Those of us in recruiting have noticed a decline in employee engagement metrics for some time now as new employee needs come into conflict with the more traditional ways of working. Some aspects of this decline are reflected in employees’ shifting perspectives toward the HR department. A 2022 report by Crucial Learning found the majority of employees don’t feel supported by their company’s HR department and aren’t comfortable voicing their concerns.
This lack of trust in HR has been demonstrated to negatively impact employee satisfaction and engagement and company morale. Low trust is also detrimental to a company’s overall image. This article aims to unpack why there’s such low trust in HR, the harmful effects this has, and how leaders can take action to foster a better relationship between employees and their HR department.
Does HR Have a Trust Problem?
Recent surveys have discovered that nearly half of employees don’t trust HR to help them with conflict resolution, make them aware of internal promotion opportunities, or make unbiased decisions that don’t favor senior staff members.
According to the Harvard Business Review, out of 993 employees, 37% believe HR is more interested in advocating for the company than they are for them. They also found the specific issues employees didn’t feel comfortable addressing with HR were issues regarding culture or morale, i.e., interpersonal conflicts; leaders’ communication with their teams; and how strategy, vision, and directives are communicated.
In addition, Zenefits, an HR, payroll, and benefits company, released a report in 2020 that showed 38% of employees feel HR doesn’t equally enforce company policies for all employees, with 18% believing managers get special treatment.
Statistics like these reflect the common question employees are asking themselves: If I go to HR with an issue, will anything even happen?
What Can We Do to Fix It?
Much of the time, HR leaders only come into contact with employees when communicating during the onboarding process or if an issue arises. Especially in a remote work environment, as far as employees are concerned, HR ironically doesn’t feel human.
Sue Lingard, the marketing director of Cezanne HR, says, “The better-known [HR leaders] are, the higher the level of trust, and that’s good for the way the whole business works together.”
There are several things HR leaders can do to increase visibility. They can sit in on team meetings, making a point to introduce themselves and what they do. They can make rounds to get acquainted with individual employees. They can host drop-in hours for employees, and they can hold discussions about company initiatives, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and climate change.
In addition to making themselves visible to employees, HR leaders need to be honest. In an environment where there’s already a lot of skepticism of HR, it only does more damage when HR leaders say they exist to help employees or that they’re friends.
It’s also misleading to portray HR as a completely unbiased troubleshooter. This sugarcoated self-description only sets employees up for disappointment. When employees have low trust levels in their employer, it can lead to low engagement, low productivity, and low retention.
Leverage the Power of AI
Everybody knows artificial intelligence (AI) is already changing the landscape of work, and HR is no exception. AI can change the way HR workers recruit, onboard, and promote employees, increasing efficiency, saving money, and improving decision-making. As of April 2022, almost 1 in 4 organizations report using AI in HR-related activities, including recruitment and hiring.
AI can assist with internal mobility, saving substantial resources while supporting career development. Using AI, employee data is used to match existing employees with internal mobility opportunities; this is an opportunity for HR to demonstrate the ways it helps employees while saving resources required for recruiting and onboarding new talent.
Turn HR Leaders into Leaders
Many employees view HR as nothing more than compliance officers. But HR leaders can build trust by transforming their department into one of coaches, mentors, and mediators—in a word, leaders.
In fact, many HR professionals possess innate leadership traits; they excel at attracting the right talent, crafting effective organizational structure, and fostering a healthy work culture. This is why more business leaders are giving chief human resources officers (CHROs) more power among executives.
Research by Ellie Filler and Dave Ulrich assessed the prevalence of leadership traits among the different types of executives. They found that, aside from the COO (whose role shares many responsibilities with the CEO’s), the role that shared the most traits with the CEO was the CHRO, suggesting that more companies should consider CHROs when looking to fill the CEO position.
Many successful CEOs began as HR leaders. For example, Mary Barra was the vice president of HR at General Motors for 18 months before becoming the CEO. In addition, Anne Mulcahy ran Xerox’s HR operations for several years in the early 1990s before serving as the CEO from 2001 to 2009.
Putting HR professionals in executive leadership positions can play a key role in increasing diversity in a truly impactful way. Filler and Ulrich found that 42% of high-performing CHROs are women, which is a substantially higher percentage than any other C-suite executive. Therefore, making more HR leaders CEOs could dramatically increase gender diversity in leadership positions.
The lack of trust employees have toward HR is growing and requires self-awareness among leaders to be remedied. We’ve seen its impact within recruitment, visible as a dip in employee engagement and satisfaction.
By increasing visibility and transparency, exploring new technology, and capitalizing on HR workers’ leadership potential, business leaders can foster a safer and more engaging work environment for their employees.
Nick Shah is the founder, president, and CEO of Peterson Technology Partners (PTP). With his relationship-focused mentality and technical expertise, Shah has earned the trust of Fortune 100 companies across the United States for their technical staffing needs. His entrepreneurial journey began in his teens in publishing with local newspapers. After successfully experimenting with various business ventures, he began PTP in 1997, with the goal of connecting Chicago’s top IT talent with its top companies. Over the last 25 years, he has thrived through various ups and downs in the industry and earned the confidence of countless clients and consultants through his dedication to building relationships. He regularly brings together his expertise in staffing and his experience in leadership with his love for emerging technologies to contribute a weekly column to the company’s journal, the PTP Report.