papersA few weeks back, one to the best bloggers you may not be reading — Robin Shea — posted about the scathing press that Amazon had been receiving about its workplace and posed this question: Can Employees Trust Human Resources?

It’s not a trick question.

As Robin deftly points out:

Part of the problem, I think, comes from the fact that HR really cannot be an “advocate” for the employee — not like the employee’s lawyer, or his mother, or his best friend. The HR rep works for the company and has to do what’s right for the company. I think this is where the “HR doesn’t care” perception comes from.

But Robin goes on to say that “just because HR isn’t an employee advocate doesn’t mean HR doesn’t care about employees.”  Indeed, the HR person typically have to worry about compliance and recruitment — two areas that, if handled correctly, can be the “best way to stay out of legal trouble.”

Of course, other bloggers like Suzanne Lucas, tackle this issue on seemingly a daily basis. After all, Suzanne’s moniker is the “Evil HR Lady”.  Why?

All HR people are evil, it’s in our job description. Or at least, that seems to be the prevailing theory. In reality, there’s just more going on behind the scenes than most people know.

Now, before all the HR people reading this pat themselves on the back for a job well done — let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.  Human Resources doesn’t have to be evil, but that’s not to say that incompetence — or, more accurately, missteps — should be fostered either.

HR is under scrutiny all the time and missteps can often lead to misunderstandings and mistrust too.  Suppose, for example, an employee comes to HR with a “confidential” harassment complaint.  The HR person fails to tell the employee that they have an obligation to report it and followup; thus, when the HR person begins an investigation, the complaining employee may be surprised to find out that confidentiality is not something that can be promised.

Now let’s suppose that the HR person actually provides the caveat that confidentiality will be preserves where possible. But in the course of the investigation, the HR person divulges personal information to witnesses and is cavalier with the information.  No matter how good the investigation is, it will still be perceived as being improper.

One issue that may come up is training. Some companies hire HR people with little experience figuring that “anyone” can do that job.  But the problem is that these people (to generalize) may not even know the questions to ask.  They have little familiarity with the law and therefore make decisions that may seem good in theory, but are just not allowed.  The intersection of the ADA, FMLA, Paid Sick Leave, and Workers Compensation is a huge issue that is difficult to get right.

In my experience, most of the HR people I’ve dealt with are bright, well-intentioned people who just want to “get it right”.  It can be a thankless job, made only tougher when the HR people are asked to take the lead on a layoff or termination.  I can tell you that no one takes pleasure in having to fire an employee. The conversations I’ve had with HR people in those instances start off clinical — just the facts — but many times, it’s the “personal” side of the decision that gets tough. The families that may be impacted or the other difficulties that the person has.

In those cases, HR plays a crucial role in ensuring decisions are handled with care and, if the situation warrants, compassion.  HR can advocate for a severance package, or outplacement counseling, or other pieces to a separation.  HR should — and often times, does — try to get decisions “right”.

And ultimately, HR should be trusted. But that trust is difficult to be earned. To the HR people who read it, just keep plugging away.

Remember: HR will typically get blamed for any workplace employee issues and not get credit for the successes.  That just comes with the territory.