Dilemma of the Month: Bias in Human Resources

You need to conduct an investigation, and it might be better to outsource something this sensitive

Back Q&A Jun 7, 2018 By Suzanne Lucas
I am the chief financial officer for a 90-plus person firm and the head of human resources reports to me. Several employees have told me they feel uncomfortable going to the HR manager with complaints or concerns, because she’s really good friends with some of the people here and they’re afraid she’ll be biased. She does a good job otherwise, so I was thinking about outsourcing our employee relations arm. What do you think?

I think you have a serious problem on your hands. When people make the effort to come to you to say they are afraid the human resources manager will be biased, what they are actually saying is: She has shown bias previously and please do something about it.

People don’t bother to approach the HR manager’s boss if they think that sometime in the future she might treat employees unfairly. They come when she has treated people unfairly. Your employees don’t want to seem whiny or like victims, so they haven’t come out and said exactly what has gone down — but something has. And you need to find out what happened.

Related: Dilemma of the Month: Out-of-Office Socialization

Related: Dilemma of the Month: He Said, She Said

Related: Dilemma of the Month: My Boss Gossips

It may be that the head of HR is fabulous at most of her job and is just a horrible employee relations person, so outsourcing that part would be sufficient. But, more likely, she’s horrible at most of her job if she shows bias.

Now, to be clear, being generally biased isn’t illegal unless it’s based on a protected class (race, gender, etc). If it’s just that she likes Jane and Steve more than anyone else because their personalities mesh, it’s not illegal. It’s just dumb.

Why is this bias such a big deal outside of employee relations? Well, let’s talk about what HR is supposed to do. Just like your head of sales is supposed to be your expert on sales, your head of HR is supposed to be your expert on people. If you need to do succession planning or want to implement a rotation program so you can cross-train people, an HR manager that plays favorites will damage employee morale and threaten the well-being of the company.

The HR manager loves Jane and Steve so she recommends them for the special rotation program. But, in reality, Bob and Karen are much better-suited for the program. What happens then? Jane and Steve may do a fine job (most people do), but Bob and Karen feel (rightly) that they don’t have a chance for success in this company. They find other jobs and leave.

The problem: This reinforces everyone’s opinion that Jane and Steve were the right people for the program. Good thing we didn’t promote Bob and Karen, since they both quit! Dodged a bullet there, eh? Except you didn’t. Instead, you lost two great performers who could have been valuable assets to your team for years to come.

So you need to conduct an investigation, and it might be better to outsource something this sensitive. Be careful that whoever you hire is licensed to conduct workplace investigations, because California requires outside investigators to be either licensed attorneys or licensed private investigators. An HR consultant can’t do this for you.

An investigation will involve speaking discreetly to the people who came to you with their concerns. You’ll want to say, “You came to me and said that you were worried the HR manager might favor her friends over other employees. Can you give me an example of when you saw this occur?”

Now, as with all investigations, you have to follow where it leads. Maybe your HR manager is awesome and the complainers were simply upset that she didn’t give them special privileges. It happens. Still, you can’t just ignore these serious allegations. You can ask people who else you should speak with and follow up. It’s imperative that you keep things as confidential as possible.

At the end of the investigation you have to make a determination. Is your HR manager playing favorites? How big of an impact will this have on the company? Can it be solved by outsourcing? Can it be solved by placing her on a performance improvement plan? Is the best solution to let her go and hire someone who can remain neutral? (Side note: HR managers, you should have no close friends at work, except maybe your peers in HR.)

In the meantime, you should be grateful that your employees trust you enough to come to you with their concerns. If they’ll come to complain about such things, you have hope that they’ll come to you with more serious problems — like sexual harassment, racial discrimination or securities violations. The best thing a business can do is tackle each one of these problems before it gets too big. Your open door allows that to happen and your investigation will ensure it continues to happen.

Have a burning HR question? Email it to evilhrlady@comstocksmag.com


Rich Boberg (not verified)June 11, 2018 - 8:19am

I agree, we should not become friends with our employees. That will often lead to trouble. I've found, however, that sometimes employees assume we are biased because we are more friendly with some employees than others - which is natural. That doesn't mean we are actually biased if/when a complaint is made about that person.

I would hope the CFO of this fairly small company would have a good idea if she was actually biased or not from her daily interactions and observations of her HR Manager.

Visitor (not verified)June 12, 2018 - 5:53am

I think this was poor advice because there is a big difference between small, medium and large companies. In smaller companies, there is a need for there to be a relationship between HR Manager and employees and on the other hand if there is a stand alone HR person they need to be friendly with someone - it's human nature (human resources anyone?) so no it does not mean they have shown bias it's exactly what the employee said - they are worried about bias.

Visitor (not verified)June 12, 2018 - 3:17pm

As the new CFO one should be prepared to hear all employees concerns but to remember “some” employees maybe have biases of their own.

The new CFO should discuss the concern with the HR leader. Look at data regarding how employee complaints are managed and discuss with other leaders to be reasonable, fair and objective. To initiate an investigation without credible evidentiary information may appear bias and retaliatory to the HR leader.

Netta W Peek (not verified)June 13, 2018 - 9:47am

I think the most important thing to note here, is that people don't go to the manager with complaints about something that "might happen". It already has. I recently left a job after 7 years because of a new manager who played the favorites game. The company has now lost 4 great, long-time employees because they refused to acknowledge this manager's biases.

Visitor (not verified)June 13, 2018 - 10:29am

I would have to agree that this is horribly one sided. An employee(s) makes a complaint to the CFO that they aren’t comfortable making a complaint, and we assume the HR Manager is at fault? I would have to agree that in most small companies, there are often stand alone HR departments. They need to be seen as likable and personable for people to want to approach them. Not everyone is going to be one of those people that easily conversewith HR. As the CFO, they should have the respect of their employee to talk to HR first and address the concern. Give HR the chance to observe their own behavior and maybe provide some feedback as to why the employee might have said that. “Oh yea, we had a focus group meeting last week and Bob had a disagreement with the group. I had to agree with The group as Bob was veering off topic”. Employees tend to take every opportunity to go above your head when they don’t get what is deemed as deserved. I’m not saying that a further discussion may not be warranted but I’m shocked at how one sided this moderator’s response is. Everyone knows HR is never black and white. It’s a muddy grey!

Visitor (not verified)May 15, 2019 - 2:35pm

While I agree that before a full on investigation is commenced, the CFO should sit down with the HR Manager, I also think some of these comments can be self-biased. If you're an HR Manager yourself or your in HR you are protective of others in your field because "that can be you". But the simple way to make sure it isn't you is by not being biased(which is extremely difficult no use denying it) or at least hiding it as best you can. Unfortunately, I work in a large company that the employees know not to go to HR. Our HR Manager is known to hold vendettas over employees who speak up and will then look for reasons to discipline. There was recently a situation where an almost 20 year top tier employee was in an accident(first ever) due to an illness and the HR Manager went above and beyond to try and terminate or at least severely punish this individual. This employee worked way above the scheduled work day and was always assisting everyone when there were issues and truly was one of the best in the department. Everyone around knew it was wrong, but they are all terrified of them being "next" so they do not speak up. This kind of thing happens all the time and just because YOU don't think your bias shows doesn't mean this article is biased per say.