Work in HR? It’s Time to FIGHT for Workers’ Rights.

There’s a peculiar mindset amongst far too many HR practitioners. Due to their fervent and often all-consuming desire to be considered “business partners,” they’ve adopted a capitalist perspective that places them somewhere on the spectrum between Scrooge McDuck, Rich Uncle Pennybags and Mr. Burns.

Attempting to be fiscally prudent and, as I’ve heard it described, to be “a steward of the company’s money,” manifests itself when they:

  • ‘fight’ every unemployment claim as if the very sustainability of the company depended upon victory 
  • craft policies that, if legal in the state/jurisdiction, ensure that departing employees will NOT be paid out any earned/accrued vacation/PTO balance
  • concoct convoluted job descriptions in order to mis-classify certain jobs as exempt (per the FLSA) so workers are not eligible for overtime pay even while the company expectation is that they toil away for 50 hours per week minimum
  • shelter workplace harassers and keep them in place by failing to investigate allegations of harassment especially when an employee bringing forth an issue is viewed as a “chronic complainer” 
  • turn a blind eye to both blatant and subtle discriminatory behavior whether it takes they form of systemic cultural traditions and norms or overt hiring “preferences” as articulated by managers … and other HR team members

And they valiantly fight, either of their own volition or because they believe their company’s CEO and CFO expect them to, any attempts to raise the mandated minimum wage, explore Medicare For All or de-couple healthcare in the US from the employment relationship.

This doesn’t shock me of course. As with most any type of meaningful change in the relationship between employers/employees over the course of our history in the US of A, it’s taken blood, sweat, death and – ultimately – legislation to provide protection to workers. Child Labor Reform. The Triangle Shirtwaist FireThe Civil Rights ActThe Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, including Title I covering employment, went into effect in July of 1990 – 30 years ago – and HR practitioners are still fighting against the very basic tenets of the law. The Family and Medical Leave Act was signed into law by President Clinton in 1993 and there are still numerous HR practitioners who work to circumvent the protections afforded to their covered employees. 

These are the people running HR functions. They are often the first ones to talk about a desire to increase employee engagement or improve company culture. They are also, quite frankly, the ones who need to be reminded of what that “H” signifies and remember that Workers’ Rights are “human” rights.

The US Department of Labor clarifies there is not a definitive list of workers’ rights however the International Labor Organization (ILO) identifies what it calls “fundamental principles and rights at work”:

  • freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
  • elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor;
  • effective abolition of child labor; and
  • elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.

The effective delivery of HR designed to ensure profitability and sustainability of the business is not at odds with the delivery of HR designed to promote or protect workers’ rights. The two can – and should – co-exist. 

It’s not about profit or people. It can easily be about profit and people. 

Work in HR? You say you’re all about the employee experience and engagement and “improving” your culture? Then you need to respect and promote Workers’ Rights before anything else.

After all…you’re a worker too. 

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Why You Got 99 (%) Problems in your Organization

If there’s one aspect of organizational dynamics that chaps my hide it’s the elitism that naturally surfaces due to the structural settings inherent in corporate hierarchies.

In our capitalist power-network we have several specific classes: the business-owning class, the self-employed and small-business owners, and the working-class. We can also certainly argue that there is another class consisting of highly trained professionals (physicians, lawyers, etc.) who, by virtue of intellect or specialization, have a place at the top of the power structure and remain in close proximity to the business-owning class.

Let’s face it though – in many organizations there are essentially two classes:

  • the big boys (and I have no problem referring to the elites in that gendered manner)
  • everybody else

Everybody else, of course, being the 99%. Those of us who are not the top dog.

But our tendency, as human beings, is to assert our own exceptionalism by scrambling and clawing our way to the pinnacle of some sort of mountain. It’s why here in my state of Louisiana, when yet another cringe-inducing report highlights our rank as 49th in something, Louisianians like to say “Hey! At least we’re not Mississippi!”  It’s why evil reigns in the world as our citizens – and politicians – successfully “other” people.  It’s why the unseen aspects of caste, as explored by Isabel Wilkerson in her masterful book (seriously; go read it), not only formed who we are as the USofA but continue to permeate our everyday lives.

And within our organizations we thrive on this shit. We memorialize the divisions. We idolize the few over the many. We glorify those who are sitting atop the mountain peak…and we install artificial barriers to prevent others from scaling the slope.

Far too many middle managers and HR leaders (glorified middle-managers), intoxicated by their amorphous organizational power, forget they are actually a member of the 99%. So rather than speaking truth to power or fighting the good fight, they bask in their ability to impose organizational constraints that serve little purpose other than shoring up their own unabashed desire to consider themselves part of the company’s 1% club.

We see this when they:

  • Implement attendance policies that promote flexibility for the elite and punish the masses for being 1 minute late to work
  • Have “leadership team” dinners, retreats and outings while wondering why the masses aren’t ecstatic (!) because Fred’s Ice Cream Truck will be coming to the parking lot for an hour on a summer Friday
  • Readily negotiate benefit offerings with the elite (“No problem Dave; we’ll give you 4 weeks of vacation on date of hire”) while lamenting the “excessive” use of sick/vacation time used by the masses
  • Enroll the elites in the “Wine of the Month” club while handing out company-branded water bottles to the plebes in the warehouse
  • Provide a super special parking lot (close to the building! Can’t let them get their expensive leather loafers wet!) that’s barely 25% full while the masses park far (far) away
  • Deploy seemingly arbitrary and capricious steps in the employee selection process including post=offer screening for recreational marijuana usage for *safety sensitive* positions even while Bob the SVP of Sales openly celebrates 420 day with reckless abandon

Gotcha. Corporations, business entities and governmental institutions are not democracies. Someone has to make the difficult decisions. We reward and recognize on merit, performance and other measurements that are commensurate with “value” to the organization. To the victors go the spoils.

But here’s a tip: if you’re in HR you best remember the 99%. Because YOU, my friend, are one of them.

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Sleeping with the Enemy: When HR and Payroll Make the Worst Bedfellows

A dear friend is starting a new job today as an HR Manager – joining a company with ~300 employees. It’s a cool opportunity with a cool company and she’ll be doing all the typical human resources stuff – workforce planning and recruiting, total rewards, employee relations, compliance-stuff, and…payroll.

That’s right; she’s in one of those organizations where payroll rests firmly in HR’s domicile. A place where performance management, cultural affinity and employee engagement snuggle-up side-by-side with tax withholding and garnishment notifications.

This is pretty common. It’s also hella stupid.

While HR and payroll need to work together, their responsibilities in ensuring people are paid correctly should be separate and distinct.

The payroll function (calculating time worked, overtime, reimbursements, retro pay, tax withholding, wage deductions, etc. etc. etc.) is, by its very nature, an administrative finance process. Payroll folks track and verify all the payroll expenses to ensure they are paid, recorded and reported properly. The HR function, on the other hand, should serve as the architects of policies, process and workflow and, in conjunction with payroll, ensure there is adherence to both state and federal wage and hour laws/FLSA regulations.

But the same person (some hybrid HR/Payroll staffer) should not be the person in charge of entering, processing, running and verifying payroll. For both financial and human reasons.

The Finance Side

On the finance side there’s a little thing called “internal controls” – designed to control risks in the organization. At the departmental and process level this means, for example, having Person A (HR) enter information (new employees, wage adjustments, deductions) and then having Person B (payroll) verify via source documents, ascertain accuracy, and finalize the process. Further internal controls may then include Person C (the big boss) doing a final review and verification.

This, of course, ensures accuracy and alignment with internal policies but also makes sure that ONE person does not have the power to fraudulently hire/pay fake employees but it also ensures there is a secondary verification step to alleviate simple human errors.

The Human (HR) Side

Employees get justifiably upset when their paycheck is incorrect. Bob was supposed to see his new pay rate reflected on his paycheck and it wasn’t. Trixie’s paycheck shows medical/dental deductions when she declined coverage. Susie took 32 hours of sick leave during a pay period but rather than paid leave her paycheck reflects 32 hours unpaid. Bob, Trixie and Susie are pissed. Rightly so. And ALL their respective co-workers KNOW they are pissed even before they pick up the phone or walk down the hall to see about getting it fixed.

Now some may say “so what’s the big deal if they take their concern to someone sitting in HR versus someone sitting in Finance?”

Well…it IS a big deal when that hybrid HR/Payroll Manager is simultaneously working very hard to change the view of HR within their organization and to their company’s leadership team.

It comes down to HR professionals and HR leaders (especially HR Departments of One) determining their raison d’etre and strongly advocating for what they SHOULD do and SHOULDN’T do. What they WILL do and WON’T do.

Long ago I determined that the reason for HR’s existence (and therefore my reason in any organization) is to “connect the capabilities of individuals to organizational success” and HR delivers value when we “support and enable the execution of organizational strategy.”

My work (“what I do”), therefore, includes the work that does exactly that: supporting and nurturing a culture that aligns with organizational goals. Providing managers/leaders with coaching, support and guidance so they can execute that company strategy. Removing barriers and obstacles so that employees can do their best work, achieve their personal/professional goals and feel a sense of purpose and connection.

That’s HR to me.

And it doesn’t include downloading swipes from the timeclock or sending out W2s at the end of the year.

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No HR (background) For You! Next!

Yesterday I felt the need to respond to a post on LinkedIn (lord knows why) that led off with the statement “You don’t need to have a background in HR to lead HR” and then linked to this article. Loads of happy-clappy folks chimed in about how the best skill set for HR is to “care for people” and similar thoughts that practically brimmed with smile emojis. Lots and lots and LOTS of self-love and group affirmations. #HighFive

So I felt the need to respond. After doing so I realized I had, for the most part, written a blog post. So you’re welcome.

(my response)

Let me stir the pot because I strongly disagree with your assertion that “you don’t need to have a background in HR to lead HR.” (with a few limited caveats as listed below).

The HR field already suffers from an abysmally low barrier to entry; I see this day-in-and-day-out when “someone” is hired or promoted to be the Head of HR (often SMBs or Depts of One) who does not even possess the most fundamental and basic foundational knowledge about employment law, recruiting/staffing/hiring, comp and benefits, etc.  Far too many companies (again, primarily SMBs with <200 EEs) have their HR function being “led” by people who, by their lack of knowledge, are putting both their organizations and their employees at risk. 

They can be a change-agent/people-centric “leader” all they want (and hallelujah if they are) but that does not mean they can or should lead HR.  One should not be “in charge” of HR and simultaneously not understand the most elemental aspects of the function. Hard stop.

Yet this happens due to the widespread belief amongst owners/biz leaders that “anyone can do HR” or “we can move Susie into HR since she’s so nice/good with people/rocks the sales dept/wants to do it.”  And thus we continue to water down the entirety of the profession.

Would we ever (ever?) say “you don’t need a background in Accounting to head up the Accounting Department?” or “you don’t need a background in Marketing to head up the Marketing Dept?” Nope; we wouldn’t.

So why do we think it’s “ok” for HR? 

Here’s my caveat…………..moving into HR from another discipline can be a good thing – when it’s purposeful and also requires sufficient business acumen or industry/organizational experience where it’s part of, as an example, a rotational program.  The linked article speaks to those types of situations: LEGO, Unilever, Flipkart.  That is a whole lot different than what someone reading “you don’t need a background in HR” needs to hear when they want to be hired as the HRD at Acme Insurance with 100 employees.

Because that person is a danger and quite often a poor representation for ALL of us who work in HR.

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HR Conversations and HR Community: #InternationalPodcastDay

For the last two years I’ve been a co-host on Drive thru HR – an HR industry podcast that’s been on the air since 2010 – before we even called it then podcasts! We continue to be a bit of an old school throwback too – we do the shows “live” (and yes; that means sometimes we have shitty questionable sound quality). We don’t use any fancy equipment; no mixing boards and editing software at #DTHR HQ. We don’t have any sponsors; we cover the costs out of pocket and keep the show going because we love the history of it and share a passion for maintaining one of the original hang-out-places for those in the HR eco-system. 

During the month of September we decided to celebrate a milestone as we worked our way to our 1,500th (fifteen hundredth!) show which will air tomorrow (10/1). To that end, my co-host Mike VanDervort and I enlisted the help of numerous friends and invited them to share #SnackableHR content – “bite-sized” nuggets of wisdom on topics related to work, leadership, DE&I, recruiting and all things HR.

These mini-episodes (5 to 10 minutes in length) are available for a listen/download here.

As we launch the next era of #DTHR, here’s a big old THANKS to those who shared their thoughts with our listeners: 

To find out when the follow us at @DrivethruHR, or check us out on Facebook

Listen on Blog Talk Radio, Apple PodcastsPodbeanI Heart RadioStitcher, or PlayerFM.

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