HR and unions largely are missioned to do the same thing, even though their backing and reasons for being are vastly different. But it is clear with the massive number of harassment complaints transcending industries and government that neither entity is doing its job, particularly with female employees. As we approach the holidays, I thought it might be interesting to discuss why the two organizations missioned to protect employees really don’t anymore.
This shift was painful for me to watch personally because HR was the career I’d decided to pursue out of college. I got distracted by another opportunity, then tried to go back, and found HR was no longer particularly interesting. This wasn’t because I’d changed. HR had changed and gone from an organization focused on effectively making unions unnecessary (because it protected the employee and assured things like safety, income and benefits) to one focused on compliance with well meaning, but ill-conceived, government laws and mandates.
When an organization’s mission changes from one that is broadly focused on something like employee health and job satisfaction, which is hard to measure, and then given a more focused role like compliance, they’ll typically focus far more on the latter. Compliance has another inherent problem associated with it, particularly for an organization like HR, which has little direct authority; it can turn it into an organization focused on covering up problems rather than fixing them.
This is the textbook mismatch between responsibility and authority. HR has the responsibility for making sure that the firm complies, but has very little authority, and that authority has been in decline since the 1970s. When you measure an employee on something they can report, but they can’t control, they will tend to focus on what they can control, which is the appearance of problems.
So, if an employee complains about harassment, it can reflect badly on HR. But given the authority gap, if they go after the manager, they’ll likely fail. If they get the complaint to go away, it can be made to look like the problem never existed, because unless HR does something formal, from everyone but the victim’s point of view, it didn’t.
Now we are seeing the result of that change because this creates a false sense of security that things are being handled when they are not, and that means executive decisions relating to this area have been made in error. Employees who should have either been fired or put through corrective programs haven’t, huge numbers of employees have been hurt, lost, or even had their lives destroyed, and problems that could have been remedied have grown to become company killers.
Unions get there another way. Unions came to be largely because, in many areas, employees were treated very poorly. At the time, there was a surplus of employees, making it an employer market, and these employers treated their employees so poorly that they eventually organized. The idea was that unions would assure that there was balance and, for the most part, they generally did. Granted, over the years, unions have had a lot of issues with abuse of power themselves.
But, like HR, there is a problem with focus and what is measured. Salary and benefits tend to be hard measurements, job satisfaction soft. This is likely one of the reasons that the Teamsters currently are having a cow over autonomous trucks, for instance. Since the carriers plan to not fire the drivers (worried about theft of load) but change the job into one that is more pleasant, salaries might decline while job satisfaction improved. But given the salary is the hard metric and job satisfaction the soft, the hard metric wins.
For the unions, this appears to be less about covering things up and more about focus. Efforts to assure job satisfaction simply fell off the list of things the unions were interested in. The result is that both organizations are now at risk because they appear incapable of doing what really is a major part of their reasons for existing.
Wrapping Up: Wrong Focus
One of my concerns is that we tend to focus on blame rather than understanding and fixing problems and it is easy to blame unions, which may lose members, and especially HR, which could see purges. But at the heart of the problem with sexual harassment is the fact that both organizations were not only not focused on the problem, but the measurements tended to drive them to ignore (unions) or cover up (HR) incidents, which left the firm and executive staff excessively exposed.
The focus should be on making sure that both organizations do their jobs so that future harassment and sexual predator activity is prevented. This isn’t easy but companies like HP and Dell, which place a significant amount of focus on this area, seem to be able to avoid the related problems. Executives like Tracy Keogh at HP, who have the training, authority and executive backing to perform the full HR role, are currently more of an exception than a rule. If we are to fix this, that must change.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+