Among the swirl of commentary and opinion papers on the role of HR, there is often one nagging topic which gets skirted or simply left wide open for interpretation: the role of HR as an 'employee advocate.'
What does it mean to advocate and why do employees need such a role to be played by their HR leaders and partners?
Let’s first examine the definition of advocate. According to any number of encyclopedic sources, the noun form of the word refers to one who publically supports or recommends a cause or a policy. In its verb form, the ultimate meaning is the same – vocal support. So, again, why would an employee need HR to publically support or recommend something on their behalf?
I could certainly make the case that circumstances and issues of sexual harassment, hostile work environments, benefits complexities and the like, require HR leadership and support, where applicable. However, that support is not unilaterally provided to the employee even in the worst of those circumstances. In the best of circumstances, such as strategic decisions to build bench strength, or employing new organizational designs for the future – the role of advocacy cuts across multiple terrains. That advocacy may indeed result from confidential and sensitive issues shared by an employee with HR. Having said this, the right advocacy only comes after one acquires an in depth understanding of the business needs, finances, and other scenarios - all of which serve to arm HR leaders with the tools needed to advise and consult effectively.
Further, at no point in time should the employees’ concerns (or cause) ever be considered independently or separate from the business context. Not ever. Even in a sexual harassment case where culpability may be clear and the employee’s rights are in jeopardy, a final decision to terminate the perpetrator, following the investigation, will still require skillful communication and handling in the best interest of the enterprise. In other words, the victimized employee wouldn’t get to decide to post the circumstances and outcome of the sexual harassment case on the company newsletter!
Employee advocacy also implies an adversarial relationship with the company. It suggests that one’s rights must be championed lest they be trampled upon by the out-of-control employer. Further, it sets up an ‘us versus them’ mentality where the HR leader is expected to take sides. That leads to either a state of severe schizophrenia, or conflicting choices that breed confusion. And, exactly what is the employee's manager doing while all of this HR advocacy is occurring?
Rather, HR thought partners and doers must embrace an organizational leadership mindset (see my post dated December 24, 2015), where the championing of the company’s values, mission and strategies is in service to the whole – as well as its parts. To make a distinction between the organizational entity and its talent creates a separate and unequal atmosphere, where there is an inherent winner and loser.
We’re business leaders first, HR leaders second. What does this mean? It means developing the chops to learn everything about your business in order to add value to it. It means knowing the talent that exists and their strengths as well as their vulnerabilities. It means exhibiting compassionate leadership when needed, yet being unambiguous about tough decisions required which might result in the termination of a dear colleague. It requires you to be full-throated and completely comfortable about serving as the ‘people person’.
You are a business leader, who just so happens to specialize in HR. Embrace it….but don’t allow it to define you or subject you to roles that are impossible to perform and aren’t serving the greater good.
If you want to advocate for something, let it be this: to play an influential role in leading your business through the best and worst of times on the road to becoming a Great Place to Work. Then, set out to define what that means in your space, dream big with deadlines, and measure the heck out of your work to demonstrate value. That’s real advocacy!