I went to school for journalism and communication, with a specialization in public relations. When I was graduating, I had my sights set on living out secondhand dreams paved by Samantha Jones, The Hills, and Kelly Cutrone’s book, If You Have to Cry — Go Outside. I had been raised by a mother who worked in sales and healthcare, and a father who spent nearly four decades in human resources. I thought their jobs were boring; I thought I would soon be dead before I was ever in a field that adhered to rules or dealt with so much …compliance.
A few years after college graduation, some experiences with awful advertising clients, and one quarter-life crisis later, I found myself craving a professional challenge. I longed to work with people, have the opportunity to research for major projects and influence stakeholders, and ensure no one was getting screwed by “The Big Guy.” Tail between my legs, and many calls with my father later, I accepted the truth that I was destined for a career in human resources and recruiting.
During my first couple of years in human resources, I learned some industry secrets. I was shocked to learn that many HR leaders wanted little to do with providing comfort and resources to its employees despite its namesake. Instead, they chose to perform less like an employee advocate and more like a corporate defense attorney. Many, but not all, are hired to protect the executive leaders first, and the employee second.
To draw the curtain back a bit, the contrast of expectation and reality is a lot less sinister than you’d imagine; we’re not all sitting around a boardroom curling our handle mustaches. As I’ve come to learn from industry veterans, common sense is well, not so common. And what may seem obvious to some (e.g., diversity, equity, sexual harassment, age discrimination, etc.) — it’s a steep learning curve for others. And that’s where human resources is supposed to come in. At the bare minimum, we make sure that a company and its leaders aren’t liable for a lawsuit. Though I am still young in my career, I’ve already had to hold leaders’ hands and explain employment law …as well as how to express empathy to other people.
At one employer, I watched a leader try to fire an employee — let’s call him Dave — while Dave was out on medical leave for a heart condition. The hiring manager trying to fire Dave while he was recovering from surgery honestly thought he was “sparing Dave’s feelings” by firing him behind his back rather than in an “awkward face-to-face” but fun fact: that’s not how any of this works. And that is where HR protection can help both parties, the company, and the employee. In this specific situation, we were able to intercept the termination and coach the hiring manager on best practices.
Though HR can be helpful and the ultimate CYA (cover your ass) for individuals, the powers are not always used for good. One of the most painful lessons I had to learn the hard way was when we had hired an HR business partner to work over me. Being younger in my career and not fully understanding the value of an HRBP, I treated this person as a therapist. Their office became my confessional; forgive me, HR, for I know something I shouldn’t. *Word vomit.* Though it’s laughable in hindsight now, I thought anything said to an HRBP was “off the record.” Over time, I learned what you say can and will, be used against you, especially if someone on your HR team is more concerned with building allies than actively listening to your feedback on the company and its leaders.
When I confronted the HRBP and asked why she repeated something I shared in confidence, she shot back, “Because I’m not here to protect you. I am here to protect the leaders. And if someone on their team doesn’t like their management style, I have a right to let them know.” The lesson here? Your HRBP is not your therapist or life coach. It stings for me to say that. I got into HR, and would certainly go back in a heartbeat because I love advocating for employees. I relish the moments I can help someone advance in their career, give them sound advice, and console them when their upset. But those are the things that make me a great career coach, not an HR professional.
My advice to others is to see your HR leaders as employment law attorneys, a source of truth, and a neutral sounding board for a solution related to the organization or team management.
Apply generous caution when you tell them things, and always assume nothing is off-the-record.