Human resources departments are easy targets. A month ago, Susan Fowler wrote an extensive blog post that immediately went viral about the ongoing sexual harassment she experienced at Uber. She pointed a finger at Uber’s HR team, which she says failed to take her complaints seriously. Over the last few weeks, former Thinx employees have described founder and former CEO Miki Agrawal’s behavior on the record as aggressive, vindictive, and sexually inappropriate, alongside other workplace problems, including terrible pay and poor health care benefits. Many argued that if the startup had had an HR manager in place, some or all of these problems might have gone away.
But this isn’t necessarily true. I spoke with nine experts, ranging from HR professionals to professors to industry analysts, all of whom argued that without strong leadership invested in a healthy workplace, HR is hamstrung. “If HR doesn’t have the support of top management, you can’t create or maintain a positive work culture,” says MaryAnne Hyland, professor of HR management at Adelphi University.
Why The Current HR Structure Is So Broken
Jason Nazar, Comparably’s CEO and a serial entrepreneur, concurs. “Culture always starts at the top,” he says. “HR is meant to be both a megaphone of the values of leadership and the safeguards for when people do things that are inappropriate, wrong, or not in the best interest of the company.”
Several pointed out that the very nature of human resources within a company is tenuous: The department is meant to advocate on behalf of employees, but it is still subordinate to the company’s leadership. If the leaders of the company are themselves misbehaving or not taking employees who bring up problems seriously, HR departments are probably not going to be empowered to set the company on the right course.
In Fowler’s description of her experience at Uber, it appears that senior management was aware of sexual harassment yet turned a blind eye. Trained HR professionals should know the proper procedure for dealing with an employee complaint: Talking to the other party, investigating what happened, then changing the work arrangement and, if appropriate, disciplining the harasser. But at Uber, the HR team didn’t have the leverage to do their jobs well, since the leaders at the company were effectively colluding with the man accused of sexual harassment. This makes it close to impossible for an HR manager to effectively fight for the rights of an employee.
This is unfortunately a relatively common occurrence. “I know people who have quit their jobs as senior HR managers because they see things going on at the company and don’t have the support of senior management to address the issue,” Hyland says. “They did not feel comfortable staying in the position where they could not do what they knew was the right thing to do.”
But, of course, not all HR professionals are in the privileged position of just being able to leave. Many stay at their jobs, even though their hands are tied. This is generally when employees experience the all-too-familiar sense of frustration of going into the HR manager’s office in the hopes that someone would listen and help, only to realize that nothing is going to change.
This is one reason that problems are so pervasive in the workplace, even at companies with robust HR departments. According to Comparably, a startup that collects data from employees about compensation and culture at companies, 7% of men and 26% of women claim to have been sexually harassed at work, out of a sample of more than 10,000 respondents.
When it comes to racism in the workplace, the situation is just as bleak. Over half of all African-Americans had experienced racist behavior at work, as did one-third of Native Americans and Latinos and a quarter of Asians. In total, out of 5,000 respondents, 21% of men and 29% of women had experienced some form of racism at the office.
When startups finally hit their stride and start growing quickly, leaders are often so focused on maintaining this upward trajectory that they don’t pay attention to how happy their employees are. This was the case at both Uber and Thinx. “Companies that have toxic work environments tend to have gotten so caught up in their amazing growth that they forget to put that emphasis on empowering their people to do great work,” says Carlos Bradley, director of culture and training at boxed meal kit company Sun Basket and former Apple employee. “We see time and again that this kind of explodes in their face.”
How to Begin to Fix HR
But it doesn’t need to be like this. There are mechanisms companies can implement to make HR a more powerful and effective force.
Nazar says that most companies begin to hire someone for the role of HR when the employee base swells to between 50 and 75 people. Nazar, who is a serial entrepreneur, acknowledges that it might not make sense to bring on an HR manager early on, but it is up to the company’s founder to make HR a priority. From day one, someone must be tasked with thinking about employee welfare, whether it is the CEO or another top manager, like the COO.
Even if the company is minuscule and relies on external tools to deal with HR issues like payroll and benefits management, someone needs to be the point person staff members go to with problems or complaints. “No matter what size you are, culture matters,” he says. “If you’re the founder, if you’re employee No. 1, you’ve got to think, what’s the culture going to be like for the very next person? As soon as you become a company of two, you need be talking about what your company culture is.”
Nazar says that once a company has taken outside investment and has plans to grow quickly, hiring HR becomes a necessity. At that point, even when a company has basic issues in check and is welcoming to people of all genders, sexualities, and races, more tricky cultural issues come up. These include nuanced issues such as how you get employees to stay positive and optimistic in the face of adversity, or how you balance having fun as a team and also achieving your goals. “These are the more challenging aspects of culture,” he says.
Kristen Kenny, VP of people and talent at CarGurus, points out that culture changes constantly as new people come on board. This is why it’s important for a designated HR person to devote time on a regular basis to figure out what employees need, and how this might be changing. Through biannual employee surveys, Kenny discovered that employees needed a forum to discuss issues with top management, so she launched quarterly town hall meetings. Employees wanted to know what was happening beyond their teams, so she created company newsletters. To create bonding experiences between teams, she started “dining clubs” where different groups could get to know one another.
For HR to be effective, it is important to define what it can and cannot do. Ultimately HR is not responsible for creating a positive culture: That is the job of leadership. HR can help perpetuate this culture and rid the company of people who do not embrace company values. Installing an HR manager at a company rife with problems is not going to accomplish much–and blaming HR for leadership’s failures makes it less likely that the underlying issues will be addressed. “It starts at the top,” Bradley says. “The things that are important to the top leadership at a company become important everywhere else in the company. Of course leadership needs to think about growth and customer acquisition, but great leaders always go back to talking about ‘our people.'”
In a moment of crisis, the board, CEO, and management of a company need to get to the root of the problem. Who at the top is enabling bad behavior? What can be done to prevent this person from causing ongoing harm? Does there need to be a change in leadership? If so, as in the case of both Thinx and Uber, which are finding new CEOs, what can be done to ensure that the new chief is given real autonomy and prioritizes employee happiness?
But once the management has established the kind of culture they want at a company, HR professionals become extremely valuable because they can help turn this vision into a reality. And having a strong set of values empowers the HR team to actually bring about change, whether that’s creating new policies or firing bad apples. “At a company where HR is supported by management, we are able to look at every person that comes to us with a problem and say, ‘You are our most important resource,'” Bradley says. “We’re going to take care of you, do proper, thorough investigations, and make the right call.”
In the end, smart leaders don’t see HR as a luxury or as an unfortunate necessity. They realize that it has an impact on a the bottom line and is crucial to the success of the business. “The companies that are well-recognized for being effective workplaces treat their employees well and turn that into a winning recipe for the business,” Hyland says.