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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