Since the start of the year, a few clients have asked for support and problem solving ideas because employees are going straight to Human Resources to complain and file complaints about the actions of others.
They may have thought “I’m upset about this. I bet HR can help me.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. HR can help resolve issues professionally, objectively and legally. Or they can make the problem worse. Which shouldn’t happen because HR is supposed to fix problems – right?
Yes they are and no they are not. It depends on the problem. There are
situations where HR should absolutely, definitely, without a doubt be brought in to help out. There are other times when it is not the best option.
People are often under the mistaken belief that HR is a neutral space that helps people resolve conflict. Or maybe they help those who come to them, because those people are in the right. HR isn’t in the business to deliver difficult messages to others on someone’s behalf, or be the champion of the person who thinks their boss is being unfair.
When should I bring in HR?
When there is illegal behavior in terms of how you are being treated. If your boss is discriminating against you because of your gender, race, national origin or some other protected area, go to HR. They are legally bound to investigate. If they find that you have a valid complaint after an investigation has been conducted, they are required by law to act. Don’t treat this casually. Write it up and keep a copy for yourself in a safe place. The subject line should make it clear that it is a‘Formal Complaint of Age Discrimination (or whatever your complaint is about).’
When you think you might need government protection. If you’ve had a cancer diagnosis, you might want protection that involves the Family Medical Leave Act, and HR should take care of the paperwork. If you have a disability and now need an accommodation, you have to make a formal request to HR. The boss will probably be involved, but HR is the one who knows how to handle this.
When you notice something isn’t quite right. Have you seen a health and safety violation? Do you have evidence that someone has been involved in a regulatory violation or unethical/illegal behavior? HR will know what you should do, how to best document your findings, determine where they should go, and protect your position. Some work places have anonymous hotlines for things like this, but if you don’t know about one, HR should.
When you have a question or a problem with your company’s health insurance go to HR. They manage those plans, have contacts that can provide support, and can help resolve issues.
When should HR not be involved?
If you have done nothing to resolve the issue yourself, don’t run to HR. They are not the ‘Mom and Dad’ of the workplace, there to resolve all interpersonal disputes for you. If you think the behavior of a coworker or your boss is wrong, don’t come to HR before you’ve said anything to the boss or coworker about it.
If you are unhappy with your boss because you think they are mean,
incompetent, or unfair, look in the mirror first. If the boss is pointing out the standards for effective performance or didn’t get you the promotion or raise you asked for because someone else who does better work did, coming to HR won’t solve things.
If you don’t think you are getting paid enough, HR will listen to you but you better come with some well researched evidence about job descriptions, compression studies, and similar positions in other firms in your industry.
If you are unhappy with new job expectations and want the boss (or new boss) to leave you alone, HR won’t be able to help much. Rather than ask ‘What can Phil do differently’ you are better off asking ‘What can I do differently?’
Sometimes it can depend.
The folks in HR are (usually) not psychologists. They may be able to help you navigate through a problem that you are having. Many workplaces have an EAP (employee assistance program) that can help you more effectively and they are confidential so you do not risk exposure professionally.
HR supports the business of your workplace just like every other department. If you want to talk about a first line supervisor or manager, HR can probably help. If your concern is about someone at a senior level, it is quite possible that they will be favored over you.
Depending on your organization, HR might not be the best place to get career advice. HR folks do not often have a background in employee development and they are not usually in a position to help you get developmental opportunities. HR is not always in a position to talk to you ‘off the record.’ If your boss is sexually harassing you, HR is required by law to act. It cannot be ‘off the record.’
You can however, bring up the conversation about your boss’s increasing anger and your concern about it — they might be able to be a conversation you have ‘off the record.’ It’s always better to ask before you talk.
HR’s first obligation is to the organization, not you, so if you want to talk about transferring your 401K or pregnancy benefits, HR may mention that to your boss so again – ask before your speak.
Not liking your boss or are having trouble getting along with the boss or co-workers are legitimate concerns, but perhaps not issues that HR should be resolving for you. If you think HR can play a role in helping you, be clear about what you want and expect them to do.