It seems like a reasonable question.
Human Resource (HR) Departments are usually the place you’re supposed to go when you need to report, or complain about, unfair treatment in the workplace. Personnel handbooks differ somewhat on your reporting options – sometimes you can tell your supervisor, or your supervisor’s supervisor, or a hotline of some type. But HR departments are home base, in most workplaces, for reporting purposes. It’s where you go to get help.
But will HR help you? Some of the most common questions I get from clients include:
*Can I trust them? Should I trust them?
*Does it matter that the HR department is a part of the very organization I’m complaining about?
*How powerful are HR employees, really, and will they support the regular employee against a powerful supervisor or manager?
*Do HR employees fear the loss of their own jobs if they back an employee against the company that employs them?
*Will they really keep my complaints confidential? Or will they score points with management if they discourage my complaint, if their investigation ends with a finding in favor of my boss, or if they even turn the tables on meconclude that I’M the problem?
I think that in some workplaces, the HR office might well be a place to be concerned about. Sometimes I hear about HR representatives who seem to work harder to explain away the complaint, or to discourage the employee from filing a complaint, than to address the problem head-on. If you’re not sensitive to the possible conflicts of interest the HR department might have, you might miss an opportunity to get relief. The fact is that HR departments must serve two very competing groups at the same time – the wronged and the wrongdoer(s). That’s a tough job to do well under any circumstances.
So what’s the best way to handle this, if you need to complain to Human Resources, or a similar office, like an Equal Employment Office (EEO) within your workplace? The key is simply recognizing that the person most interested in the right outcome will always be you. And, the only person who truly has no conflict of interest is you. Everyone else you’re dealing with in the workplace is going to have multiple agendas, and they – bosses, HR officials – may not be driven to protect you as a primary goal. If you simply keep that in mind, and act accordingly, you’ll be fine.
This means documenting your complaints. If you’re complaining to the boss, do it by email (ideally) or by memo, but do it in writing and keep a copy. If you’re complaining to HR, again, do it in writing and keep a copy. If they write back, keep a copy. Be clear, be specific, avoid insulting comments, and tell it like it is. (For example, if you are complaining of discrimination, or harassment, or retaliation, use those words. Don’t be shy. Ordinary complaints of workplace problems may not give you legal protection. But a complaint of unlawful discrimination will. Use your words, driven by your beliefs, and don’t allow someone else to put your complaints and feelings in their words. Sometimes, a boss or HR employee will “help” you write a complaint but do it in words that basically strips you of legal protection.) If you go to HR and they advise that it doesn’t seem like you have anything to report, send them an email when you get back, confirming the conversation and their advice. Print a copy and take it home.
Protecting your rights is your job. Others can help, but you can’t always count on it. If you stick to your guns and tell the story your way, you’ll be fine. Just remember that you need to tell the story (meaning, don’t be shy about making the complaint), and you need to have proof that you did (meaning, always document it. Whoever said “If it isn’t in writing, it didn’t happen” was a smart person.)