurements.”
Technology can help here by measuring sentiment among employees and gathering actionable insights based on their responses. Walsh advocates supplementing such insights with more qualitative data from focus groups and meaningful conversations with line managers.
McCoy thinks it’s necessary to take things a step further, arguing that “HR people need to be seen and they need to understand the workforce better. Doing a shift on the front line can bring about a couple of benefits. It reminds you of what the organisation actually does, while employees also see that you’re committed to understanding what their work is like.”
Another consideration is being seen to take decisive action should the behaviour of individuals, particularly senior executives, deviate from the company’s stated ethics.
“HR should be custodian of the values of the organisation, intervening if things go off track. But it often shies away from that for political reasons,” McCoy says. “This has a negative impact on views of the function’s integrity and does nothing to show that it’s employee-centric.”
Why HR should market itself more effectively
This issue of perception is key – and it tends to be something the profession doesn’t put enough time and energy into managing, according to Palmer.
“HR doesn’t market itself very well sometimes, but that has become a fundamental part of the job,” she says. “This means it’s important to be authentic and show your human self, especially when so many people are working remotely and can feel more disconnected.”
One suggestion for humanising the HR team would be to share details about members’ interests outside work, perhaps in the form of internal blog posts. As Palmer notes: “Getting to know someone is an important foundation for trusting them.”
Another idea involves highlighting the team’s beneficial work across the organisation, ensuring that credit is claimed wherever it’s due.
“It’s a great way to increase familiarity with the department’s good work, from implementing financial wellbeing policies to providing support for people’s mental health,” she says. “Such schemes all have a positive effect on employees, but they don’t necessarily get attributed to HR. Celebrating these successes can therefore help to build trust.”