Human Resource Management and Mistreated Workers

Jobs in “human resource management” – the part of organizations that manages employee-related functions such as hiring, training, and pay  – are becoming more professionalized. Professional designations such as Certified Human Resource Professional, which require human resource (HR) practitioners to demonstrate specific HR-related knowledge and skills, are becoming more common among HR staffers. But at the same time, working conditions for many employees are becoming worse.

This doesn’t make sense, because most human resource management (HRM) professional associations have codes of practice that explicitly state HR professionals should promote ethical and fair treatment for workers. For example, the guidelines of the US Society for Human Resource Management’s code of professional responsibility include “strive to achieve the highest levels of service, performance, and social responsibility” and “advocate for the appropriate use and appreciation of human beings as employees”.

Also, the concept of “socially responsible HR” has emerged as part of discussions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) – the idea being that organizations have responsibilities to society as well as to their stakeholders, and that HR practices within the organization should align with an overall CSR strategy by encouraging fair treatment of employees. So if organizations have publicly committed to making positive contributions to society, but at the same time are allowing their own employees to be disrespected and mistreated, why aren’t HR practitioners doing something about it?

Two research studies – one from 2013, one just published – have explored that very intriguing question. The two studies are an interesting contrast, because one looks at inaction from the perspective of HRM professionals, while the other looks at the same issue from the perspective of poorly treated workers. Although the studies have different perspectives, both paint a similar picture of HRM practitioners understanding the problem, but being reluctant to address it or feeling powerless to solve it.

The 2013 study was based on a survey of 113 HR professionals working in the UK. The study looked at what the researchers called “ethical stewardship”. Since organizations have a responsibility to act ethically and in ways that benefit all of society (a perspective also known as “social responsibility”), HR professionals should be responsible for seeing that the organization manages its own employees in ethically and socially responsible ways. The researchers asked their respondents, two-thirds of whom worked for private sector organizations, about ethical & socially responsible policies in their workplaces, how closely their organizations followed those policies, and how they personally would react if they knew of workplace behaviour that contradicted those policies.

Nearly all of the organizations that the HR professionals worked in had policies or codes of conduct that promoted or required ethical and socially responsible behaviour.  The HR professionals themselves were very aware of the importance of such behaviour, and tried to model that behaviour through their own workplace actions and decisions. But many of them indicated that it would be difficult or dangerous for them to speak up against unethical behaviour. Several said that their careers or their credibility within the organization would be threatened if they called attention to such behaviour. However, “there was a recognition that if HR does not challenge such issues, few in the organization would” (p. 2424).

The researchers noted that in many organizations, “the status of the HR profession is low”, which the HR professionals felt made it difficult for them to promote ethical treatment of workers. Many HR professionals and associations want to improve HR’s status in organizations, and as a profession, by promoting “strategic HRM” – the idea that the way HR functions in an organization should be linked to the organization’s strategic plans, and that HR professionals should be involved in developing those overall strategies.

However, the researchers suggested that if organizations are truly concerned with ethics and social responsibility, that broader world view might give HR professionals the chance to promote ethically and socially responsible behaviour toward workers. “There is an opportunity to widen the rather narrow economic interpretation of what ‘strategic HRM’ means; rather than assuming that ‘strategic’ equates to [financial outcomes], the legitimate concerns of constituents other than investors can be recognized” (p. 2428).

The newer study also builds on the idea of socially responsible behaviour in trying to understand what it calls the practice of “socially irresponsible HRM”.  The authors point out that HR decisions within organizations that hurt workers, such as paying workers as little as possible or creating part-time or temporary jobs instead of permanent full-time jobs, have significant impacts outside the workplace. For example, low-paid employees don’t have extra money to spend at local businesses, and that then hurts the profitability of those businesses. Employees who can’t afford activities outside of work can’t build the social or professional networks that might give them access to better opportunities. And employees stressed out by work- or money-related worries may experience physical or mental health problems that make them even more unable to cope with their situation.

The authors of this study aren’t necessarily insulting the idea of “socially responsible HRM”. Instead, they tried to identify the specific HR practices within organizations that result in employees being paid poorly and treated disrespectfully, when HR principles and professional practice guidelines suggest that the opposite should be happening.

The participants in this study were Scottish workers experiencing “in-work poverty”: working full-time but making less than 60% of national median income. The researchers point out several labour market trends that frame this situation. Among them are weak regulatory frameworks that allow employers to outsource work and to use contracted or temporary workers, rather than directly employing all the workers they need to run their own operations, and lower rates of unionization, giving workers less say in workplace operations and less power to push back against unfair treatment.

The researchers interviewed 27 workers, many of whom held multiple jobs in both public- and private-sector companies, and found several themes which they identify as “socially irresponsible HRM”. Pay was a major concern of the interviewees, not only in the amounts of pay but also in how they were treated in regards to their pay. Many interviewees reported unfair HR practices around their pay rates – for example, companies requiring experienced workers to get more advanced education in order to receive more pay, when the worker was not making enough money to afford to enroll in further education – and described “paternalistic” attitudes expressed by employers when employees asked for pay raises. “The employee is not treated as a valued asset, but as someone who the employer feels should be grateful for employment” (p. 14).

Another theme was employers exploiting or sidestepping laws intended to protect workers. Some employers provided the absolute minimums required in areas such as pension contributions and sick pay. Others took advantage of employees in areas not explicitly addressed by employment law, such as refusing to pay mileage for employees making required trips between work sites, or brazenly ignoring employment laws when they knew workers were afraid to lose their jobs or were not likely to complain.  Employers also disrespected employees’ work-life balance, by, for example, requiring them to work irregular shifts or do overtime on short notice, or being reluctant to accommodate workers’ other commitments such as caring for family members. The interviewees also described how low rates of pay made it difficult for them to improve their or their families’ well-being. They were not able to afford additional therapy or medical treatment that would help their family members, or were not able to pay for home repairs, even when the non-functioning fixtures were negatively affecting their quality of life.

The authors conclude that despite the good intentions of HR professional policy and practice, the study’s findings “provide evidence of a very different employer and HRM driven philosophical attitude toward employment law….widespread minimal compliance with and circumvention of [the law]” (p. 21). They suggest that there is “a ‘dark’, ‘hidden’ and ‘lived experience’ side to HRM….where groups of employees, particularly low status employees, are subjected to an inferior form of HRM” (p. 23), and propose that this reality needs to be discussed and in order for HRM practice to become truly more “socially responsible”.

Some might argue that these studies focus on problems that organizations need to solve by themselves. After all, governments can’t go into every workplace every day and order employers to be kinder and more respectful to employees. But problems inside organizations affect society as a whole. If employers are saving money on wages and benefits with socially irresponsible practices, not to mention illegal practices, the costs of those practices are being paid by society in such forms as unpaid debts, decreased consumer spending, and increasing demands on government-funded benefits and social services. The HR profession has made commendable commitments to supporting fair treatment for workers within organizations, but it could be advocating much more strongly for better workplace practices that would result in a better world for all.

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