Advocate For the Employee, or the Employer? Which Is It HR?

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There are few pleasures in life I enjoy more than a meaty conversation with individuals of differing viewpoints.

That said, there is one topic of conversation that drives me nuts, and it centers on this question — Is HR an advocate for the employee or the employer?

I hate this question. It seriously sets my teeth on edge when I hear it. Here’s why:

It seems determined to perpetuate a divide

Who says that HR has to choose sides? Why is this an acceptable proposition? Where else in the organization is someone called to be an advocate of one group at the expense of the other? So what that employers and employees sometimes have conflicting interests — so do customers and employers.

If a sales person is an advocate for his customer, is he operating outside the interests of his employer? Of course not. So, why do we keep asking this question of HR? Instead, why not ask a better question — what can HR do to balance the interests of employer and employee? Which brings me to …

It gives HR an excuse to do a crappy job

You say, “Oh, that sounds good, but HR is paid by the employer, not the employee.” Yes, and the sales person is paid by the employer and not the customer. Again, does that give the sales person license to not solve the customer’s problem?

On the flip side, if HR is all about “helping” employees, then there’s no reason for HR to thoughtfully consider the effects of any employee request. Can you use bereavement leave to attend the funeral of your ex-wife’s cousin’s husband? Why sure, employee! You have a need, and we’re here to help you! This is bad HR, people. Bad HR.

It makes it OK for employers to behave irresponsibly

If HR’s job is simply to “take the employer’s side” then there’s no reason for the employer to consider any information from HR before making a decision.

So go ahead employer and misclassify your employees, ignore that bully, promote that incompetent into another department, and pay Betty less for doing the same job as Joe. Apparently HR is just here to push your paper and effect your bad business decisions.

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It gives detractors a reason to diss the profession

Seriously HR, you don’t have the critical thinking skills, maturity, or business sense to solve a problem based on its own merits? You don’t have the wisdom or the courage to tell that misguided employee who says his boss is “harassing” him that his manager has every right and a responsibility to set and enforce standards? Or to tell your employer that the Director of Temper Tantrums in department X is causing a serious morale issue, and you know she’s brilliant, but folks and productivity are suffering?

What kind of practitioner are you?

Please, don’t get me wrong. At the end of the day, the employer pays the bills and the employer will decide the type of HR department it gets.

But my question is this: What type of HR practitioner are YOU? Your employer doesn’t get to make that decision.

So forget about sides and instead recommend the very best solutions you can devise with the information you have on hand. And let knowledge, skill, compassion, wisdom, tact, and maturity guide your decision making — not some simplistic notion of “us” versus “them.”

This was originally published on Crystal Spraggins’ Musings blog.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at


6 Comments on “Advocate For the Employee, or the Employer? Which Is It HR?

  1. Yes, this is a great article, however, at the end of the day, the Human Resources professional is an agent of the organization. If HR people want to be employee advocates, then they should go work for a union. I don’t believe that stating the fact that we are agents of the organization forces us into a divide between management and employees – UNLESS we act and make decisions in such a manner that sends that message. As agents of the organization, we are tasked with mitigating exposure to risk and liability. The awesomeness of this job and position is that we get to devise and implement strategies, programs and processes that create and support a healthy and positive work environment and culture that – wait for it – results in actions that advocate for the employee. See? It’s not a matter of us versus them unless we make it so through our actions and words. But, the fact remains, we are employed by the organization, we are agents of the organization…and with that position comes great responsibility. Sorry if this is contrary or controversial, but I hate it when I ask entry level HR people why they got into HR and they tell me because they want to advocate for employees. Well then, my answer is, “go work for the union.”

    1. Well said, Elizabeth. I’ve always tried to explain that if we’re doing our job correctly, it results in an environment where both management and employees can thrive, succeed and do so together.

  2. One reason why HR “doesn’t work” is that it has two separate missions, and they are orthogonal. On the one hand, HR is chartered to protect the company from its employees. The Employee Relations function is a part of a company’s risk management framework, and its role is to prevent employees from filing lawsuits or otherwise bringing financial, operational, or reputation risk to reality.

    The other mission – the one we like, by the way – is to help the organization maximize the value of its most expensive and most complex asset: its talent. This is where we design org structures to highlight the best of people’s skills and aspirations. It’s where we plan and manage development opportunities that bring together the flint of people’s aspirations and the steel of the organization’s future needs to ignite a spark of passion and energy. It’s where we provide strategic counsel to leaders with respect to the human AND financial implications of strategy and plans.

    These two missions are fundamentally at odds with each other. One simply HAS to take priority over the other. In most organizations, it’s the risk management function that takes precedence. Since we as HR folks don’t generally have the courage to call it what it is, and since people have a very high sensitivity to BS, we’re in a tough spot. It’s awfully hard to get a seat at the strategic table when we talk about our risk management activities as though they are actually “empowerment” initiatives or some other such silliness. No one believes that, nor should they.

    The solution in my opinion is structural. We ought to separate these functions to the greatest degree possible. There’s value and merit in the risk management function of HR, and there’s value and merit in its strategic functions too. They ought to exist in separate organizations, so that each can be freed to operate elegantly.

  3. HR is a strategic partner of the company not the employee. If you want to know where HR stands simply take a complaint to them. If you are complaining against another co-worker you may have a case. If you are complaining against the company, you are fired. Keep your mouth closed, do your work and go home. HR is not there to protect you and that’s okay if they would be up front about it. I think workers get upset because they were not informed of this or because they assumed otherwise. Never complain to HR. This is why companies have high turnovers, because people would rather leave then to confide in HR. However, this is true in every organization. Your protection is for the best interest of the company, not you. This is the case with ALL institutions. Even in prisons where it seems like the guards really care about the safety of the prisoners, they just don’t want to be liable for anything happening to someone in their care. I think people would stop being so disappointed if they just realized that no one really cares about anyone. It is your responsibility to take care and look out for yourself. Don’t expect HR or any other “body” to look after you.

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