The HR department protects the company, not you

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Penelope Trunk is a career columnist at the Boston Globe and Yahoo Finance. Her syndicated column has run in more than 200 publications. Earlier, she was a software executive, and then she founded two companies. She has been through an IPO, an acquisition and a bankruptcy. Before that she played professional beach volleyball. Her forthcoming book is Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success (Warner, May 2007). Be sure to check out her excellent blog, Brazen Careerist.

One of the most compelling statements you make in your book is that the human resources department exists to protect the company, not the employees. Can you explain what you mean by that, and how people should adapt their behavior to match this reality?

Laws about discrimination seem to be there to protect employees, but in fact, they are laid out very clearly to guide companies so they will not be sued. Human resource departments exist, in a large part, to ensure that companies comply with the law. The people in the HR department work for the company. They are there to make sure the company is protected. In an instance where someone comes to HR and says they have experienced discrimination at work, HR does not represent the person who has suffered from discrimination. HR represents the company.

When you report a problem to human resources, you become a problem employee, the company immediately starts trying to defend itself from you, and the company has legal support and you don’t. It’s a losing battle, which is why most whistleblowers lose their job. Legally. Retaliation for whistle blowing is rampant and it’s very, very hard to prove in courts, especially since the HR departments are trained on how to retaliate within the constraints of the law.

If you’re at a company where there is a lot of discrimination, you should probably not bother trying to reform the place. Why jeopardize your career to make a terrible company good? Don’t bother helping them. Just leave. But if you at a company with a little bit of discrimination, you might consider staying. Because where have you ever been in this world where there is no discrimination? It’s a very tall order.

We all know that we have to pick our battles when it comes to discrimination in the workplace. The advice you gave about sexual harassment was incredibly practical and smart. In my opinion, it also has some relevance for people who may be experiencing racial discrimination. Can you explain how women can actually turn sexual harassment into a career booster?

A man who harasses a women (it’s almost always the men doing the harassing) actually gives up some of his power to that woman. For one thing, harassment is illegal, and even if you don’t report it, you can remind the guy that he is doing something that could cause him trouble. Do this not as a threat, but to subtly shift the power toward yourself. You are now doing him a favor by keeping quiet. He owes you a favor back.

So often the best way to change corporate America is from within: gain a foothold and then wield your power. To get power, you have to stay in the workforce, not the court system, and make yourself highly valued. Unfortunately, this means learning how to navigate a discriminatory system. But when you know the system, you then are clear about the root of its problems, and you know how to initiate change.

I once had a harassing boss. I knew that management was smart and that if I explained why I wanted to be moved to another department they would see my request as extremely reasonable. I figured they would be grateful for my low-key approach to this sensitive problem, rather than resentful that I had been hired to work in Business Development and yet was asking to be switched to a department with no openings.

I was right. I was moved into marketing, which I prefer. I received a more prestigious assignment and gained a smarter boss. Had I reported that I had been sexually harassed during the interview process I would not have gotten the job. Had I reported the harassment to my boss’s boss without presenting a plan for solving the problem, I would not have received a better assignment. If you have a strategy, enduring sexual harassment can sometimes be a way to gain power to achieve your long-range goals.

Each situation is different, but if you know what you want from your career, then you may see harassment as a way to meet those goals, to take this horrible situation and get something positive out of it. Once the company or a boss is in a compromised position because of harassment, you are in a position to ask for a little bit more than you’d normally get.

Many women and people of color get stuck in middle management positions. How can they plan their careers right from the start to avoid this fate?

Getting mentors is important for everyone, but it’s most important to women and people of color. People naturally mentor people who remind them of themselves. So , the powerful white men pick other white men to mentor, and we get the endless cycle of white men running the show. You have to work a little bit harder to get a mentor if you are not a white male, but it’s worth it — mentors make an enormous difference in your ability to get what you want from your career.

Also, stay out of the departments that support everyone else. Human resources, accounting, these are cost centers. You will never get experience managing product launches and profit-and-loss statements when you’re working in a supporting role. And departments that are cost centers are dead ends. CEOs do not work their way up through human resources. It’s not broad enough management experience to prepare someone for senior management. So get yourself into a department where you can have a positive impact on the company’s bottom line. This is how you get noticed by senior management and shepherded up the ladder.

In your book, you write that “you should always hope for a little incompetence on your boss’s part.” Why is that?

Your job is to help your boss do her job. Make your boss look great. If you help your boss, your boss will help you. The best way to endear yourself to your boss is to take over the stuff she is bad at. After all, she probably likes doing the stuff she’s good at, and she’ll just be annoyed if you take it out from under her. Do the stuff she hates to do and she’ll feel like you saved her. That’s how you get a boss who is loyal and caring and goes the extra mile to get you what you need.

I was really intrigued by the chapter in which you explained that $40,000 is the magic number to happiness through financial success. And that “if you’re still not happy when you’re making that much money, the problem is not that you can’t buy things. The problem is something else.” Can you elaborate on that idea?

You cannot be happy if you don’t have food and shelter. In the U.S. $40,000 buys the basics for any size family in any city. This is not my number. This is the number that comes up in many, many studies. People like to hem and haw about New York City vs. Peoria, but when we are talking basics, the difference in cost of living is splitting hairs.

Once you are earning $40,000, your level of happiness is largely dependent on two things: Your level of optimism and the amount of money the people around you have. If you have the same amount of money as your friends, you’ll feel like you have enough. If you have ten million dollars and all your friends have fifty million, you’ll feel poor. You might think you would be different. That you would rise above this problem. But you would be wrong. Most of us think we’d be different. And most of us, of course, are not different.

Each of us has a set point for our optimism level much the same way we have a set point for our weight. More optimistic people are happier and than less optimistic people. That makes much, much more of a difference in happiness levels than money does. You can change your optimism set point with a lot of hard work and practice. The book to get on this topic is Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman.

Until then, stop trying to get more money. It’s not going to help. Really.

Further Reading:
You can find more Race in the Workplace interviews in our archives.

Trackbacks & Pings

  1. What you missed on Race in the Workplace at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture on 19 Apr 2007 at 6:34 pm

    […] The HR department protects the company, not you I interview career columnist and blogger Penelope Trunk about her new book, “Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success.” She’s full of counter-intuitive advice, like why reporting discrimination to HR may be the worst move you can make, why sexual harassment may actually be a career booster, why you should hope for a little incompetence on your boss’s part, and why $40,000 is the magic number to happiness through financial success. […]

  2. Reviews of the Brazen Careerist book, and some interviews too » Brazen Careerist by Penelope Trunk on 20 May 2007 at 10:08 pm

    […] Carmen Van Kerckhove at Racialicious […]

  3. What to Do If You're Experiencing Racial Discrimination At Work at Race in the Workplace - how race and racism influence our working lives on 17 Aug 2007 at 3:57 pm

    […] 5. Go to HR, But Consider Asking for a Transfer Instead of Filing a Complaint If your supervisor’s discriminatory behavior continues even after you’ve spoken to your boss’s boss, it’s time to go to HR. But remember that the human resources department is not an employee advocacy group. Ultimately, HR represents the company, not you. […]


  1. robert edward cenek wrote:

    Penelope’s comment that HR exists for the Company, and is hesitant (or will not) represent the employee who charges discrimination is a gross, misguided, overly bloated generalization.

    This may be true in many organizations, but I find it to be insultive to the profession - and to many career long HR people who are guided by values and principles, and have the intestinal fortitude to do what’s right.

    robert edward cenek, RODP
    Uncommon Commentary on the World of Work

  2. susanc wrote:

    I’d have to question the ethics of some of the advice, such as using sexual harassment to gain power over your boss. It may be because I work in a profession where we have ethical principles we are required to adhere to, but I feel that this type of behaviour is inappropriate (even if it does get you ahead).

  3. Carmen Van Kerckhove wrote:

    Robert and Susan, thanks for your comments!

    In an ideal world, it would be great if HR really worked to protect the employees and did what was right and fair.

    But in my experience (and I’m sure I’m not alone here), HR folks will rarely take action if you file a complaint, particularly if the complaint is against someone who makes a lot of money for the company, and/or if the person filing the complaint is junior in status.

    Ultimately, money and power come into play. The company will turn a blind eye to inappropriate behavior on the part of the person who has power or generates lots of money for the firm.

    Given that stark reality, the question is: what are you going to do about it? Huff and puff in indignation? Quit and keep trying new companies until you find a magical place where all is fair and just? Or do you try to work within the system?

    I think that Penelope’s advice is very practical for those of us who realize we need to pick our battles.

  4. Anonymous wrote:

    Never go to HR about anything other than questions about vacation or insurance! They will document everything and keep on file. Do not trust them. Their purpose is to make sure that the company is safe from lawsuits. Hello, this is obvious to anyone who has had to deal with difficult HR situations. HR is a crock of shizzle!

  5. hrgal wrote:

    “HR departments are trained on how to retaliate within the constraints of the law.” I’m sorry but this is just so untrue I had to say something.

    HR is employed by the company - yes. HR is there to advise the company of risk - yes. HR is there to make sure the company does not get sued / lose a suit - yes. We are educated and trained to do these things NOT by sabotaging or denying rights to employees but by educating senior management and the rest of the employee population that diversity = good, following rules and polices = good and not being a prejudiced a**hole = good!

    In my entire career I have never, ever, ever attempted to deny the rights of any employee at any company I have ever worked for. If a company I worked for expected me to do that I would walk straight out the door.

    In fact, part of what I consider my job as an HR professional is advising employees of their rights. Further, the law requires that companies advise employees of many, many rights by posting laws, conducting certain training, etc. Adding onto that it is considered a best practice among the HR community to go above and beyond what laws require because it is GOOD BUSINESS when we all treat each other with dignity and respect and know what is and is not ok in the workplace.

    Maybe I’m an idealist or “one of the uncorrupt” HR people out there, I don’t know. I’m sure there are people out there in my profession that are only interested in “making the company look good” or whatever but I thank my lucky stars that I don’t know any of them!

  6. Annoynomus wrote:

    I was employed for this company since 1996 and was terminated 2005 July for filing complaints on a supervisor and was set up to loose my job. I hear exactly what you are saying that HR does not work for you it work for the one that are above you. This is a shame that you can’t go to work mind your own business do your job and go home to your family because you are giving the supervisor any attention that they need. I am a strong african female and they seen that in me. They didn’t want me their anymore and they came up against me even the union represenative didn’t defend me of which I paid union dues every since 1996. Descrimination still assist and retaliation assist and they get away with it and still have their job and you are out of a job and they make sure you don’t get hired at any other job. Now I haven’t landed a good job since I was terminated from this company. Now I am in the process of going back to school to become a lawyer. I know that I am a powerful woman and I am going to make it.

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