Q: I have been working for an office that will not be named, in the HR department. It has become impossible for me to ignore the jockeying for position through gossip and passive aggressive in-fighting. My goal is to get out of there ASAP, but I have a philosophical question. When the HR department is the bad actor, who can you report them to?
A:Dear Already Planning my Escape.
What a fascinating question. Basically you are wondering who watches the watchers? First things first, congratulations on knowing that the best way to deal with a toxic work environment is to leave it behind. But allow me to dig into your question and provide some context for those who don't know a lot about the function of HR.
HR stands for human resources, and nearly any organization over a certain size has a person or a staff of people devoted to this function. Their job is the more obvious job of hiring and managing the people that work for an organization. They handle payroll, approve benefits, and onboard new hires, but most importantly they handle employee complaints of bad behavior and problematic conduct. They are the "watchers" in an organization they set the culture and are charged with creating safety.
So what can be done when your organizations' watchers (who should be on the lookout for bad behavior and toxic work environments) are the problem?
This question left me stumped so I went looking for answers hoping to offer more than just a shoulder shrug
After some research here are some of the insights that I gleaned.
In a smaller organization, the best path forward may be to go to leadership. Smaller organizations tend to be flatter when it comes to the hierarchical structure. In an organization with 150 people or less, leadership might be receptive to listening to employees' concerns about a toxic HR department.
- My personal addition to this advice is that if you feel the need to go to leadership try your best to "build a case" a single complaint or an unclear objective is unlikely to move leadership who are busy. Pull together your facts, see if you can gather together multiple complaints from multiple departments and people then setup a meeting.
- For big organizations, keep in mind that it might be more difficult to get in the same room with leadership to even make a claim. Then again in an org that large would HR toxicity be a problem worth going out on a limb for? It might be easier to avoid the whole department unless some HR specific issue arose that forced interaction.
A different perspective that was offered took a really macro look at organizational development and human resources, by focusing on how HR interacts with the rest of an organization. And questions how essential it is that HR be a part of the organization at all.
"I’ve always thought it would make more sense for employees if HR was independent from corporate and perhaps contracted from outside the firm/corp. With the shift to office work and prevalence of right to work laws over the past several decades, the systems have been set up to advantage corporate over workers. I want to see more labor reforms to support employees"
- This is a fascinating way to deal with a toxic HR department, what if you could simply end the contract and rid yourself of a problematic office? It would certainly solve the problem of who watches the watcher.
- Also there is the reality that many HR departments are tasked with keeping the peace by holding the corporations interests above any one individual employee. This can mean that HR, even a good version, may not always be your friend.
- I do wonder though about corporations abusing their HR departments if they know they can all be let go by a contract change. Then again is that so different from the at will employment we see now at most companies and organizations?
A final insight that was offered, what if there is no good solution? An HR department's job is to create a company culture that is inclusive and safe. If they are the cause of the problems in an organization, then leadership may be complicit and there is no value in going to them for accountability. In a very round about way, Already Planning My Escape may have had the best solution all along... leaving.
All in all, the philosophical question is fascinating and how HR departments work is a topic rich for discussion, but when it comes to each of our professional lives the best strategy against a toxic HR is probably an exit plan.