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Three HR Paradigms that Damage Organizational Culture

It’s probably no surprise to any Human Resources or employment law professional that retaliation remains the number one type of complaint filed with the EEOC.[1] Fear of suffering repercussions is the most frequent reason cited by employees hesitant to raise concerns within their organizations. A separate but closely related theme is a lack of trust in Human Resources. Sometimes that mistrust is a generalized bias against HR - often the byproduct of an organizational culture that undervalues or fails to empower its HR function. Other times the lack of trust is based on perceptions or specific experiences with an individual HR partner. Over the twenty years I’ve been working with HR, conducting investigations and climate assessments, the vast majority of the HR partners have been smart, hard-working, well-intentioned professionals. I have, however, encountered a few HR partners in my career who not only didn’t help prevent, but instead contributed to, a toxic work environment.

HR’s role in cultivating an open, respectful organizational culture is more important than ever in the politically charged, pandemic era world in which we find ourselves. According to SHRM’s recent Culture Refresh Report, 62% of HR professionals agree it has been difficult to maintain organizational culture during the pandemic. Nearly one in four HR professionals indicated their organization’s culture deteriorated since the pandemic.[2] In times of increased personal and professional stressors, it’s easy to become demotivated and revert to bad habits, including allowing biases to influence our actions and decision making. Further, the leaders we support can put extraordinary pressure on HR to prioritize expediency and profits over people. While HR does not necessarily own their organization’s culture, HR practitioners can get pigeonholed into certain approaches that sow distrust and can be detrimental to the culture. 

How do we ensure HR is not contributing to a problematic culture? The following are three negative HR paradigms and some of the behaviors that reinforce them.

HR as a Transactional Tool of Leadership

In some organizations HR is viewed as solely focused on the administration of HR functions such as payroll, benefits, recruitment, and other employment transactions. While most HR business partners provide strategic guidance in managing human capital and coaching to improve leadership capabilities, some fall into the trap of serving only the transactional needs of management. One symptom of this approach is treating HR processes as check the box exercises instead of work that is integral to the success of the organization. Rather than helping management understand the value of providing robust performance feedback or investing time in succession planning, HR partners might focus their energy on getting people off the delinquent list, or worse, apologetically doing the work for their business partner. Sometimes referred to as the “HR police,” HR partners may issue discipline and even fire people for their business partners, limiting management’s ownership of issues and development as effective leaders and communicators, as well as undermining HR’s credibility as an objective function.

HR partners may talk about training requirements on topics such as harassment and discrimination prevention in punitive terms or as something the organization is being forced to do instead of as an opportunity to increase awareness, open avenues of communication, promote inclusion, and improve workplace culture. They may be skeptical of an employee’s personal circumstances such as a need for a leave or accommodation, particularly in the case of mental and emotional health—an increasingly critical aspect of employee engagement and productivity. By all appearances, these HR partners may be very busy doing HR activities, but below the surface, their actual impact on the organization is limited. Employees often describe this HR approach as “paying lip service” to things like DEI, taking employee concerns seriously, and rewarding people based on merit. That perception reinforces a distrust of HR and resentment of HR processes. More broadly, HR playing the role as management’s helper can create a culture where people feel undervalued and underdeveloped, or worse, that lacks a foundation of trust.

HR as a Shield for Leadership

While running interference for a leader under pressure can be a necessary part of the HR role, some HR partners try to serve as an impenetrable, protective barrier for management. These HR partners may insert themselves between management and problematic people or issues, substituting their own judgment for that of the leader (who might have made a different decision if they were fully aware of the context). They may be perceived as best friends with senior management or the leader they support, which serves to dissuade people from sharing concerns with them. These HR partners might trade in confidential information to try to solidify their place in management’s inner circle, sometimes by sharing gossip or rumors. They might put their close relationship with senior leaders on display and drop hints about having advance or inside information, cultivating an undercurrent of intimidation and distrust. In some cases, these HR partners might go so far as to target people who have fallen out of favor with management. For example, they might fish for complaints from peers or share the leader’s negative comments to undermine an individual’s reputation. While those viewing this toxic behavior from the sidelines might be momentarily grateful they are not the disfavored one, they understand they too could find themselves on the wrong side of HR. Employees in this type of environment struggle to innovate because they are afraid to take risks.

When required to explain or justify management decisions like organizational changes, HR partners might be unnecessarily opaque in communications, creating confusion and sowing doubt rather than clarifying the rationale directly and explicitly explaining how individuals will be impacted. They might use a misplaced notion of confidentiality to rationalize a lack of transparency, contributing to a culture of uncertainty and fear. In some cases, HR partners may defend or excuse poor leadership, saying things like, “you know feedback is not her strength,” or “I’ve reminded him not to talk over people in meetings, but he’s just so passionate.” In other cases, HR partners might go so far as to adopt the toxic style and behaviors of the leader, sending a message that those actions are not only condoned by HR, but that kind of behavior will likely be rewarded. These attempts to insulate the leader from the impact of their behavior serve only to perpetuate it, contributing to a lack of accountability and trust that permeates the culture.

HR as a Weapon of Leadership

In extreme cases, some leaders wield their HR partner like a blunt instrument to suppress disagreement and concerns. These leaders prioritize results over everything else, without regard to the impact on people and the culture of the organization. In these types of cultures, managers often float the idea of getting HR involved as an implicit threat looming over teams where issues are brewing. For example, weaponized HR partners can reinforce their role by warning a potential complainant about how disruptive an investigation would be to the team or questioning whether they truly want to rock the boat by raising the issue. They may also try to gaslight the complainant, telling them no one else has raised concerns or that they should manage their own expectations better. These behaviors can be extremely damaging, particularly when disrespect and microaggressions are prevalent in the work environment. I have talked to employees in organizations while conducting climate assessments where HR was rumored to have gotten rid of employees purely because they raised issues, and where employees were absolutely convinced that HR tries to identify anonymous complainants and individuals who provide negative feedback on employee surveys. In some investigations, witnesses provided multiple examples of HR sharing information about their concerns with others or, worse still, immediately repeating the concerns back to the subject rather than handling complaints with discretion and ensuring that a prompt and thorough investigation is conducted. Even when not based on fact, those perceptions, if unchecked, degrade the role of HR to the point they are viewed as the enemy.

We have seen many high-profile cases over the last few years, including the recent allegations of sexual harassment by former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, where inappropriate and abusive behavior continued unchecked for long periods because of a culture of fear and intimidation. While the primary enablers of that culture in Governor Cuomo’s case were not HR partners, the people in his orbit took actions to excuse and cover up the issues by reassigning or encouraging complainants to leave, and even retaliating against one individual who spoke up by feeding negative information about her to the media.[3]  That situation may seem extreme because of its public nature, but it is an example of how enabling the toxic behavior of leaders by minimizing and discouraging escalation of concerns can backfire.

Unlike these examples, most organizations with strong, resilient cultures have valued and respected HR partners who are empowered to speak truth to leadership. My belief is these negative HR paradigms are increasingly relics of the past; that the behaviors described are rare and not the result of conscious decisions. If, however, any of these examples sound a little too familiar, it is important to pause and examine the underlying issues. You might ask yourself:

  • Am I too close to leadership, or could it be perceived that way by others?
  • Is burnout impacting my approach to addressing employee concerns?
  • Are the things I’m spending time on really adding value to the organization and its culture?
  • If I don’t feel respected by leadership, what might be the source of their attitudes and what am I doing to change that dynamic?
  • Do I feel proud of the work I do every day and how I do it?
  • Am I letting my own personal experiences and struggles cloud my judgment in responding to employee issues?

This last bullet is particularly critical. If you’re not thinking about your own self-care, which can be challenging – especially now, it is nearly impossible to be an effective HR partner. Prioritize your own growth and education as an organizational leader. Find more senior, well-respected HR leaders and ask for their mentorship; talk to them or to trusted peers and ask for feedback, suggestions, and guidance. Engage with HR organizations such as your local SHRM chapter or other formal or informal HR groups to hone your leadership and professional HR skills and education. Finally, if toxic behavior is what is embedded and expected of HR in your organization, you may want to consider making a change and move to an organization that more closely reflects your standards of conduct, your values, and your principles.


[1] During its 2020 fiscal year, 56% of all charges filed with the EEOC included a retaliation claim, EEOC Releases Fiscal Year 2020 Enforcement and Litigation Data | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

[2] SHRM’s Culture Refresh Report, “The Culture Effect: Why a Positive Workplace Culture is the New Currency,” 2021, 2021 culture refresh report.pdf (shrm.org).

[3] Kathy Gurchiek, “Cuomo Report Shines Light on Sexual Harassment,” August 4, 2021, Cuomo Report Shines Light on Sexual Harassment (shrm.org).