Do Workers Trust HR? Survey Reveals Divide Between Employers and Employees

Employees vs Employers: When it comes to HR no one agrees

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HR Horror Stories Illustration

My manager dismissed my complaint — Real employee 

We never dismiss complaints — HR Professional

How many times have you heard a colleague, family member, or friend utter these words: “HR is not your friend”?

A quick Google search reveals the deep mistrust employees have for human resources — there are countless Reddit threads and Quora comments from everyday workers sharing their stories about how HR’s only function is to protect the company.

But HR does serve an important role — they oversee recruitment, hiring, and training of employees, establish company culture, and advocate for workers who are experiencing conflicts at work. At least that is the goal.

So it begs the question: Where does this disconnect about HR come from?

Workest (a Zenefits’ resource) decided to ask both employees and HR professionals about their experiences with HR in the workplace. We surveyed more than 500 employees of small and mid-sized businesses and asked them about their interactions with HR and thoughts about the department.

On the flip side, we surveyed more than 300 HR professionals  — which provided insight into their duties and responsibilities, processes for handling complaints, and more. The results were eye opening.

Result: 1 out of 5 workers don’t trust HR

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While it’s never easy going to HR for issues or complaints, our survey found a fifth of respondents said:

  • They don’t trust HR at their current company
  • They have had their trust broken by HR for past employers

More than 30% of respondents reveal they avoid going to HR at all for problems:

  • 38% said because the issue seemed too minor
  • 35% said it’s because they don’t trust HR to help
  • 31% said they fear retaliation

HR Horror Stories1

Our survey respondents even had specific examples of why they distrust HR:

  • “I have seen a mass layoff of staff when we were told this was not going to happen.”
  • “I told HR something about a coworker and they told my other coworkers.”
  • “I told them [HR] something confidential and it ended up being gossip around the work environment.”

The mistrust runs deep. 23% of workers answered “yes” when asked if they witnessed or experienced poor HR, hurtful management, or discrimination.

  • 38% of employee respondents feel HR does not equally enforce company policies across all employees, with 18% of that group believing managers get special treatment.
  • 71% of HR employees in the survey stated that less than 30% of complaints they received in the last 2 years resulted in any disciplinary action. Having less than a third of cases result in disciplinary action led employees to wonder — if they bring complaints forward, will anything even result?

One of our respondents shared a real-life example:

“I tried to submit a harassment claim to HR about my direct supervisor. Rather than this supervisor being punished or action being taken, my case was not even investigated or listened to. They offered to switch my schedule but that was all, and they would take no action against the supervisor that was accused of harassment.”

This is a problem for workplaces since negative attitudes about HR can affect employee happiness and retention.


25% of respondents reveal they use HR most frequently for conflicts with colleagues/managers, and 22% of respondents say they’ve gone to HR with an issue with someone they work with or for.

23% of workers answered “yes” when asked if they witnessed or experienced poor HR, hurtful management, or discrimination.

One respondent recalled:

“Two people in management were married and it made it difficult to relay a message to HR, as HR was their family friend. When there were issues with one or another, the fear of retaliation is what held people back from speaking. The issue was not solved.”

Complaints can make up a significant portion of HR responsibilities and can be related to issues such as company policies and harassment and discrimination. 83% of HR professionals receive at least 1 complaint in their department a month, with 32% receiving more than 5 in a month.

HR Horror Stories 7

How can HR be more trustworthy?

When we asked employees what the top qualities that make an HR professional trustworthy, the top answers were:

  • Knowledge of HR
  • Being resourceful
  • Acting impartial

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We also asked HR professionals to reflect on the top traits that make them trustworthy. They similarly recognized the importance of HR knowledge and impartiality, as those traits also showed up in their top 3 responses. However, they considered consistency more important than resourcefulness when it comes to being trustworthy.

“I told them [HR] something confidential and it ended up being gossip around the work environment.”

Employees want fairness with policies

While handbooks can be helpful for making workers feel at home and provide them a guide to a company’s policies, employee happiness and loyalty can still be in jeopardy if organizations don’t enforce procedures fairly.

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When we asked employees how they feel about their company’s workplace policies and HR overall, these were some of the responses:

How employees feel about workplace policies

  • “They are stupid since they only apply in certain cases for certain people.”
  • “Could be a lot better and more consistent.”
  • “I feel that they are there more as a symbol of HR, rather than a power that can actually get anything done.”
  • “They are good policies, but I do think that the management gets a lot more better deals and favoritism.”

However, there are HR professionals who understand the importance of fairness. Some HR workers in our survey shared their approach when it comes to building trust with employees:

How HR Professionals build trust with employees

  • “Be consistent. Honor policies and follow procedures. Show no favoritism.”
  • “Always be fair and equal. Listen without judgment.”
  • “Treat every employee with the same respect.”
  • “Try to remain impartial and not show favor to anyone.”

Do HR departments need to create more trust between themselves and employees?

45% of employees in the survey said they are very confident in their HR departments, and 61% feel their company always has their back. 87% believe the policies at their company are fair. But there is still room for improvement. Issues with trust and misconceptions about HR can inhibit harmonious working environments between employees and HR staff.

Anonymous quotes from survey respondents

HR Horror Stories Survey Quotes

Methodology and Limitations 

For this study, Zenefits via Workest polled 526 U.S. workers and 302 HR professionals via Survey Gizmo. Our respondents were employees of small to mid-size businesses, defined as having 500 or fewer employees.

Participants who did not fall into this category grouping were excluded from the analysis.

Additional Data Source

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