Is HR empowered to address sexual harassment or any other workplace issues?

Following the reports from female employees of their horrific experience at Uber….there are enough analyses on the internet and all of them seem to be surprised that HR didn’t do anything other than holding perfunctory meetings and providing somewhat less helpful advise. Some even surmised about its complicity.

All of this is surfacing tacit assumptions about HR and making us pause and rethink the role of HR, not that this is the first time this has happened in this industry or any other. By conventional standards, HR is a function that supports business.

There are a few angles to consider this problem —

From the perspective of an investor (private equity/venture capital or fund manager or other individual shareholder) — Promoting a healthy culture, addressing disputes are all in the service of supporting the profitability of the business. In other words, a healthy workplace culture is a secondary index at best. No one invests in a business because their workplace culture is healthy. They invest in it because it’s profitable now or it is likely to provide great returns. Conversely, no one turns down an investment opportunity because a profitable business’ workplace culture is unhealthy. So then, it begs the question, should investors stop investing in businesses that have toxic culture? Is it good for all humanity in the long run and even profitable to forego those profits built by toxic means? In addition, is it time for workplace culture to be a leading/primary indicator of long-term sustained profitability of a public company?

From the perspective of an employee and industry participant and another woman in the tech industry — HR is one function that likely has a higher number of women than men. And I’m willing to venture that this is true of Uber’s HR dept as well. By conventional standards it should have been easier for HR to empathize with Fowler and the other female employees of Uber who sought help from HR. But they felt HR was complicit and felt wronged. Easy reasons could be that they just don’t care or that they don’t have the ability to empathize or have the capacity for compassion etc etc.

However, there may also be a few other non-obvious reasons —

a) Lack of empowerment b) Mis-aligned incentives c) Eroding objectivity or unconscious bias d) Presence of Overt or covert power plays

Lack of empowerment — That they were told that their job is to support the business not to promote human rights or advocate for social causes.

Mis-aligned incentives — Are HR rank and file rewarded for a healthy work place culture? Your guess is as good as mine. Are they penalized for it? I will venture to guess…no.

Eroding objectivity — Women in HR are somewhat duped by business leaders and managers in question. Let’s face it, no one with intelligence worth a dime will antagonize HR. In fact some strategically will be enthusiastic champions and supporters of HR. It is possible that women in HR sub-consciously become a biased party rather than an objective judge.

Presence of Overt or covert power plays — It is highly likely that most HR situations pit a rank and file female HR manager against a powerful business executive. It will take a lot of courage of conviction to stick one’s neck out. Though, if this existed, one would expect some whistle-blower to come from HR. So this is mostly a conjecture at this point.

My observation is that HR’s rank and file employees are mostly women. They are themselves not as empowered as you’d think to effect a cultural change or to influence the rules or to call out the business leaders when they are in violation or bordering on the violation of any code of conduct.

In some cases, HR will judge the leader against whom complaints are being made by how they have behaved towards the HR person. HR people might advise the person complaining, the aggrieved party, to try a different behavior because the leader seemed reasonable to them. The truth is no one who has a reasonable amount of intelligence will behave anything other than reasonable with HR. Yes, HR is supposed to have higher levels of empathy but self-preservation is a much stronger driver for human actions and behavior.

So, is the HR function perfunctory then? No. HR can act as an release valve and assuage people in charged situations. But expecting HR to change the values that the leadership set, effect cultural changes — I hope it’s not a pipe dream. It requires HR to become a profit driver not just a supporting function. By that, I don’t mean, having HR provide a smoke screen for aggressive workplace culture under the guise of big profits. Board and CEO should hire HR people who truly have demonstrated that HR can generate profits by actually creating a great workplace culture. Not just by playing a supporting role.

References:

https://www.susanjfowler.com/blog/2017/2/19/reflecting-on-one-very-strange-year-at-uber

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