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Workplace Culture

Reflecting, rebranding … but can HR repair its reputation?

Jana Kasperkevic Jul 17, 2019
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Delegates mingle at the 2019 SHRM annual conference.
Chris Williams/Zoeica Images

The mere mention of HR is often met with dread. But at the annual conference of the Society for Human Resource Management, it’s a different story. 

Ribbons adorning attendees’ badges read “I heart HR.” Conference souvenirs included similarly branded T-shirts, pashminas, tie clips and blocks of Post-it notes. Despite 100 degree heat, roughly 20,000 people attended the event in Las Vegas last month. 

Companies are trying to rebrand HR into something fun and approachable. These days you’ll encounter titles like chief experience officer, chief happiness officer and, more recently, chief heart officer

But call an HR department a “people department” in front of a large group of workers and chances are someone will roll their eyes. 

“I think people roll their eyes because it’s new,” said Aram Lulla, general manager at executive recruiting firm Lucas Group. Two years ago, the HR executive at his company was promoted to “chief people officer.” 

“You know, you’re not used to hearing it — ‘Oh boy, that sounds a little bit cheesy’. No, it’s really what it’s all about. They are there to establish the culture, they are there for the employee experience, they are there for the people. Because of that, that title change is actually very significant to a lot of organizations, because it really defines what these people are doing in their functional departments.”

Branded stationery on sale at the SHRM conference. (Jana Kasperkevic)

The shift toward emphasizing the human part of human resources has proven more challenging as a result of the #metoo movement. With the spotlight on sexual harassment in the workplace, HR managers say that finding a balance between police officer and confidant has become more important.

It’s been a time for reflection, according to Deb Muller, founder and CEO of HR Acuity, a provider of HR management software. 

“One of the things that HR needs to do is to rethink what they have been doing,” she said. In the recent years, Muller, too, had a moment of self-doubt; she wondered if her employees felt comfortable coming to her with sensitive issues at work. 

“When #metoo came out, and they said 75% of people don’t feel comfortable reporting things, I even had to look inward on my own HR experience because I thought I, as an HR leader, was really good. [That] I was different and people had a different experience with me. But when you hear statistics like that, you can’t just think that you are different. You have to start thinking about you’ve been doing.”

Muller said she read much of the #metoo coverage, including reports about how companies need to have sexual harassment training and a variety of means of reporting workplace issues. But none of that seemed particularly new or revolutionary to her. 

“That’s what we’ve been doing for 20 years. That’s exactly what we’ve been doing,” she said of the advice she read. “And if we just kind of tweak [the policies] and revise them, we are just doing more of the same and we are going to get the exact same results.”

A recent study by HR Acuity found that last year, in the aftermath of #metoo, 53% of organizations said sexual harassment claims had increased. There was also an increase in reports of “unprofessional conduct,” workplace bullying, as well as age and gender discrimination. HR executives reported being overworked and more than half of those who conduct investigations exclusively said they were  investigating seven cases, on average, at the same time.  

The way HR departments handle those claims and investigations will shape their reputation, Muller said. 

Colleen Pfaller, founder and chief executive of A Slice of HR, a recruiting firm in Cincinnati, says she is no stranger to the negative response that often accompanies any mention of HR. She hopes that it’s all about to change. 

“We are in kind of a new era of HR and that’s encouraging. For a lot of time, we were seen as the police of the organization. I certainly did my fair share of performance management, talking to people about discipline matters and handbooks, but I think the field is evolving.” 

According to Pfaller, HR is about more than being a handbook-thumper. She says HR staff should focus on those rare moments when employees actually find their way into the HR office.  

“Somebody like my dad, who was an engineer for a company for 40 years, probably never walked into the HR department,” she said. “But maybe once or twice he did, and it’s how we respond in those moments. And if we slap down a handbook, or we slap down a policy, we are going to keep having our bad reputation.”

Stubbornly sticking to policies and not thinking of the employees and the larger picture is the reason HR has developed a reputation for avoidance and de-escalation rather than solutions, said Steve Pemberton, chief resource officer at HR software company Workhuman

“I am at times surprised by that stubbornness, because you have evidence of so many things that aren’t working quite as effectively as we wish,” he said, pointing specifically to sexual harassment training and #metoo. “How has that happened on our watch? Where do we need to be better, relative to not just policies that are in place, but culture? The hanging onto the way things were done, almost with a clawed hand, has been a bit surprising.” 

HR, according to Pemberton, “are the people who take care of people.” No one else has that responsibility, he said. 

“When you are expecting as a mom for the first time, HR is going to know about that,” he says. “If you are thinking about adopting, we are going to know about that. If you are thinking about going back to school, we are going to know about that. We are kind of in the middle of your common life events that, with all due respect to chief financial officer or the chief marketing officer, they are not.”

These are the moments that Pfaller mentioned, when HR executives hope to get more personable, more trusted and closer to an “I heart HR” atmosphere in their workplace. But a playful personal touch is hard to teach in a one-hour workshop. 

As the conference came to an end, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas was full of departing attendees. Two women wore black shirts with bright green letters that read: “What happens in Vegas gets reported to HR.” Playful, but still the office police.