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Is the Task of HRM Professionals to Advocate For Employees?

What do you think of this claim by an American “strategic HR lawyer”, which came to me by way of a Tweet yesterday?

Speak Up!

No one will advocate for employees as well as the HR professional. This is one of the areas in which you can shine.

When employees are being treated poorly, open your mouth.

When an employee is being unnecessarily favored, open your mouth.

When a decision is being made by management that adversely affects an employee or a group of employees, step up and open your mouth.

All human resources professionals want to have the opportunity to sit at the table as a member of senior management. If you do, don’t be like some of the others and shy away from advocating for employees because you think that you have to come across as a business person. It is your job to have the employees’ backs. Be proud and stand up for them.

Is it the job of HRM professionals to advocate in the Boardroom on behalf of employees?

Should HRM professionals argue strongly against layoffs and for better wages and benefits for employees? Should HRM resist the trend towards part-time, precarious, and ‘self-employment’, and argue instead that employers should retain full-time standard employment?  Should HRM insist that employers have a good reason for firing someone?  Should they demand a neutral arbitration process to test whether employees have been treated fairly and in accordance with their employment contracts?  Should the HRM profession advocate the government for stronger employment laws to protect vulnerable workers?

I’ve discussed this issue before, including when I noted the OECD’s conclusion that rising inequality of income in Canada is due in large part to the shift towards ‘flexible’ employment arrangements and away from better paying, more secure full-time employment.  I asked then what role HRM has in fighting for the maintenance of good paying full-time jobs, as opposed to being the people who implement the shift to non-standard work that the OECD says is harmful to workers. Some self-professed HRM professionals commented in response to that blog entry that HRM’s role is to support “the business”, and not to advocate for employees.

But if it is not the role of HRM to advocate on behalf of employee interests, then who should play that role? An obvious answer is unions, yet the HRM profession also argues vehemently that it is the role of HRM to prevent their employees from unionizing.  That’s why the Human Resources Professionals Association offers regular seminars on the dire need for employers to be proactive in discouraging employees from looking for union assistance.  Here is what their 201o flyer proclaimed:

If you are union-free, you should try to stay that way. This is not a matter of magic, legal trickery or blind luck. It takes consistent and effective management practiced day-in and day-out, based on a long-term plan. The union only has to succeed once. To remain union-free, management has to succeed every single day, forever and always.

So, which is it then?  Is HRM’s role to be a strong advocate for employees, even to the point of challenging the ‘business’ people in the Boardroom when decisions would be harmful to employees, as the American lawyer argues (above)?

Or is the role of HRM to just implement business decisions, even if (as if often the case) those decisions are not beneficial to workers?

If it is the latter, then is it disingenuous for the HRM profession to claim that the employees do not need the assistance of unions?

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One Response to Is the Task of HRM Professionals to Advocate For Employees?

  1. Dan McGarry Reply

    May 9, 2012 at 9:41 am

    David,
    An old argument but one which has again become prominent.

    The role of Human Resources is indeed to support the organization by improving efficiencies related to human activities.

    During this century that has expanded to include assisting employees in attaining some semblance of ‘work – life’ balance and leading the organizational corporate social responsibility initiatives.

    These require monitoring of ‘fairness’, ‘respect’ and adherence to ethical practices. Just as HR professionals ensure that occupational health & safety regulations and employment legislation are adhered to, they need to audit, report and act on ethical transgressions.

    However, while ensuring compliance with these, they still must act in the organization’s best interests and within legal bounds, support the organization’s operational strategies. As an example, many large organizations support a strategy of high employee turnover. Their research demonstrates that employee production/performance does not improve after a specific period of time on the job and therefore can achieve as much productivity from a newer, lower paid employee as they can from a more experienced, higher paid employee. This is the theory of ‘move up or move out’. Some may consider this unethical but it is not illegal. To campaign against it would place the HR professional in opposition to a proven business model and therefore all HR activities from recruitment to selection to compensation and succession management must be designed to support this model. An HR professional acting in opposition to this would be acting against the interests of their employer. Of course when research and best practices demonstrate that a strategy or policy is against the best interests of the organization, then the HR professional does have a duty to work to correct or replace it.

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