HR: Why I believe it has influence but lacks power

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Mar 27, 2023

Be warned.

I’m about to say some things that HR professionals may not want/like to hear.

It’s a common misconception that the human resources function exists to serve as a mediator between employees, managers or co-workers when they have an issue or complaint.

It’s my view that when employees run to HR it is almost always the wrong move.

If employees have tensions with their co-worker, or if they feel like their boss belittles them (or even that they want to move up into a higher position), I would argue this – staff should not seek help from HR.

HR has no power

As Matt Burns, founder of BentoHR recently told me: “HR has influence, though it lacks power.”

As someone who’s worked in the field for nearly three decades, I know this is true – having seen various HR requests being pushed aside by company executives time and time again.

It’s why I still believe, that when it comes to resolving issues, HR is the last place employees should go.

By contrast, if staff bring the same complaint to their manager, there’s a much higher likelihood that something will get done.

Why does HR have no power?

My view will no doubt be hugely controversial.

But to understand why HR lacks power, let’s take a step back and look at the way the HR department traditionally fits into companies.

HR is trained to handle recruiting, scheduling, payroll, training, safety, and compliance, plus or minus a few items specific to each business.

HR usually doesn’t have a seat at the table for financial conversations. Instead, it’s brought in afterwardwards to implement whatever decisions are made, says Burns. Because HR doesn’t have power at that level, there’s a degree of respect missing when it comes to decision-making.

Here’s just one of example of how this lack of respect shows itself in day-to-day work:

Recently, an HR executive contacted me to set up leadership coaching for the company’s executive team. But after discussing it with all members, the CEO and CFO said they weren’t open to it.

Given not having the CEO and CFO involved would defeat the whole purpose of coaching the executive team, the idea was scotched. And so, while the HR leader was able to suggest the intervention, she ultimately had no power over the final decision.

Even when it comes to employee issues, HR has less authority to take action than other executives do, thanks to the power dynamics I describe above.

That’s why if employees complain to HR professionals, they may well listen, but will anything be done about it? I’m not sure…

The best people to go to are…

As intimidating as it may seem, when employees have a problem, the best outcome will come from speaking with their manager, peer, or executive team member one-on-one.

I like to call this a “culture of feedback.”

 In a talent-centric organization, any employee should be able to voice a concern to someone below, across, or above them in rank. No one should be too busy to sit down and have a meeting to discuss an important issue.

A culture of feedback must be implemented from the top down. Executive team members must open their calendars to allow anyone to schedule one-on-ones to discuss sensitive matters. And it must be done without the possibility of retaliation after the conversation. Employees won’t communicate honestly if they fear being thrown under the bus.

It’s a delicate process that’s built over time, but once it becomes the norm, any organization that follows this will function in a healthier and more efficient way.

The two exceptions to this rule

There are only two exceptions – I believe – to the don’t-go-to-HR rule:

  • Employees should go to HR if they witness anything illegal. Anything involving the law must be taken to HR. It’s highly likely that if employees bring this sort of problem to anyone else, it will eventually be routed to HR anyway.
  • Employees should go to HR if they’re seeking information related to their company health insurance, compensation, or government protections. The same goes for questions regarding company insurance or government protections based on a disability or injury.

It must be noted that even given the above I know of many situations where discrimination and harassment issues were brought to HR, and still nothing was done.

So…“HR has influence, though it lacks power.”

Now that you understand the context behind this quote, I wonder if you now agree that HR isn’t the high school guidance counselor employees often think it is.


What do you think?

Is Carol right in what she says?

Is this a gross misrepresentation of what HR does?

Do you feel you have both power and influence?

We’d love to hear your views.

Send them to

We’ll feature the best responses in a future article.

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