June 13, 2017

Tech Strategist Suggests Ombuds as a Fix for 'Broken' HR System

Writing for Backchannel, the online magazine about the tech industry, Karen Wickre explains why 'HR is broken.' Notable failures include the treatment of Anita Hill and Ellen Pao. She writes, "The stories that have emerged show HR departments that ignore or penalize employees when they complain about harassment." The problem is worse in the tech
industry because an HR department is often established long after a start up has established its culture, habits, and rituals. (Wickre was Twitter's Editorial Director and also worked for Google and Sapient.)  Her first suggestion is to create an Ombuds for employees:
This person might have a term-limited role and report directly to to the top of the chain (a C-level executive or the board) in order to inquire, investigate, and recommend fixes related to HR and executive shortcomings. If you’re wondering if this role exists in business, it does—but it’s rare enough that I had to Google it. There’s a professional group called The International Ombudsman Association, and some companies (and many universities and major news organizations) do have ombuds-people. From what I see, such roles are largely driven by either labor management or customer service needs, not internal cross-checks on cultural issues and ethical imbroglios.
But I haven’t found any instances of tech startups (or most name-brand companies) with an ombud role that’s designed to be an intermediary advocate. Instead, we’re often reliant on HR people who are stuck on the “official rules” and get (very) literal. That can be a mistake when we factor in employee disgruntlement and skepticism.
Here’s a story: I worked for a company that let an influential person go at the 11-month mark — four weeks shy of a stock option vesting date. This person, a public figure, unsurprisingly spent the next few years publicly badmouthing the company. It would have been trivial to grant him the extra month of vesting, and if he’d left with his options intact, the company’s reputation wouldn’t have taken repeated public hits. Instead, management went by The Rules, ignoring real-world repercussions. Perhaps an ombudsperson could untangle the administrivia that makes troubled departures worse than necessary. An ombudsperson could also hold execs accountable on diversity and inclusion goals. (These are often tasked to HR, which can’t realize them alone.)

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