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What Would An HR Department That Works For Employees Look Like?

We spoke to five human resources experts about how to fix the broken industry.

What Would An HR Department That Works For Employees Look Like?
[Photo: John Robert Marasigan/Unsplash]

2017 has been quite a year for workplace scandals. Earlier in the year, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler exposed the ride-hailing giant’s hostile work environment, rampant with debauchery and harassment. Then there were the troubling allegations at the fintech startup SoFi about a work environment centered on “a culture of fear and disrespect.” More recently, we continue to hear more allegations of sexual abuse at work, particularly after the New York Times and the New Yorker published numerous on-the-record accusations dating back a decade against mega producer Harvey Weinstein.

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As these stories unfolded, many are taking a closer look at the role (and shortcomings) of human resources, criticizing HR for not doing enough. But as Fast Company‘s Elizabeth Segran wrote earlier this year, “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.” Fowler’s experience in reporting her harassment to HR, only to be met with indifference, exemplifies this tension.


Related: Thinx’s PR Nightmare Is A Harsh Reminder Of Why HR Still Matters 


Is it even possible to have an HR department that, first and foremost, acts in the best interests of employees? I spoke to five HR experts and leaders to find out.

Human Resources Need To Be (And Be Seen) As An Integral Part of The Business

Human resources  started as a transaction-based department focused on compliance, record keeping, and wage management, Jared Lindzon wrote in a 2015 Fast Company article. Laurie Ruettimann, a former HR professional turned consultant, told Fast Company that HR was a way to outsource work that managers and supervisors were “too lazy to do . . . themselves.”

Nithya Das, chief people & legal officer of ad-tech firm AppNexus, told Fast Company that when a startup starts to make investments in its people, HR tends to be one of the last roles to be filled. But for HR to be effective as a function, they need to have a seat at the table. Das, for example, attends every board meeting. She argued, “An HR function that acts for the benefit of the employees should actually be aligned with the company’s long-term interest.”

But HR professionals might not take this long-term view if they are seen and treated by the company as a back-office function with very little power. This kind of structure, Das believes, is possibly what drives HR professionals to protect perpetrators, because they might feel that they lack the power to punish them.

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Related: How AI Is Changing Human Resources


Companies Need To Identify HR Shortcomings And Enlist Outside Help When Appropriate

Toby Hervey, cofounder and CEO of Bravely–an ombudsman-like platform that serves as a “hotline” for employees to air off-the-record anonymous complaints–believes that one of the best ways for companies to tackle the conflict of interest is enlist outside parties that can support employees independent of the company. “By design, it’s very challenging for an HR business partner to [support the company and the employee]. There are amazing HR professionals out there who do a great job of supporting employees, but at the end of the day, they are ultimately tied to the company. That can be difficult sometimes to make a decision based on the employee alone, ” Hervey told Fast Company.

He went on to say, “What we like to see companies do is invest in more  channels and resources in employees. We often talk about Bravely not as a replacement to HR. We work better when there’s a robust HR function to help the company run really well.” His cofounder and Bravely’s chief customer officer Sarah Sheehan added that part of what makes tools like Bravely helpful to employees is that it “demystifies the process” of what it would take to bring a harassment complaint. 


Related: Can These Apps Help You When Your HR Department Fails?


Any HR Solutions Should Be Uniquely Tailored To The Workforce Of The Company

Neil Vogel, CEO of Dotdash (formerly About.com) stressed that ideally, before an organization even starts to hire an HR team, they need to think long and hard about the kind of workplace they want to create. He asserted, “If you’re an insurance company in Philadelphia, you’ll need a different HR team than at Dotdash, where the median age is 30.”

Das agrees, saying that such forward planning also helps shape and determine what kinds of conversations are acceptable in the office. AppNexus, like Dotdash, also has a largely young and millennial workforce, who, according to Das, sees their “work community as their primary community.” As a result, “there are a lot of things we talk about in our workplace that a traditional, mature industry might not consider appropriate.” (For example, AppNexus hosted an open forum after the Charlottesville rally and the 2016 election.) This kind of approach, however, only works if employees thrive in this kind of environment–introducing it in a workplace that doesn’t value these kinds of discussions could result in backlash and resentment.

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It All Starts From The Top

To an extent, Das, Vogel, Ruettimann, Hervey, and Sheehan all believe that the future of HR looks brighter than it did. Sometimes, the best way to solve something is to shine a light on the issue, Das asserted. Hervey observed, “All of these allegations coming out of corporate America are making companies pay more attention because they’re seeing more reputational damage come out of these poorly built-out functions.”

Ruettimann noted that while she is positive about HR’s future, she’s not optimistic about the pace of change–she believes it will be a long time before we have an HR function that can truly benefit employees. “I’m trying not to let my own cynicism get in the way of what could potentially be a good movement toward change,” she tells Fast Company. “I think that’s going to be a long conversation that HR people will need to have with themselves.” 

Ruettimann believes that at the minimum, companies should publish reports on the numbers and types of harassment complaints that they get each year, similar to diversity reports. That way, companies can start to identify whether certain personnel presents “risks” to the organizations, and they can work with the data to address any problems before it’s too late.

Ruettimann also stressed that in order to ensure that these discussions don’t merely fizzle out, male leaders need to be unafraid about challenging their peers to keep the conversations going. “I think one of the weird things about America is that it only makes waves when powerful white men speak about it,” she says. 

When a CEO of a publicly traded company is outed, when a beloved institution ousts its leader without something going public and/or without an investigative report of wrongdoing in the New York Times or the Washington Post, Ruettimann says, that’s when we know that HR has finally made real progress, and we can expect positive change to take place. 

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About the author

Anisa is the Assistant Editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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