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Why are employees hiring their own independent HR consultants?

Peter Cappelli, Wharton
Peter Cappelli
Peter Cappelli is HRE’s Talent Management columnist and a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. He is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He can be emailed at [email protected]

Writing in The Guardian about one of the latest HR trends, Alaina Demopoulos uncovered a nascent industry of businesses that offer to act as something of an intermediary between employees and their employer’s HR department.

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In some ways, this is not such a new development. Employees who feel they have been treated badly often go to lawyers to see whether they can sue their employer for that treatment. (The joke in years past was: “Why do women, minorities, older people and so forth sue their employers? Because they can.” Lots of people would like to sue but only some can.)

Beyond that, for a generation now, people who could afford it—executives—have had lawyers look over employment agreements before they take a job. I wondered a few years ago if one of the next HR trends would involve high-paid talent getting their own “agents” in the talent acquisition world to deal with recruiters, just as home sellers have their real estate agents dealing with the buyer’s agents.

What is different about this new industry is that these intermediaries are dealing with problems that both the employer and the employee traditionally thought should be handled by HR—not only problems that can get the employer sued.

A complex history of HR trends

Some of what these new businesses provide is advice—e.g., on confronting a difficult supervisor or understanding your options when layoffs might be coming. But some of it is a little more aggressive. For instance, the Caged Bird company offers to send your HR department or boss a message identifying a problem in an anonymous fashion: “This supervisor makes sexist comments,” “That co-worker is making systematically bad decisions” and so forth.

One would have thought that these are the kinds of questions that employees should and would be taking to their own HR departments. But several studies, including a Harvard Business Review article by Joseph Grenny and Derek Cullimore, report evidence that employees don’t trust their HR departments. In particular, employees think HR is primarily looking out for the interests of the employer and is much less interested in addressing their concerns.

They are likely right. HR is an arm of management, not an agent of the government. It does not have the professional obligations that general counsels and CPAs have to follow laws or certain standards. When we hear advocates for HR being considered a profession, that is the crucial part that rarely comes up: What differentiates a profession from a skilled trade is not a skill base. It is having standards that the professionals are required to follow, independent of what their employer wants.

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HR does what the top leadership allows it to do. Those of us who are older and have insights into historical HR trends will remember when HR acted more like an employee advocate when employment was lifetime, and the concerns of employees were crucial to the smooth running of the organization. At the blue-collar level, it was crucial to keep unions out or manage them if they were already in. The new generation of financially oriented business leaders starting in the 1980s wanted none of that. The shift from the term “personnel” to “human capital” was, in part, a reflection that we should think about employees differently, more as to how they can be useful to the business.

When problems of sexual harassment and discrimination started to affect the business with lawsuits and reputational damage, many companies allowed HR to take on those complaints in ways that even challenged the behavior of individual business leaders. But virtually every HR leader also has stories about having to back down or at least tread very carefully when concerns were raised about top leaders.

The future of HR’s relationship with employees

We are left with a few questions. First, will this new industry take off? Maybe this is better for HR as well: Employees sometimes come for advice that HR would like to answer but cannot because it conflicts with their role as the employer—such as should I take the buyout or stay and risk a layoff?

Second, how you would react in an HR role if you got an anonymous complaint via a third party about some supervisor or employee? It seems very concerning if someone went to this much trouble to raise an issue in this manner, but it is also hard to act when you can’t investigate to find the factual basis for taking action. How would you handle it?

And a final question: When will “talent challenges”—difficulty hiring and retaining, in particular—become big enough issues for top business leaders that they will actually empower HR to do something about employee concerns so that employees are not confused about what HR is doing?