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Oct 16, 2015

It’s an old but often asked question: Who does HR really work for?

I thought about this today while reading an interesting feature in The New York Times titled The Workologist. It touts itself as “Friendly advice on any workplace conundrum, large or small.”

This is a good thing, because Lord knows we have a great many workplace conundrums to solve, especially when it comes to conundrums involving human resources.

At any rate, The Workologist  is one of those Q&A features where readers pose workplace questions and The Workologist — a man by the name of Rob Walker that The Times describes as “a guy with well-intentioned opinions, not a professional career adviser” — answers them.

Well, caveat emptor on HR and workplace advice from “a guy with well-intentioned opinions” who is “not a professional career adviser” or some sort of expert on workplace practices. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of his credentials.

Are HR conversations confidential?

But, one answered question that caught my eye recently had to do with a long-standing concern that gets asked about all the time:

Are conversations with a human resources department confidential?

It’s a great question that really never gets old, because employees are often encouraged to go to human resources to talk to them when they have a workplace issue that needs to be resolved.

That’s all good as far as it goes, but it always raises the issue of just who does HR work for, and, can employees reasonably expect what they say to HR will stay confidential?

The answer The Workologist gives about how confidential conversations with HR are, is this: They probably aren’t very confidential at all, at least not very much.

Here’s what he says:

The short answer: You should not assume that conversations with human resources will remain wholly confidential. And when it comes to a potential staffing issue, HR may in fact feel obligated to keep management informed.

Let me back up. “An HR professional should maintain the employee’s confidentiality to the extent possible,” says Edward Yost, HR business partner at the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade organization. But that caveat at the end is crucial: HR workers, he continues, must negotiate the “razor’s edge of balancing confidentiality with the overall needs of the business.”

HR is not your doctor or parish priest

Let me translate that last sentence for humans: Negotiating the “razor’s edge of balancing confidentiality with the overall needs of the business” should really say, “sorry, but although HR might seems like a friendly ear you can talk to, they are management and as part of management, they may share what you tell them with other managers — including yours.”

The Workologist goes on to make this very point:

Workers often assume there’s some sort of HR parallel to the confidentiality they’d expect from a doctor or a lawyer. That’s not the case, says Debi F. Debiak, a lawyer and labor and employment consultant in Montclair, N.J. Barring circumstances involving, for instance, a medical condition, “there is no legal obligation to maintain confidentiality …”

What The Workologist  DOESN’T tell you, however, is that this wasn’t always so.

There was a time early in my career where talking to the HR Director was very much like talking to a doctor or a pastor. Employees were encouraged to go to HR to talk if they had a problem, and HR leaders took their role as confessors very seriously.

It wasn’t uncommon for workers to unburden themselves to the HR Director, and usually, the HR leader was discreet in how they used the information. Back then, it wasn’t common (or even correct) to assume that anything you told HR was immediately transmitted to everyone and anyone in the organization’s managerial ranks.

HR’s role has changed – and not necessarily for the good

When I was executive editor of The Honolulu Advertiser back in the mid-1990s, the HR Vice President at the Hawaii Newspaper Agency was a wonderful woman named Carole Medeiros. Everyone who worked in the building knew Carole, and everyone knew that she was someone who always offered a kind ear and a comforting shoulder to cry on.

More importantly, the employees all knew Carole had enough clout in the organization to resolve your issue, but, that she was also discreet and would use what you told her carefully in her dealings with other managers.

Sadly, Carole died in 1996 from cancer at a far-too-young age. And not too long after she passed, the kind of HR she practiced seemed to die off too.

HR leaders used to take their role as an advocate for the employee very seriously, but that time is long gone. Yes, there are HR directors who still try, but now it’s more of a balancing act and HR leaders will probably tell you, somewhere along the way, that in the end they are “management” and that they always need to do what is best for “management” and the larger organization.

Much has been written about how HR isn’t taken seriously today, and how human resource people struggle to be accepted as real business leaders the way other managers are throughout the organization. And, much has been written about how HR struggles to get more credit for their business success.

For my money, the perception that HR doesn’t have business credibility started to grow when HR stopped being a strong advocate for workers and began acting like they were just another manager on the org chart. It diluted what HR always did best, and instead, magnified the image of HR leaders as glorified paper pushers who were overly focused on rules and compliance.

My friend Carole Medeiros was never too worried about compliance, but she was always concerned about the lives of the many employees in the building. As The Workologist blog makes clear, that kind of HR isn’t what HR is about any more. And, we’re all worse off for it.

Even pro players want praise from the boss

Of course, there’s more than the things weak managers say in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Are Uber drivers really employees? Uber claims that its drivers are independent contractors, but they are getting a pushback on that in many states. For example, this week Oregon’s Labor Commissioner ruled that although “Uber drivers may use their own vehicles and choose when or if they work, but they’re still employees under Oregon law.” As the Portland Oregonian notes, “Bureau of Labor and Industries Commissioner Brad Avakian said Uber drivers are employees because they work for the company’s benefit and they’re economically dependent on the ride-hailing company.”
  • Workers like praise from the boss — even if they’re pro football players. The Wall Street Journal recently made note of the fact that New England Patriots coach Bill Belichik is pretty stingy when it comes to praise — despite that his team has won four Super Bowls for him. “Belichick … has won more games than any active NFL coach … He’s become famous for his oft-repeated mantra, “Do Your Job,” which has become a cliché around New England. A documentary released last month about the team’s Super Bowl run was named after the marching order. But, players say, doing your job is an expectation … meaning anyone who does their job won’t get overly praised. Thus, hearing “good job” is a heavenly experience for even the most decorated Patriot players.”
  • No love for job seeker cover letters. Fast Company points to Jobvite’s latest Recruiter Nation report as proof that cover letters are passé when it comes to engaging recruiters. “As they assess candidates, the report found that recruiters don’t pay much heed to two things that job hunters (especially those fresh out of college) tend to obsess about: their GPA and their cover letter. Around 60% of recruiters found these aspects of the candidate’s portfolio to be the least important factors in deciding whether they were a good fit for the job. Instead, 88% said that cultural fit is very relevant, and 87% percent cited previous job experience as key.”