Any corporate human resource (HR) staff that my friends or I have met over the last six months in Singapore have either of the two views about my situation. A majority of them say it was an honest mistake, a slight error in judgement; however, what’s happened in the aftermath is disproportionate and unfair. And should not have happened. The other view we hear is that am totally innocent and the image has been used as a plain excuse to launch an online racist attack targeting my community.
The common inference from both the views is that what happened to me was wrong, disproportionate, unfair and I should not be left ‘unemployable’. Yet, what’s extremely funny is that what every HR person feels individually is starkly different from what they feel as a group. Once they sit together at a department level, the fear factor shoots up and the decision is instantly taken not to consider me for hiring ever. Hence, more than trollers, it’s HR who have got insecure enough to deem me permanently unemployable. In a way, they actually are with the lynch mob and with anyone who feels insecure enough that an image, view or joke can bring down a solidly built, fabulous nation.
Will the real Human Resource please stand up?
Which brings me to the question – When was the last time HR stood up to do what’s right? Or resurrect a flailing career? Or rather what is HR’s role in the corporate world? Why are they often deemed a helpless department, in most organizations, who just read out the red tape rules and act like the big business head’s personal secretary?
You have a problem with your boss.. who can sort that out? HR? Forget it! They will rattle off exactly what your boss told, in more ‘humane resource’ language!
A few years ago, I had reported about my boss to my department’s HR lead. My boss was a new hire, who no one liked or wanted in the company. One senior lady had left the department in protest of this un-popular hiring. My boss wanted to work less, had limited hands-on experience and gave away 50% of my projects to another department. Six months after joining the department, he had given away 80% of the work, the department did; and slowly was sending his staff to other departments. I had ambitions of growing into his role and was in no mood to leave the department. Yet in a short time, I was told to look for work elsewhere.
In an era where bosses look to expand work and build on the capabilities of a department, here was a person who was keen to downsize his department. In every aspect. From a versatile projects expert department we were getting downgraded to a routine governance forum. The man was closer to his retirement years, far away from his ‘ambitious’ years and had the blessing of my super boss. From a star performer in my department, I had been downgraded to an appendix in the unit. All in six months. It was shocking to see how systematically my work was being donated to other departments. All just because there was a forced change in bosses. My previous boss was doing a great job and the department was gaining strength. But everything came down to the whims of the super boss. His favourite pet had to be brought in, didn’t matter if two departments and dozens of people got affected.
I thought deep, hard and gathered courage. After talking twice to the super boss (obviously it didn’t work) I decided to report the matter to the HR. I complained to the HR, sighting the person was working against the interests of the department and the company. The ageing HR lady heard me patiently and promised me a fair hearing. The least I expected was that both parties would be called in one room and let this be sorted out.
But nothing like that happened. HR called my super boss soon after and then, called me. In a few days, HR rattled to me the same things my super boss had said. The super boss then called on me and rattled the same things, again. Case closed.
I was left wondering what was HR’s role? Why did I waste my time with them? Am sure many of you’ll will relate to the above incident and feel the helpless state one gets into. In most organisations, specially where the HR hasn’t matured, the boss is always protected. The super boss helps in protecting the boss and the HR holds the umbrella over both of them.
Does HR help in compensation issues?
I recall another instance way back in 2013. After I had adopted my child, my company then had failed to pay me the baby bonus. This was a sizeable amount given to any child born or adopted to a Permanent Resident or Citizen of Singapore. I raised it to the HR support team and expressed surprise at why I had not received the baby bonus amount.
Some investigation followed and it was explained back to me that while the baby bonus is applicable for all adoption cases but in the system, it executed the payment only when it found the new baby’s birth date is less than one year from current date. Since the adoption of kids more than a year old is rare, it was a system glitch that could be reasoned out. My son was adopted when he was 2.5yrs old. Hence when I keyed into the system his age (as 2.5yrs), the system didn’t execute the baby bonus amount.
So I requested HR to make this baby bonus payment an ad-hoc one. They showed helplessness. I asked them to talk to my bosses and do a one-off payment under a different header.. say reimbursements or miscellaneous etc. They went helpless again. Then I asked them why not adjust this amount with my upcoming annual bonus amount. They were not sure. So, I wondered, why was that department functioning? They weren’t able to decide anything for any staff; couldn’t pass ad-hoc transactions; can’t change anything against what the bosses decide; all their compensation models go haywire as every salary, increment or bonus amounts were dictated by the bosses; can’t help in boss vs subordinate issues; So exactly where is HR really effective?
Does HR help in harassment issues?
Do they help out in people to people relationship issues? Negative. I have seen HR hopelessly fail in sexual harassment cases. Infact in such situations, in most organisations, HR gets as bad as it can be… If the ‘guilty as charged person’ is a junior guy in the organization, his side of the story isn’t even heard properly. There is a 99% chance he will be kicked out of that building within the next month. However if the ‘guilty as charged person’ is a senior management guy, there is a 99% chance that he will continue his ways and the accusing lady will need to pack bags.
I recall a sad case, back at Delhi, India, in 2003. In that office, the ‘Collections and Recovery – Head’ wielded serious power. Private and MNC banks were opening up big time in India then, senior leaders were key, the experienced and influential lot were select few, and so, any top boss wielded serious power. That Head would often hire young ladies as his desk job executives. However during the interview he would upgrade their dreams by using how they would need to be his ‘assistant’ for effective functioning of the department. He would upfront tell the ladies the need to work late hours to often accompany for meetings and dinners. Also, a mandatory question popped up during each of his interview sessions with young ladies ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’. The answer to this question would often be the key qualifier to select the person.
One middle-class lady, badly in need of a job to support her family and with a strong resume that said ‘no boyfriends currently’ got selected for the job. She was decent looking, aged in her early twenties and coincidentally sat next to me. After a month of service, she realised her life would be hell if she wasn’t accompanying three days a week for ‘dinner, drinks and company(!)’. She was the only earner in her family and needed the job to sustain her household rent, grocery and other expenses.
When water started getting above the neck, she gathered courage to give excuses to avoid the late night outings and the advances. The boss figured that out soon and branded her ‘inefficient’ in her desk job. And that for continuing to get her monthly salary, she would need to now prove herself out on the streets, as a loan shark. A young lady in an unsafe city, going out to ask money from defaulters, was unthinkable. So the boss made the situation even easier by allotting her to visit butchers and renowned anti-socials to collect money that they owed to the bank. It was an on point trigger that she walks out from the job, the very next day. The lady, though, fought on and tried delaying the inevitable. She went out for a few money collection rounds too – where the defaulter was a relatively easy person to deal with – and often ended the day sobbing alone in the office. Note: she never had problems sitting late at the office to do the desk job.
Finally, I encouraged her to raise the matter to HR when it seemed that she had entered a ‘nothing to lose’ situation. The odds were anyways and always against her. The HR was too thin and weak to even think of going against the Head. But we always live on hope, don’t we? I backed her in the process and spoke extensively to the HR about how the Head was playing with ladies and careers. The HR personnel wasn’t surprised. They were always aware of it. So this time the HR team acted swift and fast. I was politely reprimanded to keep quiet and the girl was fired from her job. All within the next working day!
I am sure, over the span of your career, you would have experienced plentiful similar instances where HR have acted helpless, lack of spine, directionless and morbid. Why are most HR units across the world the same? There are some explanations which point that often HR is the only unit that hires the lowest quality of talent. It’s rare to find an engineer, doctorate, chartered accountant, management trainee or college topper join the HR unit of an organization. So HR is often made up of people who struggle to get into the other business units of an organization. The not so bright ones. And having assembled a ragtag unit, they are left to only follow the business unit head’s directions for their own survival. Often an HR person is more insecure about his or her job than the coder, customer care, analyst, sales executive or the secretary!
Would you trust HR in your hour of crisis?
The macro feeling that employees have of HR (in most organisations, not all) is that HR is dishonest, not objective, unfair, incompetent, only interested in serving the management’s interests and managing office politics. A Forbes article in 2013 had once argued that it’s time HR was fired from companies. They ‘speak gibberish, revel in red tape, live in a bubble and aren’t really in your business’. That article wasn’t wrong and while the world keeps changing at a rapid pace, HR processes and methods haven’t evolved at that rate. It’s a fact that most employees with ten plus years of working experience will have two personal HR horror stories to relate. In most organisations, HR is never a door to knock when you are having a, well.., ‘HR’ problem.
Hence am not any bit surprised that HR of most organisations is struggling to consider me back into employment. The backbone seems to be missing for most. I can count just five companies where the HR stood up, showed basic courage in considering me for employment – out of the hundreds of organisations to whom I had applied. It happens always.
A woman with a career break (say of ten years) will find it impossible to get the next job – cause HR of most organisations will want someone else to hire her first. A job seeker who was sacked (previously), a college graduate with no experience, a person whose CV isn’t an exact match, a person desperate for work and willing to downgrade his profile … all will struggle. Wherever HR needs to show some courage, they fall apart in most organisations.
People give 12-18 hours a day to a corporate, for weeks, weekends, during holidays, for months, years and decades. It’s not a nice feeling, after all those years, to know that your HR hardly has a strength of belief or spine to execute their supposed bread and butter role.