The Problem With SHRM: Why HR Professionals Feel Disappointed, Disillusioned, and Deserted

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Jun 25, 2020
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Why do employees hate HR?

Notice I’m not asking if they do. They do. 

OK, maybe “hate” is a strong word. Many workers might simply dislike, feel suspicious of, or take an apathetic view of HR. Though actually, yes, a good number of people really do hate HR. Why is that?

Often, it’s because they feel that their HR departments — from the CHRO all the way down to Linda in her favorite belted cardigan and neckerchief — do a poor job (if any at all) of advocating for their interests. Despite company posters touting culture values, despite the grand proclamations by HR professionals that they’re all about the “H” in HR, employees know the truth. Or at least, they’ve seen or experienced enough to know their truth — that HR is a puppet of senior management. 

And so HR doesn’t drive the bus when it comes time to throw employees under it. It’s sitting meekly in the back seat.

Again, even when this isn’t true, it’s true. At work, perceptions are always truths.

An Uncomfortable Parallel

Why do I bring this up? It’s not because I’m a hater of HR. Just the opposite. There’s a lot that I actually love about the world of HR — I wouldn’t be the new editor of TLNT if I did not. (I’ll introduce myself more in a future post.) I have so much admiration and respect for good HR professionals and feel incredibly proud and fortunate to call many of them colleagues and friends.

It’s just that lately, I don’t have the same admiration and respect for the main body that represents HR professionals. 

I am a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). (I have the tote bag to prove it!) I also have an ugly acronym after my name to show that I’m SHRM-certified. The organization has been instrumental in helping me grow my skills and knowledge, and I know many HR practitioners who feel similarly grateful for SHRM’s role in their professional development.

But there’s something else that many members feel these days — extreme disappointment, disillusionment, and desertion by an institution that is failing to advocate for them meaningfully. 

In other words, the way that countless employees feel about their HR departments? That’s exactly how many HR professionals are feeling about the world’s largest HR organization these days. 

And employees who feel like their HR functions care about management’s interests at the expense of their needs? That’s precisely how many HR professionals feel about SHRM aligning itself with parties whose values contradict those of what it means to be a modern HR professional.

So how can we expect employees to feel more positively about HR when SHRM makes it hard for HR to feel more positively about HR?

By expecting more of SHRM. 

Over 2,000 Signatures…and Counting

Employment attorney and ERE legal columnist Kate Bischoff expects more of SHRM. That’s why she recently launched a petition that encapsulates the current frustration with the institution. Titled “SHRM must support Black Lives Matter & the LGBTQ community,” the petition states that for too long, SHRM “has abrogated its voice under the guise of ‘policy not politics’ when the policies hurt our LGBTQ, Black, Brown, and people of color communities. Instead, SHRM capitulated to the political interests of the right while ignoring the outcry of its members.”

The petition demands that the organization “actively seek to end the inequalities that run rampant in workplaces, and to help HR fight for the humanity in all of us. You can’t be in HR if you don’t believe in human rights and dignity.” 

Robin Schooling, managing partner of HR and people strategy at the human capital consulting firm Peridus and co-host of DriveThruHR, explains that she signed the petition because:

“I stand up for what is right and, as the saying goes, speak truth to power. I find it unconscionable that a professional organization for HR will not speak up for issues of justice and equality. I am disheartened when I witness SHRM’s lack of support for LGBTQ Americans and immigrants.”

Full disclosure: I am also one of the 2,000+ individuals who’ve signed the petition. I say this to be transparent, to let you know that I write this article not as an impartial journalist but as a SHRM member who seeks change. More importantly, I do so as a member of the LGBTQ community who was once fired for my sexual orientation.

This is deeply personal for me. I am more than just a statistic of workplace discrimination. I am someone who ached from the trauma and humiliation (even though it’s my former employer that should feel embarrassed) of being told that I could no longer work in a place because I’m gay. I am also someone who is mad and sad that an organization of which I’m a member refuses to stand up for people like me. 

As Tiffany Kuehl, an HR and talent acquisition professional for over 20 years — and past director of the Minnesota State SHRM Council, as well as former president of the Twin Cities SHRM chapter — points out: “SHRM literally has ‘human’ in its name!”

Of course, sometimes humans make mistakes. The problem is, SHRM’s recent (in)actions are not mistakes.

The Silent Face of HR

For months, there was a group of cases before the Supreme Court that were challenging whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected LGBTQ people. And for months, SHRM chose not to take a stand.

The organization could’ve filed an amicus brief with the court, as it has plenty of times in the past. But it did not.

It could’ve activated its Advocacy Team to “influence workplace public policy that impacts millions of workers each day.” But it did not.

It could’ve at least issued a statement in support of equality in the workplace for LGBTQ individuals. But it did not. 

So what did SHRM do as the Court was weighing whether employers could legally fire millions of Americans just like me? Nothing.

It wasn’t until after the high court ruled that employers could no longer terminate individuals for their LGBTQ status that SHRM finally — finally! — commented on the matter with a resounding and clear statement supporting equality.

I wish that were actually true. Here’s what SHRM head Johnny C. Taylor said instead:

“SHRM applauds the U.S. Supreme Court today for its ruling making clear employment discrimination on the basis of an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal. The ruling provides much-needed clarity and finality on the Court’s interpretation of Title VII’s protections, giving HR professionals clear guidance and a greater opportunity to create a world of work that works for all.”

I’ve had cold pizza that tasted warmer. I tweeted:

“I wish @SHRM’s sentiments came prior to @SCOTUS’ decision. This expansion of #LGBTQ rights did not happen with SHRM’s support but despite it. I hope going forward the org will do better — like advocating against rules stripping LGBTQ healthcare rights.”

As Wendy Berry, an HR practitioner (not a SHRM member) and West St. Paul city council member points out, “SHRM did not do what it should’ve done when it should’ve done it.” 

What’s more, I still can’t figure out whether SHRM is applauding the ruling or that the Court made a ruling that brought “clarity,” “finality,” and “guidance” — all of which could easily describe an opposite ruling had just two judges decided differently. We will never know what, if any, statement SHRM would make in such a scenario. But I don’t believe it’s a stretch to imagine it would probably say…nothing.

All Workers’ Lives Matter

SHRM’s silence on racial injustice has been just as deafening. 

That its president — a Black male — still cannot bring himself to utter three simple words (you know them) on behalf of his company to convey solidarity with a movement that seeks justice and fairness says a lot. 

SHRM doesn’t need to post “some platitude-filled statement that’s what every damn other person in the world would say, which is racism is bad,” Taylor recently told BusinessInsider

Actually, yes, SHRM does need to issue a platitude-filled statement. If it’s a cliché to say that racism is bad, it’s because racism is bad. If lots of other organizations are saying it, it’s because it’s worth saying. “It’s like you’re scared to say Black,” tweeted Madison Butler, VP of people and culture at Source Craft Cocktails, in response to a tweet by Taylor asking about current needs of employees at organizations.

Berry puts it far more bluntly by asking of Taylor: “How does it feel to go home and go to sleep and not stand up for people who look just like you?”

Meanwhile, days after the killing of George Floyd, SHRM put out a since-deleted tweet:

“Protests and marches were held around the world to protest police brutality and racism in the treatment of George Floyd by police, who died May 25 while in police custody. Some protests turned into mob scenes as people vandalized and looted businesses.”

Shortly after, in a statement condemning the death of George Floyd, SHRM said:

“On this National Day of Mourning, SHRM joins the world in grieving the tragic and senseless murder of George Floyd. We stand in solidarity against injustice, racism, discrimination, and violence of any kind, including those against law enforcement.”

Did SHRM just all-lives-matter us? 

“The organization has not taken a definitive stance against the adverse impact that people of color and those in the LGBTQ community feel,” says Kuehl. “SHRM believes that they are non-partisan, but being anti-racist or for LGBTQA rights is not political.”

Berry adds: “Their stance of focusing on policy over politics doesn’t make sense here. How about focusing on people?”

Words have power, and SHRM has power. That it chooses not to flex its might by explicitly voicing support for greater equality suggests that the nonprofit is willing to disregard the needs of many of its constituents.

Unless, of course, SHRM actually is catering to the needs of some very different constituents.

Whom Does SHRM Serve?

It’s not just that SHRM doesn’t champion the right causes, or that it backs the wrong ones. It’s that it refuses to address members when they question the organization’s activities.

For example, Schooling was — was — a long-time member of SHRM. She says she was one of SHRM’s biggest champions, serving as chapter president and in numerous volunteer leadership roles with her state council. But by the end of 2018, she let both her national and local memberships lapse. 

“My concern was the blatant and public support that SHRM, in the person of Johnny C. Taylor, was giving to the current Presidential administration,” Schooling explains. “By this stage, the current occupant of the White House had made the statement that Nazis at the Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right Rally’ were ‘very fine people,’ and the Administration was well under way in stripping away rights for various marginalized people.”

Schooling contacted various SHRM representatives via numerous methods to voice concerns. Crickets. (SHRM also failed to respond to a request to comment for this article.)

“That lack of response has been the most disheartening aspect throughout the last several years,” Schooling laments. “Quite frankly the easiest thing that JCT and SHRM could have done, could still do, is be willing to have a dialogue with members who have raised concerns. Instead, their tactics have been the professional version of #CancelCulture.”

Then, in May 2019, after SHRM tweeted about the White House’s further tightening of harmful immigration policies, Schooling and other HR professionals on Twitter started questioning if SHRM was going to take a stance on what was clearly a very people-centric issue.

“Instead of engaging in respectful — no name-calling, no profanity — dialogue, Emily Dickens, JCT’s chief of staff, blocked me and several other people on Twitter,” Schooling says. “True-to-form, though, and perhaps realizing she had some damage control to do, she unblocked us and then, several days later, penned a blog post on the SHRM site about having civil conversations with neither name-calling or profanity. How very…’HR’ of her.” 

Numerous other critics have for years complained that Taylor and SHRM have been canoodling with the Trump administration, the rhetoric and actions of which they argue contravene SHRM’s vision “to build a world of work that works for all.” 

Indeed, a photo of Taylor shaking hands with President Trump about two years ago birthed the #FixItSHRM campaign. Victorio Milian, an HR consultant who launched the campaign, had asked, “Why is the SHRM CEO shaking hands with a person who has repeatedly disparaged minorities…?” Milian also tweeted:

“[The Trump administration] doesn’t care about @shrm or the thousands of #HR pros out there. If SHRM’s CEO continues to align himself with this administration, then it’s safe to say that @johnnyctaylor doesn’t care about us, either.”

Then there was this tweet by HR consultant and ERE strategy and leadership columnist Mary Faulkner:

“HR professionals supposedly stand up for individual worth and dignity. If we speak FOR people, shouldn’t we be AGAINST those who would degrade and demean so many?” 

Flash-forward to today, and Berry is asking roughly the same question: “How is having direct ties with a President who says racist things and who creates rules that make it harder for trans people to get health care part of SHRM’s mission?” 

Equally troubling is a 2015 exposé by Political Research Associates (PRA) revealing a legislative agenda by SHRM “aligned with that of big corporations such as McDonalds, and major GOP donors such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Koch Brothers’ Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce…SHRM has been speaking out in the press, filing lawsuits, and pushing state and national bills. These efforts are aimed at blocking the rights of workers to do everything from forming unions, to having guaranteed paid sick days, to getting health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.”

But there’s something else noteworthy about PRA’s report: In detailing various lobbying efforts by SHRM, it’s clear that “[d]espite its studiously politically neutral and ‘we’re not anti-union’ claims, SHRM has entered the public policy ring unmistakably on the side of big business and against workers’ rights.” 

Translation #1: SHRM is no stranger to weighing in on political issues. Policies are part of politics.

Translation #2: This once again suggests that just as employees feel that HR is beholden to senior management, SHRM too prioritizes stakeholders who are not workers or HR practitioners. 

Translation #3: Once more, this is why people hate HR. 

Can SHRM Redeem Itself?

Not with a tote bag, it can’t.

Recently, HR practitioner Carlos Escobar also expressed disappointment with SHRM. He too signed the petition. But he also wrote the following:

I still believe that SHRM and its chapters are a source for good in our profession and I still believe SHRM members and HR professionals at large want to be actively involved in the solutions to the crisis we are facing.”

I couldn’t agree more. There are many positive things that SHRM does, from research to resources to conferences to beyond. I am not looking to take down SHRM. I want the organization to elevate itself. I want it to stand up for what’s right. I want it to show greater respect and advocacy for people like me and millions of other individuals often marginalized in and out of the workplace. 

“How about starting with an apology?” Berry suggests. “How about acknowledging the things that SHRM did wrong? And then going forward, follow that up with actions. File court briefs that support equality and fair treatment. Use the SHRM Advocacy Team to advocate for more than just issues related to payroll taxes.”

I am appalled that SHRM will not state, in a loud and clear voice, that Black lives matter,” Schooling says. Yet even if it does, “it will only be because its hand was forced,” Butler points out, “not because they value Black lives.”

Such a stance should naturally extend beyond words, and sure enough, SHRM offers no shortage of webinars, toolkits, and other resources. The problem is that many of them focus on process and policy, but you can’t effectively address real D&I issues with some EEOC-recommended line in a handbook — because the response from your employees will likely be, “Wait, we have a handbook?”

As Kuehl points out:

“Rather than check-the-box templates and events, how about tools that help people actually learn to be anti-racist? I want to know: What will you do for me as a Black paying member and volunteer of your organization to ensure that I feel included, so that I have the ability to be my full self? I have done so much for and given so much to the organization, and all I ask is that you appreciate me and people who look like me.”

Berry also points out that by not standing up for equal rights for LGBTQ people, SHRM puts them at risk in organizations. “If I’m a gay employee who believes that my HR person is unsupportive because of homophobia or maybe the person lacks resources to address my issues, then I won’t go to HR to talk about things going on in the organization. Some written policy won’t change that.”

At the same time, Berry explains that unless SHRM starts advocating better for Black, LGBTQ, and other marginalized groups, then it risks alienating individuals considering careers in HR. Which helps explain why Butler says that she will never identify as an HR person. “I am a People Ops person,” she says. “I am here to protect the people, to ensure their safety and success. The exact opposite of what SHRM promotes.”

Butler further adds she doesn’t feel that there’s anything SHRM can do to salvage its image, explaining:

“I will not support SHRM. I never have, and I don’t plan to start. I will take my Black dollars elsewhere. We need a more progressive option. Times have changed and that means our investments should change too. We need an organization that promotes safe and hard conversations at work instead of teaching us how to avoid the topic altogether.”

With that in mind, who knows if SHRM has done a cost-benefit analysis. Maybe it believes that it can afford to lose a given number of members, especially if it believes that its true constituents are mega corporate benefactors.

Either way, I don’t want SHRM to cave under increasing pressure. I want the organization that I have valued for many years to rise up to it. I want to love SHRM as much as I love HR.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.