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. Continue Reading »

How to turn your ethnicity into a competitive edge

by Race in the Workplace special correspondent Adina Ba

Kenneth Arroyo Roldan is the CEO of Wesley, Brown & Bartle (WB&B), one of the nation’s leading executive search firms dedicated to the recruitment, retention and professional development of women and people of color. He is also author of the book Minority Rules: Turn Your Ethnicity Into a Competitive Edge.

Roldan’s advice is unique because he gives specific responsibility to the individual, instead of putting a vague blame on employers. It obviously takes work from both employer and employee to ensure a positive work experience. Roldan’s career planning advice is not only useful for people of color, but should be acknowledged as solid information for anyone looking to advance his or her career, regardless of race.

Take responsibility for where you are in your career and don’t be a bystander in your potential growth. Roldan’s no. 1 tip is: Find a trustworthy mentor to help guide you through the corporate world.

Which departments should people of color look out for that may hinder their chances to climb the corporate ladder?

Based on my experience on the front-lines, the following roles should be avoided like the plague:

  • Chief Diversity Officer/ Diversity Manager
  • Ethnic Marketing
  • Public Finance
  • Community Relations
  • Supplier Diversity

However, be mindful if you are positioned in this role – make sure you hit and move. Do your tour of duty and while doing so plan an exit strategy.

How can people of color rise through the ranks while maintaining their identities and not assimilating completely into a white male dominated culture?

People of color can absolutely rise up the ranks and simultaneously retain their identity. Minority Rules highlights several high performers like Mary Winston, Al Zollar or Carlos Valle – all of which made it to the top, have proudly self-identified internally within their organizations and have been integral in positioning program and projects that benefited people of color.

What steps should a minority employee take when they feel they are not being treated as fairly as their co-workers?

First pearl of wisdom: don’t do the knee-jerk reaction and initiate a lawsuit. Those professionals who have internal challenges should speak to their mentor/sponsor and gain their counsel; thereafter you should speak to your supervisor, then to HR. In the event you receive no satisfaction, start planning your exit strategy.

You write that minority job seekers should do their homework to find out which corporations are sincerely open to diversity. Do you have advice on how to research which corporations really stand up to the test? Should job seekers go directly to company websites, are there other resources?

Research, research, research. The benefits available due to the internet is immense. There are various websites like Vault.com which often give prospective employees intelligence about a company. The company websites are a primer but will never shed true-light about a company. I am a proponent of relying on your alumni network to gain company intelligence.

Once a company promotes that their hiring practices are fair and open to minority applicants, how can all levels of the organization stay committed to the policy?

Let’s face it — most if not all of the Fortune 500 promote that their hiring practices are fair and open to minority applicants – they have to, it’s the law!!!! However, despite organizations articulating they are committed to the policy – particularly the CEO and his/her senior executives – by the time it trickles down the organization, the message [can] always fall on deaf ears.

For more information

Click the play button below to hear Carmen’s interview with Kenneth Arroyo Roldan on episode 53 (December 25, 2006) of New Demographic’s weekly podcast, Addicted to Race:

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