‘HR is not your friend’: why frustrated workers are hiring reps of their own | US work & careers | The Guardian

Many US employees don’t trust their HR departments, and instead turn to independent services for help with discrimination or harassment issues

NK Beale knew something was wrong when her boss started sending her listings for other job openings.

“My manager was advising me to put in my notice,” said Beale, who is 40 and lives in Washington DC. “It was kind of weird, because we had a pretty good relationship, and I felt as though he was someone I could trust.”

There had been a shift in leadership at her tech company during a tumultuous time in the industry, with mass layoffs at Google, Amazon and Microsoft. Beale wondered if maybe her boss had encouraged her to put in her notice before they had a chance to officially lay her off so the company wouldn’t have to pay severance. The stress of it all started to affect her sleep and wellbeing.

When it got to be too much, Beale’s partner suggested that she speak to an old colleague named Cierra Gross, who founded an independent human resources consulting firm called Caged Bird HR.

For $99, Gross and her staff listen to workers’ complaints about harassment, discrimination, or other job-related issues – stories those workers don’t feel comfortable sharing with their own employers’ HR representatives. Workers at Google, Netflix, Amazon, Uber and Meta have all used Caged Bird, according to Gross. She also says Caged Bird wrote the résumé for a candidate who ended up a state senator, and helped a woman who was about to quit her job negotiate a $30,000 severance.

People usually reach out to Caged Bird after experiencing discrimination or issues with compensation. Over 80% of its clients also say work has caused some sort of mental anguish, according to Gross.

A survey published last month found that more than a third of 1,005 small-business workers in the US didn’t trust their HR departments. In a 2021 survey of 1,000 workers at UK organizations with more than 250 employees, 47% reported that they didn’t trust HR to help with conflict resolution. More than two in five respondents didn’t believe that the department would act impartially, with 43% saying they think senior staff members were favored in workplace disputes.

This wariness creates an opening for an independent HR service to act as a confidant, support system, lawyer (or at least someone who knows a lawyer), and whatever else a worker doesn’t feel they can find in-house. The Guardian spoke with two companies that have jumped into this field.

Caged Bird’s clients must first fill out a form explaining who they are, where they work and what’s going wrong. A representative then calls to explain their rights as workers and to give their professional opinion on how things should be handled. Caged Bird then drafts documents that might be helpful to the client when the client speaks to their employer’s HR department, such as a letter of resignation, a script for a pay negotiation, or a letter that reports discrimination.

Caged Bird does not negotiate fair labor practices with a company on behalf of a collective workforce like unions do, and it rarely interacts directly with a company’s HR department.

“Sometimes we do allow a support person to come to meetings between a client and their employer, but then our involvement is very limited,” Gross said. “In those cases we’re not actually allowed to talk during meetings. Even when we ghostwrite documents for a client, we don’t send it directly to their employer. We give it to the client and it’s up to them to send it to whoever they need to.”

After consulting with Caged Bird, Beale decided to take a leave of absence from her job due to stress – a lifeline she hadn’t realized was available to her. “They let me know the options most companies don’t want you to know. It was pretty simple for me to get together the documents that I needed for leave,” she said. After a few months, she went back to work feeling recharged. She later found a new job in media and entertainment with a better work-life balance.

Most workers have probably heard the phrase “don’t trust HR” or “HR is not your friend” at some point in their careers. Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says the problem is that many employees don’t understand how HR fits into a company as a whole, particularly when it comes to issues of discrimination.

In recent years – especially after the #MeToo movement elevated awareness of workplace sexual harassment – employers have boasted a zero-tolerance policy on the matter. “That makes workers think that HR are like the internal police,” Cappelli said.

It can also be tempting to view HR as an independent entity dedicated to workers’ wellbeing – something analogous to a union shop steward. But that’s often too idealistic of a comparison.

“What people don’t understand is that ultimately, HR works for the company and the employer organization,” Cappelli explained. “They have no particular obligations for you. What they do for the most part is try to nudge the organization and the leadership in the right direction, which is about all you can expect them to do.”

That’s not enough for some workers, especially a post-#MeToo world. In the seven years since the harassment awareness hashtag snowballed into a full-on movement, many workers have hoped that the deluge of stories might lead to better conditions. The same could be said after 2020’s so-called “racial reckoning”, when CEOs preached diversity and inclusion in a way that felt more performative than purposeful.

Gross spent years working in HR for Google and ExxonMobil, but she left corporate America in 2022 after suffering burnout and depression. As implied by the name – a nod to the poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou’s memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – and the fact that Gross is a Black woman with lived experience of workplace discrimination, Caged Bird’s earliest clients came due to issues of racism or sexism.

“The first year we started, it was 99% Black women and 1% everyone else,” Gross said. “Last year, it was 68% Black people, and the second highest was Latinas, white people, followed by members of the LGBT community of all demographics. So as the brand continues to grow, we’re starting to reach a broader demographic.”

If an employee wants to confront a co-worker or boss who, for example, won’t stop with the unwanted come-ons, they can enlist BeeMail, a service that sends warning emails to offenders accused of sexual harassment. The subject line of the email reads “Addressing Your Behavior”, with the body’s text written in a generic manner intended not to out a victim’s identity.

“This is not a gotcha moment,” the message reads. “We’ve all made mistakes. This email is intended to make you aware of the issue and to prevent further escalation involving your employer. We hope to see this as an opportunity to reflect on your interactions and do better moving forward.”

Cheri Wolf and Sandy Lisonbee launched BeeMail earlier this year. Each BeeMail message to an accused harasser links to their non-profit, The Wolf and the Bee, which provides resources to help workers and their employers resolve workplace disputes.

“If you Google ‘someone has accused me of harassment at work’, every single result comes from the angle of what to do if you’ve been falsely accused,” Wolf said. “But what should you do if you’ve actually done something? We found literally no tools from the harasser’s perspective. We realized this puts the burden of fixing a problem on the victim.”

It costs $25 for an accuser to send a BeeMail – the founders call the fee a “donation”, since the price helps fund their non-profit. The message can only be sent one time, so that BeeMail itself is not used as a tool of harassment. Wolf and Lisonbee worked with attorneys to make sure that the service did not violate any privacy or labor laws.

“For the most part, you’re going to have to continue to work with the person who’s harassing you,” Wolf said. “We need to start normalizing this idea that we can listen to feedback without getting defensive, and we can empower both sides of the situation to take responsibility for managing that process.”

The founders hope that their service will be used soon after someone experiences harassment for the first time, before behavior escalates.

“We understand that a BeeMail is not going to be effective for someone at a Harvey Weinstein level,” Lisonbee said. “It’s really about understanding and weighing out whether this uncomfortable process is also going to be empowering for you.”

Do not expect the BeeMail to go mainstream soon: only one person has used the service since it launched in February, though the founders say that some people have started the process but ultimately decided not to send the email.

Cappelli, the Wharton professor, says that what makes an independent HR service alluring to workers might not be its promised end result. “For a lot of people, being able to talk to someone about what’s happening and maybe having someone else know might make them feel better,” he said. “If this makes the person who’s reporting feel better, then it’s possible that these services actually do some good.”

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