Despite the name Human Resources, HR is quite often maligned by employees, who don’t see the department as actually being there for their benefit. Many people have personally experienced HR horror stories, but that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, businesses are the most successful when the role of Human Resources enables them to support employee engagement and wellbeing.

Why people have a problem with HR

When employees complain about the role of HR departments, there are a lot of common trends. And there’s plenty of discourse online about those trends, even right here on Medium. Common employee experiences with bad HR departments include:

  • The department only acting when it benefits the company and its leadership.
  • Only focusing on legally protecting the business, and ignoring employee needs.
  • Compromising employee confidentiality by reporting to managers and executives.

When these things happen, they’re obviously devastating to employee morale. HR departments with terrible employee relations ultimately destroy their ability to do their own job. That’s because any policy or initiative they try to implement requires buy-in from individuals in order to flourish.

Whose side is HR on?

Although HR leaders play a role in defining workplace policy, they don’t necessarily wield any executive authority beyond the ability to advise senior leadership.

It’s tempting to blame HR when an employer doesn’t treat their staff well. But, in companies where employee wellbeing, engagement and happiness are not priorities, there’s only so much these departments can do. How good or bad a particular HR department is, depends largely on business culture. And who’s leading it.

While HR departments might seem like faceless corporate fun police, it’s important to remember that they’re real people. They’re often just as frustrated as the people coming to them for help. Especially in situations where corporate bureaucracy stifles HR’s ability to actually help employees.

Managers and senior leaders can speak HR’s language

Understanding can be one of the biggest barriers to HR accessibility. Most employees have a broad understanding of their rights and responsibilities as a worker. Rights like getting wages, holiday, and protections from discrimination and unsafe work environments. Responsibilities like showing up on time, carrying out day-to-day tasks, and not coming into the office in their underwear.

Where many people’s understanding gets a bit foggy, however, is how that translates into specific workplace policies, as well as the specific regulations that people in the role of Human Resources are held accountable to. Managers and executive leaders are much more likely than their employees to be clued in on the rules that they and HR have to abide by, helping them to take advantage of the system.

So, when employees are unclear on their workplace rights and the responsibilities of the company’s leadership, it can feed into the perception that HR exist to only serve the company and its leadership.

The role HR plays in helping employees

Employee engagement (and therefore productivity) benefit from a good HR department that takes steps to support them at work. After all, what is the point of HR if it doesn’t help people? These are just some of the priorities for HR personnel looking to make a difference:

Investing in workplace education

Educating employees on their rights, rules and regulations can help de-mystify HR and make them more accessible. This can help provide workers with a voice, enabling them to advocate for themselves. Beyond that, general emphasis on education at work helps employees to upskill and develop their careers more effectively.

Advocating for employees in ways their line managers can’t

In a lot of ways, line managers are an employee’s most vital point of contact with the wider business. But there are definite limits to what they can do to help someone on their team. For example, their hardest worker might be deserving of a significant raise. But raises are often determined well-ahead of time, and usually only for certain amounts. However, as influencers of workplace policy, HR are better placed to advocate for greater employee restitution while finding practical solutions for achieving it.

Using employee sentiment as basis for change

A major part of the role of Human Resources is enabling peak engagement and productivity at work. This might mean re-vamping employee benefits, changing the office layout, selecting new software or hardware for employee use, or any number of things.

HR are uniquely positioned to give employees a voice, especially if they go beyond outdated engagement surveys. By working with managers to check in with staff regularly, HR can great an ongoing model of employee sentiment as a virtual sounding board for future workplace policy.

Facilitating job flexibility

Remote work may be here to stay, but unions are concerned that job flexibility could become another class divide. Prior to the pandemic, remote work was more commonly accessible by employees with certain levels of company seniority, meaning that younger, lower-paid staff were less likely to be able to work flexibly, remote or otherwise.

As a result, one of the most beneficial things HR could do for employees is to help implement more flexible working options for people on all levels of the business. This helps to make an array of careers more accessible, while better enabling employees to have time for their personal lives and out-of-work commitments.

Improving employee confidentiality

As HR departments typically report to senior leaders and sometimes even managers, some employees are understandably concerned about confidentiality. HR need to take steps to safeguard employee confidentiality and complaint anonymity, such as removing identifying details from complaints, or redirecting them to a third party outside of your corporate structure.