Before the financial crisis of 2008 — before the gap between rich and poor was too big to ignore, before Trump, before #MeToo—the term “corporate responsibility” was in vogue.

Corporate responsibility at the time focused on the effects companies had outside their walls. The term was synonymous with minimizing carbon footprints, improving conditions for workers in foreign countries, giving back to local communities, and setting up volunteer days for staff. It was used in recruiting and investor communications with a few splashy webpages dedicated to impact and photos of people in T-shirts cleaning up parks and painting schools.

Today, instead of corporate responsibility, you hear about mission and vision, “making the world a better place” and “improving the lives of millions” one press release at a time. The ethos of our times (at least in tech, as I see it) is that you can drive social change through business means. By doing well in business, we can do good for the world. Of course, this worldview is being called into question with a backlash against big tech. For now, though, it remains the dominant narrative and the reason so many people seek mission-centric jobs.

Today, instead of corporate responsibility, you hear about mission and vision.

To be fair, many of these businesses are changing the world and, in some cases, significantly improving the lives of their customers. However, as was the case with corporate responsibility, the focus of mission-driven businesses tends to be external. What about corporate responsibility within a company’s walls?

There’s a growing responsibility within companies. Employers are being tasked with making decisions that are core to how we live our lives:

  • Whether you can afford health care (benefit packages)
  • Your likelihood of building wealth (compensation plans, including whether you’re paid in dollars, equity, or both)
  • The balance of responsibilities at home (parental leave policies)
  • Whether you work with people from different backgrounds (recruiting practices)
  • Whether your carpool, ride the train, or drive solo (commuter benefits)

These are big decisions. They influence and affect bigger issues like income inequality, gender roles, and health care insurance guidelines. Often, these decisions are made by a team that is perceived as “back office,” unsexy, and even a cost center: human resources. H.R. teams are tasked with huge charters, understaffed teams, and limited budgets.

Human resources is the hidden policy arm of America, and most CEOs don’t even realize they are so involved in politics.

But these decisions are not ones that should be shuffled to some back office department. 49% of Americans get health care insurance through their employers. More than a third of employers offer paid maternity leave beyond what laws require. 48% of private employers offer a retirement plan.

Human resources is the hidden policy arm of America, and most CEOs don’t even realize how involved they are in politics.

Here’s just a glimpse of the kinds of questions and problems a human resource manager might face:

These problems are vast and overwhelming. Human resource managers are the catchall for finding whole-office solutions — from hiring agencies and candidate screening to career development and workplace culture. How are most companies tackling these responsibilities?


Employers are being tasked with making decisions that are core to how we live our lives.

To manage all these “back office” decisions, H.R. teams often rely on third parties. There are task-specific consultants and services for pawning off policy choices, and there are plenty of benefits-in-a-box solutions that take payroll, benefits, compliance, and all the H.R. work off a company’s hands altogether. Large companies sometimes even lend their resources and influence to organizations and national business groups that pool together to set homogenous benefits and office policies for massive groups of employees — thousands or tens of thousands of people — all at once.

Among V.C.-backed businesses, portfolio companies often share information. A few companies will align on a harassment policy, for example, or a benefits broker. Strength in numbers.

As an employee, you might not notice that your employer is actually sponsoring your social safety net. Especially not if you work at a tech company that competes for talent by offering stock options, robust benefits, and progressive policies on issues like parental leave.

But if you’re part of the 40 million “working poor”, or if you’re working outside of Silicon Valley, L.A. or N.Y.C. — or if a future recession no longer forces employers to compete on benefits — what then?

While it seems to be a given that employers will continue to provide people health care benefits and create policies that go beyond government minimums, this is far from guaranteed. And in this system, we’re leaving those policy choices not just up to employers but to employers’ human resources departments.

It might be time we stop treating these as decisions left to the “back office” and start handling them like what they actually are: public policy.