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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 32, No. 21 * November 20, 2000

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The Need to Practice Forensic HR

Many human resources professionals, especially senior practitioners such as section managers, directors and deputy directors, share a strong kinship with attorneys and others who practice professions involving forensic debate. “Forensic” matters are those associated with legal proceedings, court cased or matters pertaining to public or legal argumentation.

We think of attorneys, also medical examiners, forensic psychiatrists and psychologists when we hear the phrase, but increasingly the HR sub-specialty of “forensic human resource specialist” is also emerging.

A primary role for HR is to help a client weigh facts and situations, and balance employee rights and obligations with agency needs and expectations. In this regard, the classic picture of Blind Justice with her level scale is at least as much a symbol of modern human resources as it is of the legal profession. Besides the balancing of rights and legal obligations, HR professionals weigh factors that may not be directly court-related. These include concerns for the welfare and safety of employees and their families, recognition for workplace achievement and prompt action to correct performance or behavior weaknesses.

To be a successful 21st century HR leader, a manager will not only need technical expertise, but also the ability to carefully weigh and balance issues that could ultimately end in some form of legal proceedings. America is, after all, a litigation-rich environment with many opportunities for plaintiff attorneys to attack employer decisions and opportunities for employer attorneys to respond.

The key to effective response is, and will increasingly be, located in the files and the testimony of HR professionals. What did we know at the time an event occurred? What thought processes were used to formulate the response of the agency? How well was the situation documented? Were the managers’ actions job-related and appropriate to the situation? Is there any evidence of unlawful discrimination or failure to intervene when such action would have been the proper management step to take?

Effective human resources professionals should preempt attorneys who would otherwise ask these questions whenever possible. HR should be involved early and often in a complaint procedure as coaches and consultants for supervisors, managers and employees who bring issues to them.

However, waiting to react to requests from clients is insufficient. HR should be in a strong position to continually scan the workplace environment and be a champion for pro-active and early intervention when the symptoms of problems appear. For that reason, the modern forensic HR organization will include an anti-discrimination or equal opportunity function.

In a pro-active HR environment, a coordinated and rapid response to matters of non-discrimination, sexual harassment, and workplace violence requires a degree of immediate and effective communication between staff members. Organizations that are most effective in reducing liability and preventing it in the first place are those with this single compelling point of focus — the maintenance of an equitable workplace. Organizations that prize a coordinated and rapid response to matters of discrimination, sexual harassment, and workplace violence also significantly reduce the chance of future litigation.

A forensic HR approach helps equip county or city attorneys with the tools and the strong case facts they need to do their job most successfully.

There certainly have been many successful and popular movies, TV shows and books about the adventures of forensic practitioners in law and medicine. It’s time for a TV special on forensic human resources! The HR doctor is waiting by the cell phone for a call from HBO. Best wishes!


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