Every year, the business press carries news about great places to work and best employers, as determined by independent agencies that specialise in such evaluations. The press also carries details of some of the HR practices that presumably helped these winners make the cut. The whole idea behind such exercises is to inspire all companies to join the list of winners by adopting good practices, which is highly laudable. One can only speculate about the identity of those companies that end up at the bottom of the list prepared by these evaluators i.e. companies that aspired to be assessed as great places to work, but in fact were pretty shoddy workplaces. Of course, the worst places to work would probably be from among those that never even aspired for assessment. At least, in this country, no one makes a list of the worst places to work.
In the US, there are scattered initiatives to name and shame employers that get reported for shoddy work practices. John Hyman is one such list-maker. His list of the top four worst employers for 2018 includes some truly wretched candidates. In one such company, a manager hired hitmen to rough up an employee. The goons ended up killing the victim. In another, a manager performed truly gross acts of racial abuse and harassment. In a third, the boss delivered taser-induced shocks to discipline employees. The nominees for 2017 included a company where an employee was refused leave for an urgent operation relating to kidney cancer. At least one nomination has already been received for 2019. Some other organisations, like the Institute for Applied Management & Law, have also been attempting similar lists of evil organisations. While the examples cited seem so extreme as to be almost caricatures, they embody a genuine problem.
There is real concern among many HR professionals that their profession has a negative image. A few years ago, in a piece in Forbes, Liz Ryan listed the reasons for employees disliking HR staff. According to her, HR staff always side with management in any interaction. They are not trustworthy even when they ask the employee to speak her mind in confidence. When approached for help, they merely provide information, quoting rules. They are ignorant about the company’s business and work in their own bubble. They are political in maintaining their position in the company, and are not interested in solving genuine employee problems. They stand by and do nothing when toxic supervisors are rewarded and promoted. The list goes into double figures. Some of these statements appear equally relevant for this part of the world.
There has been speculation from time to time about the likely cause for a poor image of such an important function. Some years ago, Fast Company put together a piece that examined this issue, and concluded that there were multiple factors at play. HR does not attract the best people graduating from any business school. HR managers do not have enough knowledge of the company’s business to command respect as equals, and the management sees them as aids to executing strategy, and not participants in making strategy. HR professionals are focused on efficiency as opposed to effectiveness i.e. they are less keen on effectively addressing messy employee issues, and spend their energy on smooth execution of agreed policy. Another important factor is the limited understanding of HR amongst CEOs. Even smart empathetic HR managers end up executing only the limited set of tasks expected of them. An Indian manager put it rather bitterly, saying that he exists to “Hire, fire, break Unions and manage government inspectors.” This is extreme, but who can deny the germs of truth.
While there is a lot that senior management can do to use HR professionals more effectively, there is also a lot that the professionals can do themselves. Like talking frankly in public about their problems, and also inviting ideas and proposing solutions. Suzanne Lukacs, for instance, is one such and writes a popular blog named “Evil HR Lady.” She is anything but evil herself. The title is a light-hearted acknowledgement of how her profession is perceived. She routinely takes up bad HR practices, as well as typical problems that people face with HR, and discusses how they can be handled. We need several forums like these to help HR managers.
There is a tendency among senior HR managers to shrug away this kind of talk and assert that they themselves work in an organisation that treats them as strategic partners, and that they are focussed on the well-being and productivity of all employees. They need to examine themselves more closely. People may be praising them to keep them in good humour, and the governance they are proud of may be very fragile when put to test. An employee working in one of the most admired and respected companies of the country was so distressed by the treatment she received from her supervisor, and by the way the supervisor was shielded by the company, that she did the unthinkable. She wrote a piece in the Indian Express, last year, boldly disclosing her identity and that of the other players in her story.* She was no doubt aware of the permanent damage to her career. HR managers should not underestimate the negative perceptions relating to their profession and should do their utmost to win back respect, if not affection. There is usually no smoke without a fire.
“Announcing the Worst Employer of 2018”; John Hyman; Workforce; Dec 2018
"Ten Reasons Everybody Hates HR”; Liz Ryan; Forbes; July 2016
“Why We Hate HR”; Fast Company;Jan 2005
“The Evil HR Lady is Out to Prove HR isn’t So Evil”; Albert McKeon; ADP; Nov 2018
* - “My MeToo, Our WeToo”; Anjuli Pandit; Indian Express; 01 Nov 2018
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