Having a workplace issue? Go to human resources.
That’s what we’re all told time and time again. But what happens when HR is the bad actor and is in fact not a reliable person to turn to? That’s exactly the situation one employee was in at a small Portland-based property maintenance company recently.
Earlier this month, a press release announced that Dasher Lights and Aspen Ridge Property Services is facing charges of racial discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The suit alleges that the property maintenance company allowed the HR manager to “harass a Hispanic employee without consequence, ultimately forcing him to resign due to an increasingly hostile work environment.”
According to the press release, in May 2022, a janitorial operations manager at the company “received a large […] chocolate penis and scrotum at his home with the message ‘Eat A D–k’ on the inside box cover,’ sent by a supervisory employee who was in charge of HR for the company.
Granted, it’s an extreme example of what happens when HR isn’t competent, but it’s a reminder that HR professionals make mistakes too. And that can damage culture.
“I do think in a lot of ways, HR has earned a really bad reputation,” said Alexis McEvoy, chief people officer at Medicare advisory firm Chapter. “Every time a bad actor comes in, the trust gets broken and broken and broken.”
Part of the issue is that – contrary to what many employees may believe – HR doesn’t exist solely to fix their problems in the workplace. Ask a business leader what the function of HR is, and their response will be very different: it’s to protect the organization. For example, preventing a company from being sued by an employee. Often it depends on the kind of organization and its culture. In those HR departments that are focused on retaining staff, employees who raise workplace issues may get a more proactive and supportive response.
But if HR departments can’t always be perfect, and must also prioritize the company’s legal interests, figuring out who to go to if an employee has an issue to raise, isn’t always clear cut.
“This is a particularly egregious situation, but it is indicative of this much bigger issue that people really need to be thinking about,” said Melanie Naranjo, vp of people at compliance training company Ethena. “Sometimes there is this idea that only HR can know what the right behavior is, or be responsible for culture and compliance or taking action. The reality is that these kinds of things are everyone’s responsibility, in particular, the whole leadership team.”
At the root of it is that one person or couple of people in HR shouldn’t have all that power.
“It’s really critical that you always have checks and balances,” said Naranjo.
It’s best to try and fix workplace issues internally, but it can be hard to know where to turn if HR isn’t helping. That’s why things like workplace hotlines, which Ethena and Chapter both offer, and robust mentoring programs, can be helpful.
“A mentor is often a confidant that doesn’t impact their direct manager and is somebody who often has shared experiences, who can help them with things like navigating escalations or seeking external counsel,” said Dave Wilkin, CEO of talent experience platform 10KC. “More and more employees need to create their own board of directors to navigate their own issues and not expect there is a shared service. It’s becoming more and more normal that employees have to take their careers into their own hands.”
But that takes a level of psychological safety and trust in the organization: “Do you feel comfortable going to your direct lead, manager, team lead, or founders and CEO of the company?” said McEvoy.
“It’s a tough thing,” said Naranjo. “It can be emotional, it can be psychological, it can even have a financial impact. You might be nervous it will have an impact on your employment or that something backfires. There is a lot of fear that can go into this and we shouldn’t overlook that.”
It’s ideal to be able to navigate the situation internally, but if it continues to prove difficult, it could be time to look outwards for assistance.
“Of course I would want people to have a path internally to solve these problems,” said McEvoy. “But look, there are times where you have no trusted party that you feel like you can go to and that’s unfortunate.”
She suggests starting with any external resources the company offers, like outside counsel, and go from there. The further away from the company you go for recourse, it’s more likely to take longer and could have a financial impact as well.
An employee who is experiencing things like retaliation, harassment and discrimination in the workforce could end up going with the route of a lawsuit, like the employee at the Portland-based company. However, you can also turn to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the body that is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion or sex.
Either way, it’s best to speak out, stressed Cindy Gordon, a CHRO consultant and advisor.
“Suffering silently will only do harm to yourself and potentially to others,” said Gordon. “Saying something could ultimately help to improve conditions for yourself, others, and the organization as a whole.”