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HR Has the Power to Change Its Bad Reputation


For years, human resources has been the department that everyone loves to criticize. More than 20 years ago, Tom Stewart, a Fortune editor at the time, suggested that instead of improving HR, the department should be abolished, eliminated, nuked. Unfortunately, public opinion hasn’t changed all that much since.

The complaints detailed in these and numerous other articles often focus on bureaucracy and inefficiency; on processes that do not add real value, such as those dreaded performance appraisals; and HR’s burdening of line managers with rules and paperwork that hinder leaders’ ability to do their jobs effectively.

But in the summer of 2019, a more fundamentally serious—but solvable—complaint surfaced in The Atlantic. The charge: that HR was failing at one of its core missions—to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment in the workplace. HR, the critique went, saw its role as “protecting the company” and was doing so by limiting legal liability and making complaints—and complainants—disappear.

What should HR do in the face of such valid criticism?

Rethinking HR’s Primary Function

HR needs a broader and more assertive perspective on its fundamental role—to ensure the development and maintenance of workplaces that serve to effectively attract, retain and motivate employees. Such workplaces would obviously need to be free of bullying and abuse of any kind, including harassment based on sex, race or anything else They would also need to be, to the extent possible, free from stress and conducive to increasing employee well-being.

To accomplish this, HR needs to be willing, regardless of the political climate inside the organization, to attack the fundamental causes of corporate misbehavior and punish the wrong-doers. By doing so, HR will reduce the toll—financial, legal, emotional, moral—exacted by these actions. More importantly, by taking the lead in creating a healthy culture, HR will have fixed the root causes of bullying and harassment that have persisted for far too long.

The Problem: Nothing’s Changed

In 2007, my colleague and occasional coauthor Bob Sutton published The No Asshole Rule. That book, and research by Georgetown professor Christine Porath, detailed the enormous cost—to people, from stress and ill health, and to companies, from turnover and reduced productivity—that occurred in abusive workplaces where bosses belittled, harassed and screamed at subordinates. In 2017, Sutton published a follow-up, The Asshole Survival Guide, because, sadly, very little had changed in 10 years, despite all of the literature detailing the negative outcomes.

Meanwhile, in spite of decades of training, sexual harassment remains a pervasive workplace issue. A 2016 EEOC report found that some 60% of women reported having experienced one or more specific sexually based behaviors. Other important findings: Seventy percent of individuals experiencing harassment never talk to a supervisor, manager or other representative about it, and about 90% never file a formal complaint. And for good reason: Sexual harassment reporting is often followed by organizational indifference, as well as hostility and reprisals against the victim, according to the report.

HR Is Often Complicit

Where is HR in all of this? In her article for The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan argued that HR is actually quite successful at dealing with sexual harassment—by creating templates of compliance designed to defend companies against lawsuits.

Because HR is often (correctly) seen as taking the company’s side, few people trust it to represent their interests, be that the issue sexual harassment or a toxic workplace environment. Taking the company’s side may preserve an HR manager’s job for the time being, but it will not contribute to creating workplaces that ultimately breed success.

As one reader commented: By covering up serious issues, punishing the people who complained and supporting senior management and senior managers, regardless of their behavior, HR isn’t actually serving the companies’ interests at all. By not addressing the root cause of problems, the problems will just recur, and eventually the consequences will become even more serious.

Can HR Be Different?

The answer to that question is: It has to be. The #MeToo movement is not going to disappear. And many younger workers are less tolerant of bad bosses and workplace stress than their seniors.

Bad behavior tolerated in a workplace is likely to lead to more, or even worse, bad behavior. People learn by observing what others do and the consequences, or lack thereof, of that behavior. Simply put, workplaces are not going to get better on their own.

Second, we know the toll—in physical and mental health, in turnover, and in productivity—that toxic workplaces exact. Gender and race discrimination, through their creation of stress, affect the health of people exposed to it.

Third, we know that at the state, and eventually, at the federal level, laws against harassment and bullying will only be strengthened to enforce employees’ rights to a workplace free of intimidation.

Therefore, the best thing HR can do to help their employers is not to continue to help those employers dodge liability or responsibility. The most productive, economically beneficial and ultimately value-creating thing that HR can do is to push for the (appropriate) sanctioning of people who harass others. Set hiring and promotion standards that do not excuse bad behavior by pointing to other contributions. Measure the extent of bullying and other forms of abuse through anonymous surveys, such as those detailed in the EEOC report, and bring those measures to the attention of senior management and the board of directors.

And yes, in the end, be willing to leave organizations that are unwilling to take the steps required to create workplaces free of abuse. When HR begins to more forcefully and consistently advocate for healthier, less toxic workplaces, companies will experience increased levels of engagement and greater retention of talent. It will also be good for HR—to no longer be seen as an enabler of work environments that are an anachronism in today’s world.

Jeffrey Pfeffer
Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University where he has taught since 1979. He is the author or co-author of 15 books including Leadership B.S.: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time and The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action. Pfeffer has won the Richard D. Irwin Award presented by the Academy of Management for scholarly contributions to management. He was listed in the top 25 management thinkers by Thinkers 50 and as one of the Most Influential HR International Thinkers by HR Magazine. Dr. Pfeffer received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from Carnegie-Mellon University and his Ph.D. from Stanford.