Human Resources

When it Comes to Doing Right By Your Coworker, Forget HR

What does it mean to be a bystander in a toxic workplace? Sometimes it means being forced to decide between doing what you know is right and protecting your job. In this excellent installment of The Ethicist in the New York Times Magazine, Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses the quandary of an office worker who knows a young coworker was unjustly fired. The advice given is very sound and reflects the situation that many people face at work. In a perfect world, the correspondent should have been able to go to human resources with her problem. However, as I discuss in From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire, in toxic cultures human resources is part of the problem, rather than being part of the solution—which is what makes Appiah’s advice in the column so on target.

Photo credit: BIGSTOCK

Human Resources: A Dismal Profession?

In all the discussion about Wells Fargo in the wake of their sham accounts scandal, there’s been no real mention of who or what was the direct architect of their corporate culture. In my opinion, human resources should be responsible for the integrity of an organization’s culture just as much as the CFO might be responsible for the integrity of that organization’s numbers. I’ve worked in HR – early in my career, I was an HR professional, and throughout my career, I’ve worked with HR roles within my portfolio of responsibilities – and I think it’s safe to say that HR needs to be held accountable for the cultural makeup of a company. They’re the team that develops incentive programs like the ones that allowed 5,300 employees at Wells Fargo to lose their jobs for following their culture’s status quo. They’re the team responsible for ethics training, handling whistleblowers, and helping employees deal with the strain of impossible sales quotas. In my new book (out in January) and in previous blog posts, I’ve compared workplace cultures to ticking time bombs, which go off when a company’s leadership neglects the reality of a workplace structured for scandal. When a culture is a ticking time bomb, HR is almost always part of that problem, either in the form of discouraging whistleblowers, creating programs that don’t truly address interpersonal conflicts associated with sales goals, or creating a veneer of caring about customers and employees that’s entirely false. I suspect much of this went on at Wells Fargo – just look at the HR gobbledygook on their website (which hasn’t been updated since 2015) for evidence of this. However, as much as HR can be part of the problem with workplace culture, they can also be part of the solutions to fix those problems – if only HR professionals had the courage and honesty to stand up, acknowledge cultural issues, and inform leadership in order to make actionable changes needed to avoid disgraces that harm customers as much as they harm the organization’s reputation. 

Photo: Getty Images via Wall Street Journal 

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

I wanted to take a moment to respond further to the stories of workplace sexual harassment that have been coming forward more and more in the past weeks. Many, from various talking heads to Eric Trump, seem to be suggesting that all a woman (or man) needs to do to dispel sexual harassment is go to human resources. Firstly, this point of view totally ignores the reality that many workplace cultures subtly encourage employees not to file harassment claims. Additionally, as I’ve discussed in my book, in many instances of workplace bullying (including sexual harassment), HR can oftentimes be part of the problem – either because they don’t have the power to effectively resolve issues, or because they are actively taking part in creating issues. Blindly directing targets of sexual harassment to HR is not only foolish, but potentially harmful in the modern workplace. Unless HR is completely trustworthy in the given organization, targets need to gather substantive evidence of their harassment to back themselves up when they finally make their situation known – otherwise, HR can end up empowering the bully or harasser further, sometimes unintentionally. As opposed to encouraging more women to speak up about harassment, which is valuable, I suggest another option: we need to encourage HR officers to grow backbones. In many workplaces like Fox News, where ongoing harassment seemed to be an open secret, where was HR? Where is HR when an employee is showing clear signs of domestic abuse, sexual harassment or mental issues? Many of the workplace bullying cases I see day to day could be avoided – if HR was empowered to help employees effectively, and had the real intention to do so. 

"The Impact of Workplace Bullying"

A staggering 80% of people feel they are in an “unhelpful or hostile work environment,” according to Mental Health America. I spoke with Rex Huppke at the Chicago Tribune about how pervasive workplace bullying is, and how it is often an ingrained part of company culture itself. The only way to get employees to trust their HR departments enough to share their experiences is to create trustworthy corporate cultures. Read the full piece here.