When HR = Cruelty & Conflict
How do those who should help become instigators of harm?
I have been lucky enough to work for organisations where HR are respected, regarded and even loved by its people. However, I have also experienced the situation where HR are the cruellest, most feared and avoided unit in the whole organisation. Right now I am dealing with this latter situation, constantly shocked and saddened about the lack of humanity in their words and actions. It has me wondering — how can people who are meant to help others, end up being the source of so much harm?
Examples of HR Cruelty
I can only hope that you have never experienced the worst side of an HR unit. But if you have, then the following kind of cruelty I have witnessed may come as no surprise:
- Ambushing staff by changing meeting attendees and agenda without notice
- Demanding reasons for why people have taken leave
- Suggesting that because a person has taken leave without pay, then can “last a bit longer” while they prepare for their return
- Asking colleagues to reveal information about other staff that are on leave
- Stating that further “HR action” would need to be taken if the employee does not comply with their request
- Referring to a person who has been treated for mental illness as “not normal”
- Stating that “patterns of non-attendance are being observed and noted”
- Refusing to allow a person’s preferred support person
- Recording a display of frustration as one of “aggression” and citing that the person was being aggressive when they were only trying to defend themselves
- Scouring the internet to find “dirt” on a person that they can use to instigate disciplinary proceedings
- Refusing to acknowledge adverse management behaviour that has contributed to physical and mental stress
- Explaining away concerning results on employee surveys
- Not measuring or monitoring incidents of workplace stress
These are just a snapshot of some of the horrendous behaviour I have seen from HR officers. Of course, if you are on the other side of these events, you could find a way to rationalise them as “reasonable management action”. However, not only are many of these actions illegal under many laws (including numerous industrial instruments, information privacy and discrimination), they actively create an atmosphere of fear, especially for people that are already vulnerable. Why is this so?
The Conflicting Roles of HR
The first thing to consider is the role that HR plays in an organisation. There are two schools of thought on this, with leaders either instructing these units to be:
- Managers of a resource that happens to be human; or
- A resource for the humans within the organisation.
The two approaches sound similar, but the outcomes are very different.
- HR as Managers of a Resource. If this is the view of HR taken by an organisation’s leaders, then it is likely that they will be seen to be a tool for leaders to achieve their goals. They will be driven to place productivity and profitability as the priorities and be focused solely on administrative or risk management tasks. They will be pressed to maintain the status quo and power of those they report to. The role of HR becomes getting the right people in the right place at the right time and getting them to perform. HR exists to deliver the bottom line, and the implication is that humans are directable and disposable resources.
- HR as a Resource for Humans. If this is the role that HR is to play, the expected behaviours are very different. They are there to counsel, guide and develop people to be their best and to place the focus on their people[i]. They are there for both managers and employees and are empowered to be change agents for the organisation[ii], for the benefit of all.
The first approach is very old-school, and while completely inappropriate for the knowledge and gig economies, and the escalating talent wars, it still exists, sometimes just because no other option is ever discussed. Many other HR units, while being aware of the need to change their role and approach face too much resistance from leadership and end up contributing to the continuity of toxic cultures and systemic cruelty.
But why do they allow this to happen? I am certainly no expert in human behaviour, but have some theories, and believe that cruelty displayed by HR is a sign of:
1. Systemic dehumanisation
3. Internal conflict
HR Is Part Of The System
We have to remember that if there is a duel of dehumanisation occurring in an organisation, then HR is not only a part of this process but they are stuck right in the middle. It is not unrealistic to think that the HR staff are being dehumanised along with everyone else. While HR officers may not be managers themselves, their decisions and advice to managers can make or break a person. This position of relative power means they can pass on the pain of dehumanisation and cruelty to many others beyond their subordinates. In this way, if HR do not have the insight, capacity or courage to fight the flow of dehumanisation, then they become active collaborators in, and even advocates for toxic cultures.
HR Are Often Overloaded
If an organisation already has systemic issues, then it is likely that the HR unit will be swamped with work. Turnover will be high so there will have to be ongoing recruitment, backfilling, induction and exit processes to administer. Toxic cultures permit bad behaviour, so grievances and conflicts will also be rife, increasing the HR workload. Bad behaviour also creates a range of negative physical and mental effects that HR will be called on to manage.
Then add a pandemic into the mix and now you have a whole set of remote and hybrid workforces to deal with. Some of these issues involve people who are hurt, and a range of confronting emotions, creating inner distress for everyone involved — including the HR officers. So in many ways, HR bears the brunt of poor cultures as well and is the central point where many of the catastrophic consequences come to head. They can be laden with urgent and unrealistic demands, and I am sure spend many days feeling overwhelmed. They can also spend their days confronted with stress, fear, sadness and despair.
Here is my theory then. When someone is overwhelmed, they go into self-protection mode, that is they take action (either consciously or unconsciously) to prevent being further burdened. When running away yourself is not an option, pushing other people away who are bringing the work is an easy alternative. Perhaps the cruelty you see from HR is not only transferred aggression, but it is also a way to get people to back off.
When people don’t like you, they certainly won’t come to you. When people find you unhelpful, then they will be less likely to line up for help. When you don’t care about anyone else’s emotions, then they will stop sharing them with you. If you treat them badly enough, they will be so scared they will just do what you say. And if you treat them even worse they may just leave the organisation — problem solved!
This approach to managing overload is not only short-sighted and selfish but also stupid. By pushing away “problematic employees” this strategy may work in the short term. However, by condoning cruelty they are enforcing values and cultures that will continue to increase their workload in the future. The short-term gain for HR creates long-term pain for everyone.
The Pain of Internal Conflict
Assume for a moment an HR officer chose a career dealing with other humans because they wanted to help people, that they entered an organisation with values of empathy and compassion. They may enter the organisation thinking that they are to be there as a helpful resource for humans, and then find out that they are expected instead to be managers of resources that just happen to be human. If they then get captured into a toxic culture, they could be pressured by management to do the exact opposite of their values — to do things that cause people harm.
If this is the case, ultimately, these HR officers would be living each day with internal conflict and discomfort. There is a disconnect between how they are living and what they value. There is a contradiction between their behaviour and beliefs. The professional term for this internal conflict is cognitive dissonance.
Our brains do not cope well with inconsistency, and the result is heavy emotional experiences of:
Even more than inconsistency, our brains detest discomfort, and so will take motivate us to take action to move us away from this psychological and emotional pain. The extensive research on cognitive dissonance tells us that we will either change our values to fit our behaviour or change our behaviour to fit our values. So the options for HR officers that are feeling this conflict become to:
- Change their values. Begin to believe that dehumanisation and cruelty are appropriate or at least acceptable
- Change their behaviour. Stick to their values of empathy and compassion and exit the organisation that is expecting them to act in conflict with these.
So it is not completely unrealistic to think that those HR officers that are working in toxic cultures have decided to take the first course of action and shift their values to reduce their internal conflict. This corruption of compassion and human potential is so incredibly sad.
However, just rationalising your behaviour by changing values does not always work. The feelings of inner conflict can still exist, and if this is the case, it fuels even more extreme emotions. Because emotions have been repressed during the period of rational reasoning, it tends to come back stronger. Emotional reactions to the disconnect between work behaviours and values can be even more powerful than before, increasing effects such as depression, anxiety, and even potentially leading to post-traumatic stress disorder[iii].
The inner turmoil may be having significant effects on a person’s mood, attitude and relationships. The internal conflict may be spilling out into external interactions lessening the ability to effectively communicate and resulting in increased levels of conflict with those who can’t fight back. When you are hurting, you tend to hurt others.
The reason behind this is that when we are in a state of internal confusion, we are living in fear. And spending our days in fear is nothing short of destructive — for the person living in fear and the world around them. Because as John Lennon so wisely perceived:
“When we are afraid, we pull back from life.”
Fear closes us down to others and our potential. We are not honestly and fully ourselves, we compromise our values, and spend our days guarded. This is hardly a positive foundation for empathetic and compassionate behaviour. In addition, with fear, care and creativity are stifled, which are two things very much needed if constructive paths through the murkiness of human relationships are to be found. As Gandhi said:
“Fear kills the soul.”
If fear is present in HR units it kills the soul of the individuals across the organisation and, through their complicit behaviour, it kills the soul of the organisation.
The only way to eradicate fear is through love:
- Love for those around you by showing empathy and compassion
- Love for yourself by sticking to the values that help make you a better person.
I know how hard it is to resist engagement in feelings of hatred and disrespect for those who are behaving badly. But, it is only through awareness, understanding and compassion can these toxic cultures be dissolved. We can’t wait for HR or leaders of the organisation to ‘get it and take action to change cultures. If we are in the system, then we have the ability and responsibility to offer an alternative course of behaviour. We can choose to meet cruelty with care and fear with love.
Awareness of our internal conflict is the first step to changing things around. However, With around 90% of our thoughts and feelings being subconscious, there is a great chance that the person may not even be aware of the exact nature of the internal struggles that are occurring. They may know that something is not right but be ignorant of the cause of their anxiety.
We must remember that people only hurt others if they are hurting themselves.
“naturally, when we feel that we are faulty, we mistreat ourselves, and then we mistreat others in some way.”~ Jeremy Griffiths
So HR is not the enemy. And likewise, the people that end up at HR’s door are not the enemy. The enemy is the culture of fear, and it is this culture and behaviour that we must battle against.
That is why we must build love into every strategy, structure, system and meeting. It is the only chance we have to drive out fear, prevent harm, and allow our people and our organisations to flourish.
[iii] Hull, A.M. (2002). Neuroimaging findings in post-traumatic stress disorder. The British Journal of Psychiatry 181: 102–10.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.