In the highly transparent age of the Internet, avoiding public relations disasters is more important than ever. However, despite this obvious fact, it seems that the frequency of fiascoes involving mismanagement of delicate situations is on the rise. It doesn’t take much consideration for a few victims of these to come to mind: Uber, Thinx, and United Airlines have all been in the limelight recently, subject to boycotts or hashtag campaigns on Twitter making them appear even worse in the collective mind of the public. Obviously, something needs to be done to avoid these catastrophes. In the age of the Internet, companies, like individuals, can be named and shamed with an accompanying decline in net profits. If only companies had a department that was specifically tailored to nip these sorts of problems in the bud before they occur…
Hopefully my sarcasm has made this more poignant, but companies do in fact have a department that is supposed to handle these sorts of issues: human resources (unless, of course, said company is Thinx, the CEO of which never bothered to create an HR department and suffered the consequences). People outside of human resources will be shrinking in dread upon reading that phrase, whereas those within human resources will be nodding their heads enthusiastically in agreement, appreciating a bit of recognition for once. Many in the C-Suite do not appreciate HR – to them its purpose is mysterious, too theoretical, a black hole, or not practical enough to be of much use when it comes to meeting the bottom line. The fact that HR’s purpose is so nebulous reflects a deeper truth: HR is often unclear in its aims, but we’ll get to that later.
Beyond the lack of understanding coming from the C-Suite, why do so many people love to hate HR? The number of jokes about HR, and just general disillusionment with the department, runs off the charts. Many employees feel that HR cannot reliably resolve their workplace grievances, or that they simply don’t care. Some people have reported HR lying to higher-ups about what was reported so as not to get into trouble. Other times, HR encounters executives who feel their findings from an investigation don’t “seem right” to them, and therefore must not be true or accurate; HR is told to drop it. Of course, there are many very competent HR departments and business leaders who may feel that HR’s negative reputation is completely unjustified. However, these stereotypes, as well as the recent explosive situations in the companies mentioned, illustrate that HR is not always fulfilling its purpose and we should do some deep soul-searching.
As an example of the inconsistency of the quality of human resources, let’s look at Uber’s recent HR disaster. After a fiasco involving allegations that the company was profiting from President Donald Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban,” spawning a hashtag campaign and the loss of many customers, Uber emerged from the frying pan but jumped into the fire with sexual harassment allegations. Susan Fowler, who had been an engineer for the company, accused someone higher up in the chain of command of sexual harassment and complained that the HR department of the company did not take her petitions seriously. The department claimed it was the accused person’s “first offense,” but kept with the line of “first offense” when more women filed complaints. Purportedly, the HR department lied to save a “high performer” from getting into trouble and most likely to keep the company from looking bad. You may have heard of the so-called “Streisand effect,” which is the idea that the more some information is suppressed the more likely it is to get out into the public, and that’s exactly what happened. What could have stayed within the company broke out for all to know: the last thing Uber needed was a public relations catastrophe such as this.
Now let’s turn to the widely publicized United Airlines incident, an obviously mishandled situation which has cost the company profits and credibility, as an example of a situation in which HR could add strategic value. If employees of the airline had been more thoroughly versed through on-going development efforts and a customer-first culture, perhaps the event could have been avoided. Steps like these combined with an increase in organizational efficiency (employees on the flight had to take matters into their own hands due to UA’s bureaucracy) are almost guaranteed to have defused the situation.
In conclusion, it is my belief that the solution to some of these fiascoes lies in a two-fold response: 1) strengthen the HR departments within companies, and 2) enhance the C-suite executives understanding and belief in the value HR brings to their organization. HR employees should not be randomly taken from other departments; they must be thoroughly vetted and credentialed appropriately so they are prepared to handle potentially disastrous situations before they mutate into a public relations firestorm. This cannot come through attempting to suppress negative stories for the sake of the company saving face. Company leadership must make the aims of HR more apparent and obviously supported. As HR departments respond with measurable results, they will be taken more seriously and earn that long sought “seat at the corporate table.” Ultimately, this will result in the avoidance of public relations disasters and a happier, healthier company.