Meghan and Harry’s Oprah interview suggests that even Buckingham Palace has an HR problem
Our mission to make business better is fueled by readers like you. To enjoy unlimited access to our journalism, subscribe today.
Oprah Winfrey’s long-awaited interview with Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on Sunday night, delivered bombshell after bombshell to the millions of viewers who likely tuned in.
Among the details that the couple spilled: Meghan harbored suicidal thoughts as a result of “the daily onslaught of vitriol”; the two secretly got married before their public ceremony; their second child will be a girl; and someone at the palace raised concerns about how dark son Archie’s skin color would be. Winfrey responded to that last disclosure with disbelief. “What?” she asked.
But one anecdote that Meghan shared might have resonated with viewers more than the others. She said she went to the palace’s human resources department when the racist and sexist news coverage in U.K. tabloids led her to suicidal thoughts.
Meghan told Winfrey that those she talked to were sympathetic, but they told her, “There’s nothing we can do to protect you, because you’re not a paid employee of the institution.”
“This was emails and begging for help, saying very specifically, ‘I am concerned for my mental welfare,’” Meghan said. Those in HR agreed that the attacks she faced were “disproportionately terrible,” but they took no action.
Meghan said she wanted to seek medical help but couldn’t do so without the palace’s support. “You have to understand as well, when I joined that family, that was the last time…that I saw my passport, my driver’s license, my keys. All that gets turned over,” she said.
Without the palace’s backing, the couple had to find their own solution, Meghan said. They ultimately decided to leave behind their royal duties and Britain.
Buckingham Palace did not immediately return Fortune’s request for comment on Meghan’s HR complaint.
Meghan’s experience of being rebuffed by HR is relatable. Lawsuits in recent years reveal that HR is often a first stop for employees who feel discriminated against or threatened at work, but too often, HR fails to adequately solve the issue at hand. That inaction is due to myriad factors, but the proliferation of workplace regulation in the past century means that, in general, the purpose of modern human resources departments is to protect a company or institution and its executive team from liability, even if it comes at the expense of an individual worker.
This reality is not lost on employees. A 2018 survey found that just 26% of workers had faith that their employer would take swift action to handle workplace issues or scandals.
A 2016 report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission painted an especially damning image of employer resources as they relate to workplace harassment. Roughly 70% of individuals who experienced harassment never talked with a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the conduct, in part, because they “anticipate and fear a number of reactions—disbelief of their claim; inaction on their claim; receipt of blame for causing the offending actions; social retaliation (including humiliation and ostracism); and professional retaliation, such as damage to their career and reputation,” the report said.
Still, the aggrieved turn to HR, as Meghan did, because there are few other places to go. The duchess said she had union representation at her “old job,” seemingly a reference to when she worked as an actress, represented by the Screen Actors Guild, and that that prior experience taught her HR might be able to help.
But the palace’s HR failed to take action in this instance, Meghan said, because the duchess technically didn’t fall under the department’s purview. That too is a shortcoming of the HR model: Unorthodox employment arrangements and settings often leave workers without formal means to wage complaints.
As a member of the British royal family, Meghan had the most unique of roles, but her experience of asking HR for help and coming up empty is all too familiar.
More on the most powerful women in business from Fortune:
- Commentary: COVID-19 has driven millions of women out of the workforce. How to help them come back
- Women direct 23% of Netflix films. Now the company is spending $5 million to boost that number
- 49% of late-stage private company boards are still all-male
- The pandemic has derailed women’s careers and livelihoods. Is America giving up on them?
- Could “returnships” for moms who’ve left the workforce help solve women’s economic crisis?