Human resources has to be one of the greatest bait-and-switch professions one can join today. HR departments position themselves with a forward-facing fluffy image, whether improving the productivity of workers through training and development programs or perhaps righting the yawning inequality gap in America by encouraging diverse hiring standards. Unsurprisingly, the field often attracts starry-eyed idealists, people who seek a mission-oriented, perhaps even noble profession for their careers. They join thinking they are going to make a difference.
Then the corruption happens.
A superior has made a pass at a subordinate, and an executive of the company asks that the subordinate be fired to “clean up” the situation. An employee repeatedly makes homophobic, racist, or sexist remarks to their colleagues, but the company has deemed the individual critical to the functioning of the sales team, and so is merely given a warning. Company morale is suffering and complaints are showing up on online sites like Glassdoor, so HR is charged with “fixing” the company’s rating. A well-performing employee is repeatedly given poor performance reviews to make their firing tidy.
Indeed, for a department that — at least theoretically — is designed to communicate well with humans, it is incredible to see how many questions are about procedures that should be entirely transparent for employees.
All of these examples are hypothetical, but they are archetypes for the near daily news of HR abuses that are now been regularly published around the world. Susan Fowler’s original memo about Uber, which did more to kick off the reporting about workplace problems faced by women than perhaps any other article, mentions HR seventeen times. At the time, Uber’s HR department may possibly have been the most rogue in the industry, but its behavior certainly resonated outside of that company’s walls.
Just as concerns about sexual harassment and other issues has intensified, trust in human resources, and really, the entire executive teams of companies, is reaching a nadir. The Edelman Trust Barometer, which has been studying trust in companies, people, and institutions for almost twenty years, has found that a majority of rank-and-file employees don’t trust their company’s leadership, and worse, less than a quarter believe that their CEO is ethical. As trust has declined, so has the ability of HR to diffuse complicated workplace situations without resorting to its legal toolset.
The obvious reality is that HR has never been “your friend.” Rather, it is an important component of a company’s legal strategy to document and mitigate any potential lawsuits that might arise from its employees, contractors, or anyone else who may interact with the firm. Occasionally, that mission might align with friendliness: HR may defuse a fight between two colleagues both to prevent legal troubles as well as to make the workplace more productive.
Employees, who might have been leery at interacting with HR before, are now no longer going to HR at all, and are seeking alternative options for advice. Today, there is a growing crop of new apps and services to get peer information, allowing employees to protect themselves like never before.
No Longer Blind
Few apps have had as much of an impact on workplace communications as Blind, an anonymous social network of current company employees and alums. The app, which was founded in South Korea roughly five years ago, was first launched in the US in late 2015, and since then has seen tremendous success in building footprints at some of the largest and most important American companies.
From its homepage, the company says that it has more than 37,000 users from Microsoft, 20,000 users from Amazon and 8,600 users from Google, as well as employees from more than 3,000 other companies on its platform today (at least signed up). While the app spans industries, the tech industry remains the company’s DNA, as the founding team came from Naver, the South Korean search and content giant.
a pattern across “hundreds and hundreds” of interviews where an HR worker will become a temporary “double agent” — helping an employee navigate a situation in an off-the-record fashion outside of company policy.
One growth challenge that the app has faced and is obvious from App Store reviews is that the app, although anonymous, requires the use of a work email to verify employment. That means that all posts and replies are made by people working at the same company and therefore have the same context to potentially help you. However, many users complain that they really want true anonymity without any connection with their real persona, given their fear of consequences for commenting on company policies.
A huge amount of the topics concern the quotidian procedures of HR, from hiring and recruiting to compensation and promotions. Indeed, for a department that — at least theoretically — is designed to communicate well with humans, it is incredible to see how many questions are about procedures that should be entirely transparent for employees.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most popular topics given the app’s heavy influence in the tech industry is around women in tech. Take a recent thread entitled “Fired for being pregnant?.” An employee of a company reported that she had recently seen an employee dismissed after she had announced that she was pregnant. The comment quickly garnered a dozen and a half responses.
That thread though is a perfect example of the limits of watercooler discussions. Many of the comments are supportive but ultimately useless, such as “This breaks my heart, but doesn’t surprise me, sadly.” from an employee at Sephora or completely unsupportive, such as “This shouldn’t be discrimination.” by an employee at Amazon. An employee at Slack said “Whether you feel comfortable revealing the company name on here or not, please report this company to the EEOC,” which was one of the only actionable pieces of advice in the thread.
Bravely Empowering Work
Clearly, people want to talk about the problems at their workplace. But venting to anonymous colleagues is about the least effective approach to ameliorating the underlying conditions making workers unhappy in the workforce. That’s why other apps are exploring how to handle difficult conversations at the workplace in a better light, often with the blessing of HR departments themselves.
Bravely is one such app. The company, based in New York, was founded by Toby Hervey, Sarah Sheehan, and Rasesh Patel as a platform to facilitate the kinds of hard conversations that need to happen for a workplace to thrive. Their concept is to connect workers who might be struggling bringing up a matter at work with expert “Pros” who are trained executive and life coaches who can help a worker think through their options and how best to raise their voice at a company.
HR may be increasingly viewed with distrust as a “corrupt” agent of the corporation, but that view also undermines what is a very necessary function for a healthy workplace: a group of people who can facilitate the politics that will inevitably crop up in even the best corporate cultures.
Hervey argued strenuously to me this week that “the healthiest organizations are the ones that are most able to host difficult conversations.” He explained that one of the benefits of Bravely is that the platform can act as a neutral third-party. For HR professionals, “there is a structural challenge with representing employees,” he said, since they are obligated to represent the interests of the company who employees them. That often puts HR workers in a bind, and Hervey has seen a pattern across “hundreds and hundreds” of interviews where an HR worker will become a temporary “double agent” — helping an employee navigate a situation in an off-the-record fashion outside of company policy.
Part of having those hard conversations is also putting a mirror to the employee as well. Hervey said that “we are creating a resource for employees, but it is not a union rep, it is not blindly neutral.” Instead, “we are advocates for sometimes challenging on where you are coming from,” helping employees think about the root causes of their problems as well as the macro situation of the firm.
Bravely is purchased by companies to be an independent third-party and help people learn and actually hold difficult conversations at work. Hervey said that the app has so far gotten the best traction in companies of 100-350 employees, where HR processes are starting to solidify but the culture around communication may be relatively nascent.
The company was founded mid-last year and has raised a $1.5 million seed round from Primary Venture Partners.
There are other apps in the space. One example that was funded this week is Loris.ai, which is a for-profit spin out from the New York City-based non-profit Crisis Text Line suicide prevention service. Loris hasn’t launched yet, but did raise a round of venture capital from Floodgate, Kapor Capital, and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Wiener. The goal is to take some of the learnings from Crisis Text Line and apply them to workplace conversations.
While venture-scalable startups are one model for this space, other firms are taking a non-profit approach to improving workplace communication and building trust in organizations. Empower Work is one such firm. The non-profit, which is headquartered in San Francisco, was founded by Jaime-Alexis Fowler, who worries that “There are increasing inequalities, and those are translating in pretty profound ways in the workplace.”
She conducted a broad survey with workers across demographic groups and industries. What she found was that 95% of workers had faced a “difficult situation” at work, and 78% of those had rated that situation “extremely difficult.” 46% of workers had left their job as a result. The plurality of the situations were interpersonal – challenging situations with colleagues, superiors, or customers which made it hard to move forward with a particular job.
Fowler told me that “we found out what people were looking for was human connection that was immediate and anonymous.” She decided to take her findings and try to solve them through Empower Work, which is a service that connects workers with “peer counselors” who can support a worker through a decision. “One of the benefits of being a 501(c)3 is that we have no skin in the game, we are focused entirely on the individual,” Fowler explained, using the tax code’s number for a non-profit organization. “What people reach out to us is personal, but in the context of something professional. We offer a space in order to grapple with whatever that is.”
The top three questions that come into Empower Work are fear of being fired, sexual harassment, and decisions in the everyday work of a job. Fowler has specifically targeted under-represented groups, and she said (based on self-identified demographic reports) that the company hears predominantly from women and people of color. Fowler explained that for these groups, they often have lower levels of social capital and relationships in a workplace, making work challenges both harder to handle due to a lack of peer support as well as having “dramatically worse outcomes” if they are not improved.
Fowler also noted the changing nature of the role of HR in our conversation. “There has always been this tension in the role that HR provides — they are straddling the employer and the employees. It is a very uncomfortable place to be,” she said. “When there is this distrust of the corporation … there is this inherent discomfort of going to them for resources.” Fowler noted that many of the employees that come to Empower Work work at smaller employers without established HR departments, and so that avenue isn’t even an option.
The Death and Rebirth of HR
That ultimately gets at one of the largest long-term challenges of the changing American economy. As the number of freelancers and gig economy workers skyrocket, the very design of HR today seems entirely out-of-sync with the changes that are happening in the labor markets. Tens of millions of workers are employed by small employers with no HR department, and tens of millions more workers are employed as 1099 contractors with limited access to HR resources.
HR may be increasingly viewed with distrust as a “corrupt” agent of the corporation, but that view also undermines what is a very necessary function for a healthy workplace: a group of people who can facilitate the politics that will inevitably crop up in even the best corporate cultures. Learning how to handle a difficult conversation while also fearing employment loss is not a skill learned in high school or college.
There clearly is a need for more network-based HR resources that can be responsive to worker concerns in real-time. Companies like Blind, Bravely, Loris.ai, and non-profits like Empower Work are just the tip of the spear into what is a growing reform of the HR profession. The two-faced HR role of the past no longer matches the needs of workers today. Employees realize this, and now, it is time that HR departments accept that reality as well.