Last reviewed 23 February 2016

We encourage employees to go to human resources (HR) should they have any grievance or gripe about their colleagues or if they need any information about our contracts. Should they wish to make a formal complaint about the organisation and its treatment of them, they are encouraged to go to HR first. Even for a case of “whistle-blowing” about an organisation’s malpractice, it is to HR that employees are encouraged to go in the first instance. In this article, Gudrun Limbrick looks at issues of trust and confidence in the HR department.

For an HR department to work, it needs to have the trust of the party it is representing — be it the management or the staff. Without this trust, the department would not be given the vital information that enables it to work, and the party concerned may not accept the information given by HR. In basic terms, management gives HR confidential information about, for example, future staffing levels, while employees go to HR with their grievances, and details of family and personal issues affecting their work. Management relies on HR to deal with staff issues with the best interests of the company in mind (whatever those interests are), and employees need to take on board what HR tells them about their contracts, rights and responsibilities.

A general principle is that, if the wellbeing of a staff team can be looked after then it is better for the company. This is the driving force behind the work of the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development with its commitment to championing better work and working lives. However, while the CIPD believes that workers should be treated as legitimate stakeholders of a business, in practice less than half (47%) of practitioners said that they always apply the principle “Work should be good for people” in their day-to-day decisions, with a further 35% suggesting they may compromise this principle under certain circumstances. This cannot really be any surprise.

Take an issue of contracts: an employee arrives at HR, concerned that his or her contract does not give the time off needed in order to care for his or her dependants. This really is crunch time, without having this time off, the employee will no longer be able to manage to hold down the job; the stress of it all has already resulted in increased absenteeism. While HR can see that the worker really does have a genuine need for a more flexible approach to holiday entitlement, management has sent out a memo that very clearly states their concerns that absenteeism is an increasing problem, productivity is down and HR must do all they can to resolve these problems from a personnel perspective. HR knows that giving greater flexibility to this one individual will no doubt lead to other such requests. Having considered the matter carefully, and now being aware that the problem affecting the individual is only going to get worse rather than better, they decide to issue the individual with a warning about the absenteeism.

The problem is, of course, that it is management that, after all is said and done, pay all the bills, including the salaries of the HR staff. While HR may see how measures can be taken to improve the wellbeing of the staff team, this is not always going to be the priority of the management.

One of the problems is that HR will often be dealing with the problems as presented by individual staff members. These are generally small scale and short term (at least limited to time that the individual is with the company) and the goals of the company are much wider — increased productivity, increased competitiveness, larger profits perhaps. Even this perspective, let alone the goals themselves, are very different and not always easy to reconcile.

This is not to say that HR are deliberately mendacious about who they are there for; rather that they are always wearing (at least) two hats. They are there in support of the broad goals of the company and they are also there to support the staff team. With an employee that is struggling, say after the introduction of new technology, the luxury of repeating training until he or she gets used to it may not be affordable. Better for the economics of the company to, for example, replace them where employment rights allow.

However, it is possible to look at this from another perspective. HR departments are a great source of information about employees in a broad sense. It is HR, for example, who may be able to sense the mood of a staff team about changes that have been made or are mooted. They may be able to sense a problem area based on an increasing number of seemingly minor (when taken in isolation) gripes or complaints. They may be able to sense a morale change. All this information, when collected, can be passed up to the management, who does not necessarily need to see the details, but might be able to act on the bigger picture.

We live in an age where the threat of employment tribunals is real and can be an expensive problem for a company, not only in terms of finances, but also in terms of the time spent and the bad publicity received. HR has a key role to play in ensuring that how a company handles its staff does not contravene the rules and regulations and thus land the company in an employment tribunal. The ideal effect of this (even if it is just a knock-on effect) is that the employees are treated in line with the current law and their rights are preserved. Even though an HR department does not actually have the employee’s interests as their main priority in an example such as this, the end result can perhaps be the same — the employee’s legal rights are met.

The important element of the relationships between HR and management, and HR and employees is perhaps one of clarity. Management need to be very clear what they expect of HR in terms of how employee-focused they should be and the priorities they should have. Likewise, employees should be made aware of the lack of independence an HR department has and thus the extent to which they can genuinely advise an employee in cases of conflict with management. Of course, this can damage the trust that is so important in the relationship.

HR has developed from personnel to human resources — with a broader perspective of their role including looking at the wellbeing of the workforce, at whatever level they work in the organisation. With a smaller proportion of the workforce having union membership, is our dependency on this wider purpose of HR now increased? Likewise, there are now fewer local citizens’ advice services, further limiting an employee’s sources of impartial support and advice. Is it now time to reinvent HR with a section for personal issues as they used to be and signposting to support for those issues that are in potential conflict with the company?