I am the chief financial officer for a 90-plus person firm and the head of human resources reports to me. Several employees have told me they feel uncomfortable going to the HR manager with complaints or concerns, because she’s really good friends with some of the people here and they’re afraid she’ll be biased. She does a good job otherwise, so I was thinking about outsourcing our employee relations arm. What do you think?
I think you have a serious problem on your hands. When people make the effort to come to you to say they are afraid the human resources manager will be biased, what they are actually saying is: She has shown bias previously and please do something about it.
People don’t bother to approach the HR manager’s boss if they think that sometime in the future she might treat employees unfairly. They come when she has treated people unfairly. Your employees don’t want to seem whiny or like victims, so they haven’t come out and said exactly what has gone down — but something has. And you need to find out what happened.
It may be that the head of HR is fabulous at most of her job and is just a horrible employee relations person, so outsourcing that part would be sufficient. But, more likely, she’s horrible at most of her job if she shows bias.
Now, to be clear, being generally biased isn’t illegal unless it’s based on a protected class (race, gender, etc). If it’s just that she likes Jane and Steve more than anyone else because their personalities mesh, it’s not illegal. It’s just dumb.
Why is this bias such a big deal outside of employee relations? Well, let’s talk about what HR is supposed to do. Just like your head of sales is supposed to be your expert on sales, your head of HR is supposed to be your expert on people. If you need to do succession planning or want to implement a rotation program so you can cross-train people, an HR manager that plays favorites will damage employee morale and threaten the well-being of the company.
The HR manager loves Jane and Steve so she recommends them for the special rotation program. But, in reality, Bob and Karen are much better-suited for the program. What happens then? Jane and Steve may do a fine job (most people do), but Bob and Karen feel (rightly) that they don’t have a chance for success in this company. They find other jobs and leave.
The problem: This reinforces everyone’s opinion that Jane and Steve were the right people for the program. Good thing we didn’t promote Bob and Karen, since they both quit! Dodged a bullet there, eh? Except you didn’t. Instead, you lost two great performers who could have been valuable assets to your team for years to come.
So you need to conduct an investigation, and it might be better to outsource something this sensitive. Be careful that whoever you hire is licensed to conduct workplace investigations, because California requires outside investigators to be either licensed attorneys or licensed private investigators. An HR consultant can’t do this for you.
An investigation will involve speaking discreetly to the people who came to you with their concerns. You’ll want to say, “You came to me and said that you were worried the HR manager might favor her friends over other employees. Can you give me an example of when you saw this occur?”
Now, as with all investigations, you have to follow where it leads. Maybe your HR manager is awesome and the complainers were simply upset that she didn’t give them special privileges. It happens. Still, you can’t just ignore these serious allegations. You can ask people who else you should speak with and follow up. It’s imperative that you keep things as confidential as possible.
At the end of the investigation you have to make a determination. Is your HR manager playing favorites? How big of an impact will this have on the company? Can it be solved by outsourcing? Can it be solved by placing her on a performance improvement plan? Is the best solution to let her go and hire someone who can remain neutral? (Side note: HR managers, you should have no close friends at work, except maybe your peers in HR.)
In the meantime, you should be grateful that your employees trust you enough to come to you with their concerns. If they’ll come to complain about such things, you have hope that they’ll come to you with more serious problems — like sexual harassment, racial discrimination or securities violations. The best thing a business can do is tackle each one of these problems before it gets too big. Your open door allows that to happen and your investigation will ensure it continues to happen.
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