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 »

Recommended Reading

by Race in the Workplace special correspondent Erica

Measuring the Gender Gap - New York Times
According to this study from Elle magazine and MSNBC.com, most women would still rather work for a man, most women still feel like they need to work harder than men to get the same recognition, and men are honing those “feminine skills” of listening and communication. Also in the article: the one occupation where it pays to be less attractive is babysitting (when it’s the mom that’s doing the hiring).

Too Busy to Notice You’re Too Busy - New York Times
Edward M. Hallowell’s new book, CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap, talks about our compulsive need to fill our time. In short, it’s our need to maintain control over the near-constant influx of information, even though we’re ultimately not in control of it at all if we’re constantly responding to it. I stopped in the middle of writing this paragraph to answer the e-mail ding and to Twitter something.

Discriminating Dress - Washington Post
A Muslim woman tells the story of her interviewers’ noticeable reaction to her head scarf. “General religious discrimination charges made up 1.9 percent of all charges filed in 1992, while they accounted for 3.1 percent in 2004, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The number of charges filed by Muslims alleging discrimination doubled from the four years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to the four years after, according to David Grinberg, a spokesman with the EEOC.”

How We Grow Bullies and Bad People - Management Craft
Inspired by the Kathy Sierra cyberbullying situation. One way we, as a society, let this happen is by letting racist jokes go unchecked. More generally, we really enjoy our schadenfraude and let ourselves be entertained by things that we ought to be putting a stop to instead.

The Debate Heats Up - Generations@Work
Russ Eckel starts out with this question: “Are young people today more narcissistic and thus more likely to find it difficult to participate constructively in our society as they age?” He goes on to talk about how prejudices against minority youth confound the issue.

EEOC Initiative to Eradicate Racism - Strategic HR Lawyer
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is launching an initiative called E-RACE (Eradicating Racism And Colorism from Employment). According to the EEOC, 31% of Asian-Americans and 26% of African-Americans have reported witnessing or experiencing discrimination in the workplace.

Recruiting and Presenting Immigrant Candidates - The Desk of Yvonne LaRose, Consultant
Yvonne LaRose reflects on the topic of how so many people come to this country with big credentials and big dreams, and what they actually end up doing once they get here to get by.

Not enough visas? 150K Applications in One Day - WageSlave
150,000 H-1B visas for immigrants were allotted for 2008. They were all distributed within a day, in record time.

Recommended Reading is a weekly feature where we link to some of our favorite workplace-related blog posts and articles. If you would like to suggest a link to Erica, please email tips@raceintheworkplace.com.