It’s a fair question.
Personnel departments, often called HR departments, are the place most employees go to report unfair treatment in the workplace. Some employers will let you make your complaint to a manager or other supervisor, but the HR departments is where most people go first.
But will HR really help you? Or are they there to protect the employer… against you?
Some common questions I get from clients:
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, 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 me against the company that employs them?
Will they really keep my complaints confidential?
Will they turn my complaints against me and blame me?
There are many great HR employees. I’ve dealt with lots of them and have great respect for them. But there are some bad apples in HR departments, as there are in any occupation, and they can cause great harm to you and your career.
The fact is that HR departments serve two conflicting interests: the victim (you), and the wrongdoer (the employer, through its managers, supervisors and other employees). The law makes employers responsible for what happens in the workplace, and it is of course your employer, not you, that signs the paycheck for the HR rep you’re talking to. Does the fact that your adversary in this dispute is paying the person you’re talking to give you any concerns?
It should. Your concerns might grow if you knew how many times the typical HR department rules in favor of the employer.
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.