How HR Lost Employees’ Trust — and How to Get It Back

When employees have concerns, whether it’s an issue with a toxic manager or rude behavior from someone else on their team, they don’t contact HR, according to a new study. While this may not come as a surprise to many, this result points to an ongoing problem for HR. Most employees see HR as advocates for the business focused on compliance rather than advocates for the employees and their needs. The authors outline three ways recruiters can support people—as coaches, mentors, and mediators—and restore employee trust.

The way most HR departments work just doesn’t work for employees. Our latest study of 993 employees shows that when they have a concern—whether it’s about how they’re being treated by their manager or a colleague’s rude behavior—they prefer to contact almost anyone before contacting HR. First, they contact their manager; then they go to a trusted colleague. When one of these lifelines fails, they try to solve the problem themselves. In fact, employees would even go to another leader in their organization or do nothing at all before contacting HR!

This is nothing new to many people, and ironically, human resource development has been going on for decades. The goal was to transform yesterday’s reactive and compliance-oriented HR model into one in which leaders are seen as both trusted partners to management and advocates for employees. In this approach, HR leaders sit at the executive table to advise leaders on culture and advocate for employees and their needs.

And yet our study clearly shows that only a few HR functions take on this second role. Despite efforts to move from compliance officers to employee representatives, people still lack trust in HR. Does it matter? And if so, what to do?

Some HR managers might be tempted to dismiss this insight and argue that it’s a good thing for employees to reach out to their managers. However, our study shows that a preference to speak to a manager says more about low levels of trust in HR than levels of trust in team leaders. According to our survey respondents, nearly half (47%) also do not feel comfortable sharing and confiding in their manager with their frustration. Nor are they confident that their manager will stand up for them.

Ultimately, many employee concerns – big or small – go unheeded and unresolved. And that’s not a risk leaders should take.

When we asked about employees’ reluctance to reach out to HR, we found that 37% of respondents believe HR is more interested in serving their company than they are. What HR employees were keen to share were typical policy or compliance issues such as sexual harassment, discrimination, and ethics. But when it comes to cultural or moral concerns such as harmful interpersonal conflict, how leaders communicate with their teams, and the implementation of strategy, vision, and policies, HR leaders are groping in the dark. Respondents indicated that they fear their HR manager does not have the power to influence change, and even if they did, the needs of the organization would take precedence. But what can you do? How can the HR team transform from a company that draws the line to a company that puts people – and their concerns – first?

The bottom line is that everyone deserves to have their voice heard and not silenced, especially when it comes to the experience of their employees. Ideally, every employee would feel comfortable raising concerns with the people they work directly with – their managers and peers. However, our research over the past three decades shows that most people find it difficult to speak up when it comes to emotional or important conversations. This is where the HR department can and should play a role and advocate for the employees.

When employees see HR not just as a compliance officer, but as a coach, mentor and facilitator, they trust a system that is primarily committed to their needs. Whether you lead the HR function at your company or work at one, here are three approaches we think you should adopt to better address the interpersonal challenges and cultural issues employees face every day .

Lawyer as Coach

HR leaders can advocate for affected employees by teaching them how to have difficult conversations with their peers and managers. For example, how do you tell your boss that you’re burned out? How do you disagree with a colleague’s opinion on the project schedule? How do you raise the flag of a toxic culture?

Assisting employees through these types of interpersonal conflicts begins with listening to the employee and asking non-judgmental, open-ended questions. Next, role-play the conversation with the employee, discuss appropriate ways to reach out to their manager or colleague, and provide insight into how that interaction might unfold.

You don’t have to be present when the interview takes place, but rather help the employee prepare for the interview, provide insights and follow up with additional coaching sessions that will encourage and empower them to solve their own problem. A coach shows concern and interest in a person’s growth, rather than simply seeing them as a one-off problem to be solved. In return, people trust the coaches and seek their support.

lawyer as a mentor

When employees come to HR with unresolved interpersonal conflicts, e.g. B. if they don’t get a vote or agreement on important projects, if there are differences in communication style or even issues with disrespect, see this as a mentoring opportunity.

Rather than taking the opportunity to document or take corrective action, serve as a neutral sounding board and encourage the employee to reflect on past experiences that may affect the current one. Together, identify areas where they have not performed well – both in the past and especially in the current conflict. Suggest interventions and next steps. Offer support and encouragement.

Mentors also walk the word by demonstrating healthy interpersonal skills. These skills include mastering the story you tell yourself about others before acting on potentially unfair judgments, seeking common purpose when you seem at odds, and making it safe for others to connect Engage in a dialogue by demonstrating respect and understanding. People feel more confident when they ask for advice and support from someone who can expertly demonstrate the skills they are looking for.

lawyer as mediator

The third approach is to act as a mediator when the employee’s situation cannot be resolved on their own. In this case, you can hear each side’s viewpoints independently, and then bring the two sides together for a healthy and productive conversation. Start by establishing ground rules at the beginning of the meeting that include allowing each side to tell their story. Ask each party to describe facts and behaviors rather than conclusions. For example, “You raised your voice and said I was behind on my deadline” instead of “You think I’m lazy and incompetent.” Reiterate their points of view to make both sides feel heard, then identify areas of mutual purpose and respect (e.g. “They are both committed to delivering a quality product.”) and then develop possible solutions from there out. This can be a productive approach to get both sides to come to a solution. It is important that you mediate neutrally and impartially.

If employees don’t come to you with concerns now, it will take time to change the reputation of your function enough to make them feel safe. By investing in the skills needed to fulfill the three roles outlined above, you’re not only helping employees who need your support, you’re also helping yourself. HR leaders who are seen as trusted advocates for employees receive one Insight into cultural and operational challenges that, if resolved, will position the organization for future success.

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