As these weeks have unfolded in Federal Parliament, I have reflected on our role in HR in these circumstances. We are often maligned for our complicity: "don't go to HR; they're there to protect the business, not the staff." And unfortunately, often that is ultimately true. But it's not as straight forward as that.
HR burnout is not often discussed, but we spend a lot of time on the dark side of humans in our work. Otherwise ordinary people can be their cruellest at work, perhaps because we don't have as much to lose as we do in our personal lives - or maybe we have more to lose. Perhaps it's different for different people. Regardless, in HR, we bear witness to some dark stuff. The stories gushing out of Parliament are not new to HR practitioners, nor is the complexity of responding to them in cultures that reward and celebrate toxic behaviours. "Don't join those organisations", I hear you say. Organisations are made up of humans. While obviously there is a spectrum, I have never met an organisation peopled solely by the good ones.
It's often said that the CEO's role is one of the loneliest you could take up. No one is a peer. You have to make decisions that may impact even those who have been your closest confidant. You hold the fate of your organisation in your hands. No one else in the business is sharing that experience. The role of an HR executive is at least as lonely as that of the CEO. Perhaps more; sometimes in HR you have to sack your CEO.
The best HR people are as close to what's happening on the ground as possible, which requires that you have to walk a line between building relationships where people trust you enough to be a source of great intel about culture, tip you off about bullying managers or harassing staff … and the reality you may be asked to design a future where that person no longer has a job. Plus, you must try and do that without making people feel like they have been treated inhumanely or that you have used them. The best are both liked and trusted by everyone and yet comfortable not being liked by anyone. They are willing to speak truth to power and to work for change whilst risking their livelihood. They hold the emotional space for people in distress while navigating the power and politics of situations they have little directive control over to address that distress. They are primarily women, and as the research shows, these are not traits that treat us kindly. This kind of resilience, personal courage and acceptance of personal risk is not expected of many other roles to the same degree. These are not even normal human traits. To be those things requires an override of our innate drive for belonging and personal safety. I am not sure it is healthy.
Given this, as an HR practitioner, you are often asked to make deeply complex ethical decisions without the requisite training. I have more training in ethics than most. I have a major in philosophy, which focused on ethics, I have studies business ethics at a postgraduate level, and it has made it no less difficult when confronted daily with the challenge of balancing the complex interplay of different ethical systems. What outcome will best support the rights of the individuals involved? What about the rights of the company? The broader employee group? The shareholders? The community? Clients? The answer is often different for each of those stakeholders.
In case you think I am exaggerating about the things we're exposed to, these are some of the pieces of work I have undertaken in just the past half dozen years. I have investigated and exposed child sex offences. I have spent hours compiling dossiers of thousands of pages of porn and commentary about the organisation's women and stared down – on my own because no one else would join me, but they wanted it 'fixed'- the men who told me it was all a bit of fun. I have had to tell my sobbing boss I wouldn't employ their newly unemployed relative in my team, given we were downsizing the business. I have sacked a couple of CEOs. I have engaged forensic IT people to come in after-hours, take a copy of everyone's entire computing history, and leave without a trace to look for (and ultimately find) significant fraud.
I have sacked my own boss a couple of time. I have been asked to sack people technically in the wrong but ethically outstanding (and refused). I have sacked people who were stealing or lying about significant issues only to see them reinstated because they were the owner's or the CEO's mate. I have investigated executive staff that have done deeply disturbing things to vulnerable clients that couldn't be proved. I have identified and rectified hundreds of thousands of dollars of (mostly unintentional) wage theft. I have seen tens of superstar psychopaths protected. Perhaps most consistently, I have seen the profound power of managerial gaslighting. To quote Brene Brown, "Lying is a defiance of the truth. Bullshitting is a wholesale dismissal of the truth." It's very hard to prove an allegation when the perpetrator is quietly, without witnesses undoing the victim's mental health and belief in their own reality. And all this stuff has to remain confidential, often even within your own team.
Don't even start me on what it really takes to create an inclusive workforce rather than just tick a D&I box, the meaningless of the majority of performance appraisal and staff development programs. The non-existence of genuine workforce strategy. The growth in what has been termed "bullshit jobs" (there's even a book on it). The money wasted on ineffectual, norm cementing team building activities and breakout room pool tables that would be better spent on training, accessibility and technology.
On top of the above being our bread and butter, HR is conveniently named the keeper of culture despite having little directive power over those who actually drive culture (everyone, but executive leaders in particular.) The great ones have operational, financial, strategic, legal, technological, project management, psychological and sociological expertise.
So why do we do it?
Because every now and again, you get to genuinely change someone's life. To create an opportunity they wouldn't have had otherwise. To bit-by-bit change old, staid opinions and open up crevices that allow the light in to nourish new ideas. To work with and mentor people who want to make their employees' jobs a joy. Sometimes you get to intervene and get rid of a genuinely toxic person and watch the extraordinary transformative ripple effect. You get to meet intensely talented and passionate people. You get to help the occasional person make a career decision that sees them metamorphose into their whole selves. This might seem like a small list, but truly, these things are a gift. May be healthcare workers and community workers get a similar chance to see the human labours of their work. If you transform the work experience of even 5% of people, that's an amazing chance. Work is such a big part of our lives. Bad work seeps unhappiness into every area of our life. Great work transforms it.
Parliamentary staff are not bound by the same employment laws as the rest of us, but regardless there will be people in there trying to figure out how to navigate the chaos that's unfolding. Hopefully, at least one or two are trying to hold the space for the hurt and vulnerable people that remain. There will be those who have tried to hold on and make change through small acts of bravery who are maybe now feeling vindicated but exhausted and a bit scared. And there will be those who have enabled and protected those in power. There are, of course, some dreadful people in our profession.
But I guess what I am asking, is next time you're wondering what HR does know that they most likely can't tell you. What's the ROI on HR? It's hard to say when a bunch of it is a form of wizardry that requires holding the space for some really complex inter and intrapersonal stuff while trying to be excited about the latest pseudo-scientific people fad that someone's caught of a whiff of and are sure will transform the business. I can promise you now, it will not. It will just strip you of cash. You know what will transform your business? (And will transform not just your HR people's lives, but those of all your workers?) Expecting braveness, kindness and integrity from all your staff. Perhaps Parliament can start there.