Harassment and HR: Whose side are you on?

Screen-Shot-2017-11-01-at-11.52.12-AMBy Bob Barnetson

The recent spate of sexual harassment allegations has triggered a couple of articles examining the role of human-resource departments. The crux of the analysis is that HR shops are intended to advance the employer’s interest. Not surprisingly, a key employer interest is mitigating liability.

When proactive measures (such as codes of conduct) haven’t been successful and a claim of harassment arises, HR shops work to contain the potential damage to the employer (often through complaint suppression). This line of analysis runs contrary to the usual picture presented of HR shops as neutral arbitrators or even a place that workers can go for help with problems.

The notion that the practice of HR is, in fact, an exercise of power over workers and in the interests of employers is generally absent from HR textbooks. This reflects that human resources is rooted in a unitarist view of the workplaces—that there are no inherent conflicts of interest in employment and that everyone is there to serve the employer’s interests. The employer’s interests are often couched as the organization’s goals, even though the goals have been developed by the employer with little consideration of the needs of other stakeholders.

One consequence of this dynamic is that HR staff often has to do things that would make most people uncomfortable. For example, they may be assigned to direct conflict into processes that delay resolution of conflict even though doing so exacerbates the impact of the harassment on the victim. Such a decision often makes sense of the employer since (absent any resolution) victims will often quit (or accept a small settlement in exchange for a gag order) and the problem goes away (for the employer, anyhow).

Some HR wonks can’t hack that kind of work and attrite out of profession (or into less conflictual HR functions—such a payroll or strategic planning). Those that stay tend to be (or become) hard cases, who are better able to manage the cognitive dissonance that goes with harming employees. This, in turn, reinforces the tendency of HR to act against the interests of a firm’s human resources.

Clearer discussion of this dynamic might help human-resource students make more knowledgable choices about the kind of career they want going forward.

This article was first published by Labour & Employment in Alberta.

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