In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Grenny and Cullimore (2022) shared research which indicates that employees who have serious concerns in their organisations would rather reach out to anyone else before talking to HR! They would rather go to their manager or a trusted colleague or handle the matter themselves. In many instances they will do nothing about it. (Think about the impact on motivation and morale.)

The reason for this situation is that HR departments have a reactive culture and are mainly compliance-focused as opposed to being both trusted executive partners and employee advocates. That view is supported by a high percentage of employees who believe that HR is more interested in advocating for their company than they are for them. Many respondents indicated they believe their HR leader doesn’t have the power to influence change and, even if they did, the needs of the company would come first.

So, what can be done? According to the authors, HR should become more than compliance officers and act more as coaches, mentors and mediators. The employees will then begin to trust in a system that advocates for their needs first and foremost. The three advocate roles as coach, mentor and mediator are discussed briefly below:

Advocate as a Coach

HR needs to coach employees on how employees how to have difficult conversations with their colleagues and managers. How do you disagree, raise a red flag, inform bad news? Role playing the conversation with the employee, discussing appropriate ways to approach the manager or colleague and providing insight into how these interactions may play out are all good practices to work on, while helping the employee to prepare for a difficult conversation.

Advocate as a Mentor

If and when employees come to HR with, for example unresolved interpersonal conflicts, HR needs to see this as a mentorship opportunity. Rather than using the opportunity to document or take corrective action, HR must serve as a neutral sounding board and encourage the employee to reflect on past experiences that may inform the current one. HR mentors can offer support and encouragement, while also ‘walking the talk’ by demonstrating healthy interpersonal skills. People feel more confident asking for advice and support from someone who expertly demonstrates the skill they are seeking.

Advocate as a Mediator

This approach is to step in as a mediator when the employee is facing a situation they cannot solve alone. In this case, HR hears the viewpoints of each side independently, before bringing the two sides together for a healthy and productive conversation. It is important that HR mediate in a way that is neutral and unbiased.

What are your thoughts?

Do you think that Grenny and Cullimore’s (2022) findings that HR in the U.S. has lost employees’ trust is also valid here in South Africa? If you do, why do you think that is? Should the HR department be an advocate for employees? Many executives might argue that the company is paying the salary of the HR practitioners, therefore they should advocate/represent the company. What is your opinion? Does your HR department have enough resources to take a more “personal” approach to assist employees? I would really like to hear your views. Feel free to discuss it with me:

By the way, whether we agree with the survey results in the article or not, HR departments must create more human-centric organisations and play a far greater role in the strategic positioning of their organisations. To assist HR practitioners at all levels, from Junior HR to HR Directors, KR has a great line-up of events in the first quarter of 2023. For the first time we will also have specialist conferences for Financial Services as well as the Mining / Resources Industry. If you want to brush up on your HRBP skills then I suggest you attend the upcoming HRBP Conference.


Grenny, J., & Cullimore, D. (2022, October 22). Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from