employees who vent to HR but don’t want us to act on the information

A reader writes:

I am the head of a small HR department. Occasionally, I run into a situation where an employee tells me about a problem and asks me to do nothing with the information.

For example, last week I was talking to someone who is upset with their boss. The employee feels intimidated about delivering bad news because of how the boss reacts. The boss gets visibly upset, becomes abrupt, and frames questions in a blaming way (“How could you let this happen?”). I believe this is a real issue. I’ve seen a version of this from the boss in a different context very occasionally. It seems like the boss might sometimes struggle with managing their own dismay, fear, and anger when they hear bad news from a direct report. This could be detrimental to the organization because people will avoid giving you bad news if you react poorly, so it might have implications beyond this one employee / supervisor relationship.

After listening carefully, acknowledging emotions, and assessing what strategies the employee has already tried, I turned the conversation to action planning. In this case, the employee told me they wanted to do nothing. I asked the employee how they were likely to feel in the future if they did nothing and the same situation recurs. The answer was ‘crappy, but I guess I’ll just suck it up.’ I suggested there might be some other options, like talking to the boss, which could take many different forms and which I could support in a number of ways – directly or indirectly.

In this case, the employee’s assessment is that the boss is who they are and will never change. I disagree with this, having seen significant and sincere changes in the boss’s behavior in response to feedback, which I told the employee. Then the employee wanted to go back over the reasons that the boss is in the wrong for what happened, adding more details. The person repeated their decision to do nothing and asked me to do nothing as well and that’s where we left it.

I did speak with the boss’s boss in general terms. Big boss has seen some emotional “leakiness” and has made some attempt to address it where directly observed, but again, it’s a different version of the behavior and a different power dynamic at play.

I want to do something to change the situation. However, I rarely directly observe the boss’s behavior and have little current first-hand information to address this with the boss myself – not without ‘outing’ the person who talked to me. Doing some kind of systematic 360 review for the supervisor has occurred to me, but that’s out of the ordinary for our organization. I suppose we could change our whole system to do it for everyone, but that’s a huge undertaking, when really what we need is a way to deliver some very specific feedback to one Individual.

Once or twice a year, I encounter something similar. There’s a skill gap in a boss (different bosses) that is bad for the organization as well as an individual employee, but I’m handcuffed by the employee’s request that nothing be done. I empathize with the employee’s anxiety about a difficult conversation – power dynamics with your boss are real and while I can support the conversation and ensure no substantive retaliation, I can’t manage every aspect of how the boss is going to react.

On the other hand, I sometimes suspect there may be an element of embracing the victim role in these cases, especially when the person seems to want to dwell at length on the wrongs that have been done to them.

How do I balance my obligation to act for the good of the organization with respect for an employee’s wishes that nothing be done about a problem?

This one is actually pretty straightforward: You need to stop letting people people use you as a venting station. That’s not what your job is. (I suppose it’s possible that your organization actually does want to supply a therapist-type role to people where they can come and vent, but (a) that would be very unusual, and (b) that wouldn’t be HR.)

Instead, I’d recommend making it clear to people when they first come to you that you can’t promise them confidentiality.

Explain that you may need to take action based on what they tell you (because your job is not to be a priest or a therapist but rather to act in the best interests of the organization), but that if that happens, you’ll absolutely ensure that they don’t face negative repercussions for it. You need to really emphasize that last part (and mean it) or no one will talk to you at all. I’d use wording like, “I can’t promise that I can keep anything you tell me confidential, because sometimes people share things with me that my job requires me to act on, but I will promise you that if it’s something I do need to act on, I will bend over backward to ensure that your manager won’t penalize you for having shared it with me, because I know that’s necessary in order for people to continue being comfortable raising issues.”

People giving you information that you have to agree not to act on doesn’t get you anywhere good. You’re either stuck not sharing something that you really should be acting on it or — more commonly — you’re stuck betraying a confidence (which will eventually result in no one trusting you).

Short-circuit that whole thing and be clear up-front with people that this isn’t therapy or a confession booth; it’s them approaching a representative of the company with a work concern. Then it’s up to them whether they want to do that or not.

You might worry that this will mean that you won’t hear about important things you’d want to know about. But that’s unlikely to happen (and again, if so, you’d be back to that choice of betraying an employee’s confidence or not acting on the information). As long as you show that you mean it when you say you’ll protect people from retaliation for talking to you, you’re still likely to hear about just as many important things as you hear about now (if not more so, because people will respect you for being straightforward about the dynamics in play). And sure, you’ll probably get far less of the unproductive “I don’t want you to do anything; just listen to me” venting, but that’s good; that’s not what you’re there for anyway.

{ 152 comments… read them below }

  1. LizaNW*

    This sounds like it’s all about retaliation. It’s interesting that you write “I empathize with the employee’s anxiety about a difficult conversation – power dynamics with your boss are real and while I can support the conversation and **ensure no substantive retaliation**, I can’t manage every aspect of how the boss is going to react.” (Emphasis mine.)

    A mean manager can make an employee’s life difficult in myriad small ways that are difficult for HR to stop. I don’t blame them for not wanting anything done.

    To your credit, you sound like you do want to help. Just make sure you really can protect and help employees before you do something.

    1. Mimi*

      This is exactly what I was going to say. HR can’t promise that the boss won’t retaliate.

      And I’ve worked in a number of places where the “negative repercussions” came directly from HR* (despite promises to the contrary), but it sounds like this is not the case here, or the OP would not be writing to AAM.

      *Like the Miranda warning, “Anything you say can and will be used against you…”

    2. Jeanne*

      You have it completely right. I was thinking that while reading. HR cannot protect the employee from retaliation. The only thing they can do is make sure you are not fired the day the boss is told of the problem. Until we address bullying in the workplace, there is no protection.

      However, it is refreshing to see an HR employee who cares about making the work environment better.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It’s possible for HR to prevent retaliation. Well, it’s possible for an employer to prevent retaliation, and HR can be instrumental in that. You can make it clear to managers that the organization doesn’t tolerate punishing people for talking to HR, even subtly, and you can back that up with your actions.

        I had a situation once (not as HR but as a chief of staff overseeing the management of the whole organization) where I discovered a department head was doing a variety of crappy things to employees. It took a lot of work to get people to talk candidly with me, because their boss had them convinced there would be hell to pay if they did. I made it very, very clear to that boss what would and would not be acceptable in response and monitored him closely for a long time to make sure he wasn’t engaging in even subtly punitive behavior toward the people who had talked to me, including staying in close contact with the people in question. It took energy and commitment but it was very doable.

        There’s no reason that HR couldn’t engage in the same way, assuming they were working closely with senior management and had a mandate to do it.

        1. AcademiaNut*

          I think this is an important point. HR shouldn’t promise that there will be no retaliation unless they actually have the power to ensure that. HR works for the company, not for the employees, so if the upper management doesn’t support HR in this, they’d be lying to the employees.

          Of course, if your workplace is prone to shooting the messenger, or retaliating against people who bring up legitimate complaints, as an employee, you’re pretty much stuck with putting up with it until you can get a new job, or unless you’re willing to pay the price of bringing in outside authorities for things that are actually illegal.

        2. F.*

          I am an HR Manager, and I can guarantee you that if I had that conversation with certain members of senior management at the small company where I work, *I* would be fired on the spot. I have to choose my battles very wisely. Changing jobs is not an option at my age, either.

        3. Miss M*

          I also agree that it’s important for HR not only to stress this but also with management (if they’re not involved in this issue) to keep confidentiality. I’ve had issues with a co-worker at a previous job, where I went to my boss about this. When word slipped out and the co-worker threatened to file a compliant against me in return.

    3. Stranger than fiction*

      While I agree with Alison wholeheartedly and respect the Op for being a decent human (so many HR folks immediately side with the manager) I agree that retaliation can be done in such creative ways that eventually the employee quits or is let go on a bunch of trumped up charges, have witnessed it multiple times…but I do believe by the Op being up front about that to the employees and the managers that they’ll be on the lookout for retaliation may make some managers think twice

  2. PhoenixBurn*

    I’ve worked in HR for over 10 years, and faced this problem a few times.
    As HR, part of the position is taking action when you hear something from an employee. I strongly second Alison’s advice to tell employees up front that you’re not able to guarantee confidentiality, but that you will ensure there are no negative results/retaliation. Then work to achieve a solution – and this is especially important since you’ve stated that you’ve seen these behaviors in this boss before. The fact that the boss has been responsive to feedback should make this a bit easier.
    Sometimes employees see HR as a venting station – which is something you can foster, or something you can shut down. I’ve found that, by using the caveat that nothing is guaranteed confidential as well as asking the employee for a solution – or what they would like to see as a solution – I’ve cut down on the “vent sessions.” (Most people venting don’t want to have to come up with a solution – they want someone else to do that for them.)
    Think of it this way: A person tells you the manager is bullying them, but they don’t want you to do anything about it – so you don’t. This person quits. The replacement is the same race/sex/whatever of the person who quits, and tells you that the manager is bullying them, and making derogatory comments about race/sex/whatever, and files an EEOC claim. It now becomes clear that there’s something that could negatively impact the company – and you have a duty to act on that. Had you acted with the first person, then you could have avoided the lawsuit. (Extreme, and maybe not well-worded.)

    1. Three Thousand*

      But with the first person, they might have reason to think their concerns will be dismissed or not taken seriously even if HR claims to want to address the problem, and that it will reflect badly on them if they can’t 100% prove there’s discrimination happening. Many people do have reason to fear this and don’t want to risk their own safety for it.

      1. PhoenixBurn*

        True, but this is taking place after the concern has been brought to HR’s attention. I guess the point I was trying to make is that as HR, once you hear about something (like bullying, harassment, etc.), then you have a duty to act on it. Even if it is low-level where the boss is yelling at the team, a good HR person will come in and say, “Steve, have you thought about how you’re being perceived? Maybe you’ll get better results if you say, “That was a really well-made chocolate teapot, but we make raspberry teapots here. Next time, make a raspberry teapot of that quality” instead of screaming, “How could you make a CHOCOLATE teapot?! We make Raspberry teapots here!” Or work with the boss’s boss to help give the feedback that is necessary to grow the manager as well as make life better for the employees under him.
        HR’s role is to protect the company’s interests while (or really, BY) helping the employees of all levels grow into better employees.

  3. Helka*

    Another thing you might consider doing, OP, is asking the employee what kind of outcome they’re envisioning when they come talk to you. It might be that there is a middle ground between “I just want to vent” and “I want you to go talk to my boss for me, or have a 3-way meeting,” something along the lines of “I want this to be noted and on your radar, but not sure it requires HR intervention yet.”

    While that’s obviously not going to be true in all cases, it’s another good way of getting the employees to think about just why it is that they’re coming to you instead of, say, venting to friends over a beer after work.

    1. Dream of the talking dogs*

      This reminds me of Deborah Tannen’s book You Just Don’t Understand, wherein she suggests that there are two basic communication styles: one is focused on problem solving; the other is mostly concerned with sharing (some might say ‘venting’). Problems and misunderstandings can happen when someone who only wishes to share interacts with someone who is in a problem-solving frame of mind.

      1. Helka*

        I actually disagree with that idea, although I’ve heard it widely stated (and often incorrectly made into a gendered thing). As I said above, I don’t think that “I’m telling you this so you’ll fix it” and “I’m telling you this because I need to vent” are the only two options. It’s a really simplistic way of looking at communication and ignores a lot of why we discuss things.

        1. Dream of the talking dogs*

          Have you read her book? Despite my synopsis, I don’t believe she is trying to make a case that there are *only* these two forms of communication. But I agree with her that these two forms exist, and can cause confusion when someone who wants to share is talking to a problem-solver. Which seems to be the case sometimes when people approach HR.

          (And yeah, I left out the gender stuff because I didn’t see it making much difference here).

  4. edj3*

    I had a situation where I needed to confide in Trusted Manager (not mine) about how my manager at the time had set her sights on an employee’s of Trusted Manager and was no joke out to get the employee fired. And while it was hard to be told she couldn’t promise confidentiality without knowing what the issue was at first, I did understand. What if I were reporting something that was illegal or dangerous? Trusted Manager would have had to break her own word.

    (I did tell Trusted Manager; she protected her employee and I moved to another division away from my awful manager not long afterwards.)

  5. My 2 Cents*

    When I was in grad school getting my MBA I was stunned at how many people complained about stuff but were unwilling to do anything about it. Once specific case we had a professor who screwed up the entire course schedule and it was a disaster. Everyone spent the entire class break bitching about it so I said “alright, let’s go talk to him and figure out how to fix the problem” and suddenly everyone was absolutely terrified of doing a thing, they REFUSED to talk to the professor about it (and this was a very nice, understanding professor, not someone who was an ass). I started noticing this over and over and realized it’s just a pattern in our world now, we have a majority of adults who will complain and complain but never do anything to fix what is wronging them. I think a lot of that applies to this letter because they are treating the HR person as a venting station, but they are also being pansies and hoping that she magically fixes it without them having to get involved in any way, shape or form. It’s the “I’ll let you know about the problem but I’m going to pretend that I’m just venting because I refuse to stick my neck out but if the problem magically gets solved without my involvement that would be great” approach. I loathe that approach, man up!

    1. NicoleK*

      Often there is a power differential/imbalance at play. The person with the power can make life hell for the other person. It’s understandable why people are fearful of saying things or putting their necks on the line when there’s the real possibility of retaliation and termination.

      1. esra*

        This is definitely true, but I worked in an office where people wouldn’t even knock on the boardroom door to see if a meeting was finished. And these weren’t weird, freakout managers. 75% of the office just wouldn’t stand up for themselves in even the most minor ways.

        And then the other 25% of us end up being The Ones Who Speak Up and it’s just a pain. We’re all adults.

        1. Jennifer*

          There are some folks who have been burnt so bad by trying to stand up for themselves that they’ve learned it only makes things worse to try.
          Hell, I used to not even say something if someone pushed the wrong button in the elevator. I still usually won’t speak up about anything because hoo boy, is it easy to get in trouble for the smallest shit around here.

          1. ToxicNudibranch*

            Yes, but surely you don’t bitch and moan about needing someone else to fix [whatever] that you, yourself aren’t willing to address?

            I mean, you wouldn’t sit there fuming or vent to all your coworkers about the fargin bastage who pushed the wrong elevator button while you sat idly by, right? Because that’s what esra and My 2 Cents are talking about. Someone who is upset about [thing] to the extent that they crab about it over and over, but doesn’t actually want to be part of the solution.

          2. Jeanne*

            Thank you. Why make your life hell? It’s about knowing what’s truly important to bring up.

          3. Stranger than fiction*

            Those folks must make up the majority of the population these days, I mean look how often Alisons solution to questions begins with talking directly to the person..have we devolved from being able to do that diplomatically or what?

            1. Kelly L.*

              You and My2Cents are both placing a lot of emphasis on “these days”/”in our world now”, which seems odd to me. IMO, there have always been issues like this–some people who maybe could stand to be more assertive, some other people who tried being assertive but were retaliated against, etc. Is this meant as a kids these days thing?

              There’s also probably a selection bias in terms of advice column letters. I’m sure there are many people out there who do talk to someone directly, that solves their problem, and then they don’t need to write to an advice column.

              1. Stranger than fiction*

                Thanks Kelly. No I didn’t mean kids these days I meant all of us to some degree. Sure some people are more assertive, but I notice a general fear to speak up (yes these days compared to when I was younger), in the workplace and in public settings in general because fear of retaliation, a good example outside the workplace is road rage, nowadays people are afraid of getting shot for letting someone know they cut you off

                1. Today's Satan*

                  Isn’t that interesting? I remember people being much more afraid to speak up back in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Communities were tighter knit and more, ah, “monochrome”, and speaking up about a perceived injustice (visited upon you, or just one you witnessed) could get you black-listed in both business and social groups.

                2. mno*

                  While I surely can’t compare this to the business world of the 80’s, I feel I have noticed that too, as well as a general unwillingness to “figure things out/try”*. What I don’t know is if that is due to the people around me changing, or that I am just now noticing things.

                  *makes me so insane!

                3. Not So NewReader*

                  I agree with, you, Today’s Satan. Topics that were taboo in the 60s even into the 80s are out in the wide open now. Additionally, we have names for the behaviors which indicates we have general recognition of behavior patterns. (ex: Passive Aggressive. We had plenty of this going on decades ago but no commonly recognized name for the behavior. Making matters worse this behavior was spoken of only in soft whispers if at all. )

                  Not saying everything going on today is peachy-perfect because it is definitely NOT. We have come a long way but we still have a long way to go. Bullying would be a good example of where we need work, there are many other examples of areas that need even more work.

      2. Adonday Veeah*

        On the other side of the power coin, I had a manager who came to me regularly to complain about a particular employee. I offered to help him manage this employee to improve, or manage him out of the organization. He wanted to do neither. I had to finally tell him that he either needed to let me help him or stop complaining to me, because I wasn’t willing to listen to him complain any longer.

        While I do object to the language used (“pansy” is especially offensive) I think the point is dead on — many people would rather complain than step up and fix something, if it means dealing with other people in uncomfortable situations. The only way to help these people is to stop listening to them complain.

    2. Lily in NYC*

      Some people, myself included, feel better after complaining and don’t necessarily need or want a solution – just an outlet to vent about a frustrating situation that is not always worth doing someone about. Guess what! That doesn’t make me a pansy. Nor do I need to “man up”. What’s with the sexist terms?

      1. Lily in NYC*

        I should have mentioned that I would never go to HR to just vent, but I did go once and talked about something a coworker did but asked for confidentiality. I just wanted to let them know in case there was a pattern of physical abuse towards coworkers with this specific person. But as a one-off, it wasn’t a big enough deal to ask them to do anything about it.

      2. tesyaa*

        Forgetting about the offensive language, if you just need to vent, you could vent to friends or family. There’s no point to bring HR into it if it’s truly just venting.

        1. Lily in NYC*

          I agree, but the comment I was replying to was talking about venting in general because his/her classmates were complaining to each other about a professor.

      3. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

        (agreed on your language concerns).

        Venting is a valid thing to do. I find myself venting vs. resolving when I feel like I’m partially at fault (I’m tired, generally grumpy, more irritated that I probably should be, etc.). Put another way – I’m questioning whether I’m totally in the right, but I’m also in need of a place to express my feelings.

        But HR is not the place to do it. That’s what friends are for.

        1. Jessa*

          On the other hand if more than one person vents the same information, HR now has a platform to advocate for change without identifying either person. They may be venting in hopes that HR takes notice and if more evidence comes in, they can take action. However, too many people have had bosses act awfully. HR is not even sure in this case that they can prevent retaliation (which leads me to believe that this may actually be a pattern,) The problem is that even if 99% of occurrences end up with no retaliation, no bad consequences (which is not nearly the truth) the one person who gets bullied out of a job, treated like garbage til they quit and then have no benefits nor recourse, etc. is enough to make people wary. If there weren’t so many articles about horrible bosses, people would be quick to speak up.

          The issue is if the boss is really that bad, employee may have walked themselves out of a job because HR decides to repeat what they said.

          1. Kelly L.*

            Yeah, I think that’s a lot of it–I think people will go to HR hoping they’re part of a larger critical mass that will spur HR to act by its sheer numbers. “Maybe if 20 of us report the same thing…”

          2. Cajun2core*

            Exactly. There is no way that an HR person can guarantee that any employee won’t feel any repercussions for something.

      4. Stranger than fiction*

        Doesn’t pansy just mean wimp? I’m not getting why that one is sexist.

        1. Kelly L.*

          It has been used as a slur against gay men. It might be more homophobic than sexist, come to think of it.

          1. Juli G.*

            I had no idea either. I’m in HR and I’ve said it teasingly to my spouse and teammates in our company sports leagues. Thanks for the lesson!

    3. Jeanne*

      I am a woman. I will never “man up.” It is very difficult when you have to fight against a professor who can fail you or a boss who can fire you. You don’t know what has happened to these people in the past. I fought back against truly egregious manager behavior and in the end I was punished. I will not do it again. It isn’t worth it. Percentage wise, there is a very small chance that I will get an HR dept that will even try to help me like the OP. It does not make me a pansy. I am a cynic and also practical.

      It would benefit you to consider compassion and empathy.

      1. JM in England*

        One lesson I learned about the workplace quite early in my working life was that HR are there to serve the employer’s interests, not the employees. From what I’ve read of the OP’s letter, they seem a truly genuine exception and I take my hat off to them!

  6. pineapple*

    The deal is that the employee is hoping there are enough complaints on record about the boss that s/he’ll be removed from the team or fired. There’s zero way for HR to guarantee “no retaliation” since, as LizaNW points out, “[a] mean manager can make an employee’s life difficult in myriad small ways that are difficult for HR to stop,” so there’s nothing in it for the employee if you take these concerns to the boss. The boss may correct his behavior, which will make him look good to HR and his bosses, but the employee gets no benefit, just a boss that now dislikes and mistrusts her. (I find it hard to believe someone who shouts, “How could you let this happen?” is a reasonable person who would feel remorse and not blame a meeting w/ HR on that employee, who will now be treated like shit.)

    The employee is not venting, just hoping you’re making a list of bosses who need to be shown the door.

    1. LBK*

      That’s not really how firing managers works, though – just like any other employee, you don’t make a secret list of issues and then drop it on them like an anvil with their pink slip. Managers don’t magically become immune to or exempt from receiving feedback by virtue of being promoted. How do you expect people to become better managers without being told what they need to work on?

      1. pineapple*

        I know that’s not how firing works, but I don’t think low-on-the-totem-pole employees always know that. I’m not speaking about what I would do in this situation or how I believe the system works, but am saying this is why I think what “venting” employees may be hoping happens and how THEY may believe the system works.

        (Though personally, I don’t think anyone who yells, “How can you let this happen?” at an employee when it isn’t the employee’s fault can be taught to be a good manager or wants to be a good manager. I think that boss is a bad person who shouldn’t be allowed to have power over others. It shouldn’t take HR to tell them that’s not appropriate behavior.)

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I used to believe that people can be taught, but, now, I wonder. One company that I had an insider’s view of by proxy, (a friend worked there), used a training session that was referred to as charm school in casual conversation. The idea was to teach the bosses coping tools. I started reading about these “charm schools”, the comments seem to show that people had to be sent back periodically. The lessons fade and the old habits return.
          Of course, this does not apply to everyone. Some people do master new skills and do quite well. But we don’t get to know which group a person belongs to until we see it unfold in front of us.

      2. steve g*

        Unfortunately not. In a previous role, EVeRY employee had multiple complaints about the manager. They didn’t let go until many of the original complainers left, a year or so later

      3. pineapple*

        I would also say that HR is never the answer when it comes to a bad boss. If your boss is the type who blames you or yells at you, leave the job. HR can’t do anything. The boss will just learn to make his/her bad behavior less traceable or obvious.

        1. NJ Anon*

          Agree. Our HR director at OldJob was someone none of us would go to to complain about our new executive director. We went to the board instead. It didn’t help but we tried.

        2. SystemsLady*

          You could always say something at the exit interview once you have a new job, but people don’t always get those, it probably won’t help, and it isn’t always advisable.

          1. Stranger than fiction*

            I’ve always wondered if exit interviews actually ever get anything changed

            1. misspiggy*

              I was very honest in an exit interview that the reason I was leaving was my manager, and it proved the catalyst for the big boss to move him to a non-managerial role in another team. I made myself ill with worry about it, because I was convinced he would prevent me getting the consultancy jobs I needed to survive as a freelancer. But two colleagues with children to support were practically at the stage of leaving with nervous breakdowns, and other valuable people had been pushed out by him. I decided the benefit to several others was worth it set against any damage that could be done to me (she said selflessly). And because he got moved, he wasn’t able to take it out on me.

            2. esra*

              A truly awful director was let go after I left, in part due to my exit interview. It really depends on the place.

          2. pineapple*

            I’ve always been told not to say anything in an exit interview because it could “burn bridges” or make me look like bad. So the lesson I’ve learned is that if your boss is terrible person and manager, they’re protected forever and you should just cross your fingers the next one isn’t a psycho.

            1. Maxwell Edison*

              This is why I’m happy that ToxicJob completely forgot about my exit interview when I left. I didn’t want to take any risk of burning bridges so I was prepared to say that the company and my manager were just dandy and I was only leaving because doing so “would work better for my family situation.”

        3. LBK*

          I don’t know that I agree that they can’t do *anything*, but they absolutely need the support of senior management to do it. HR can provide coaching but the manager’s boss needs to be on board with laying out actual consequences if that coaching isn’t effective.

    2. Anon Accountant*


      A mean manager can make your life difficult as much as possibly until you leave the department or company. A bad manager can treat you poorly in small ways that an employee can decide aren’t worth talking to HR with to get advice because they feel like they’d be bringing forth petty complaints. I also find it difficult to believe that a boss who shouts “how could you let this happen” would behave reasonably and avoid treating the employee in a crappy manner after that. Many can put on a great dog and pony show for HR and their boss but as soon as their backs are turned it’s a different story. And the employee that talked to HR gets treated like crap. Based upon my work/life experience. Maybe others have had different experiences though.

      1. JM in England*

        Also +1

        I’ve read in the company handbooks of many of my employers anti-bullying policies that seem good on paper but leave me thinking “How effective would this be in real life?”………………

    3. Jeanne*

      Except that I have never seen a bad manager corrected or fired. Obviously we wouldn’t see action plans but we would see changed behavior. Most companies allow bad bosses to operate and do nothing in my experience.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Bad bosses do sometimes get fired (or moved to a non-managing role) for being bad bosses. I agree that in the majority of cases they don’t, but sometimes they do.

        1. Graciosa*

          I have seen both happen (fired and moved to a non-managerial role). In the most recent of the latter cases, it was a promotion in grade but basically a technical ladder position with no direct reports.

          I was pleased with the way that last one was handled – the managerial issues were permanently addressed in a respectful way that recognized that the individual had really outstanding technical skills.

        2. Who manages the managers?*

          I have seen this happen several times in my career and have helped make it happen a couple of times. Very satisfying when people can be placed in positions where they can thrive rather than struggle and very good for the organization when this can happen. It’s a test of org. culture, though, for everyone to let go of the past and move forward positively. Face saving rather than tarring and feathering has to happen and some aren’t satisfied by this…

  7. Rae*

    While I agree that HR should not be a venting session, they should be in the business of bettering their employees. It seems like this company has more than one instance of a bad boss. This should be addressed with training that includes all of them.

    Also, the subordinates going to HR also need coaching. Not just in the “don’t be a whiner” category but in dealing with difficult persons or maybe, even finding ways to relate information that won’t start WW3.

    1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

      I want to push back on the idea that people are either “good bosses” or “bad bosses”. Just because HR is able to point on one area where the boss is not strong, does not mean that the boss is “bad” overall or that the organization doesn’t manage their managers well. If someone has to be 100% perfect to be “good” then either the boss you’re looking for doesn’t exist, or you aren’t in a position to really assess every aspect of the bosses work.

      And as you said, HR is ideally they are also there to help people grow, learn, change, and handle new situations, not just to address issues with the bad guys. I do agree with you that there may be a cultural/training piece around equipping these employees to handle issues with their supervisors.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I agree with coaching the complainer to give her some tools to cope with messy boss. That is an excellent point, and I think we have overlooked that here. As a supervisor, I would tell people there’s one of two roads to take- change the boss OR change what you are doing. “Either way, refuse to don the “victim” title. Make a choice and decide this is your choice.” I would say it more gently than that, but this is the main idea.

      Now this is one I say with caution because it does not apply to all situations: sometimes the solution is to realize that the boss gets antsy in X situation and to take preemptive steps to keep the boss current on matters. Recognizing patterns is a tool that can be suggested to an upset employee.

  8. Jennifer*

    But what if the HR employee can’t guarantee secrecy? Sometimes it’s just very obvious who complained.

    1. ToxicNudibranch*

      That’s the point. HR never can (or should) guarantee confidentiality. The name of the game here is to avoid retaliation against the employee, and that’s all HR can (or should) be offering. How this plays out in “real life” is a pretty mixed bag, as evidenced by the existence of this site.

      1. Jennifer*

        Right, I didn’t phrase it right. There’s no way to avoid retaliation against the employee because it can be easily known who complained if HR takes action.

        1. HM in Atlanta*

          In that case, the business leaders (with the support of HR) make it exceedingly clear that the manager will under the microscope. It helps if you outline some of the stupid ways they could “undercover retaliate” to just put it all out on the table. “You stop inviting Joan to meetings, that’s retaliation. You start sending her multiple revisions before she can close out a file, retaliation. You change Joan’s schedule/stand over her shoulder while she types/speak to others in a negative manner/require her to come in earlier or stay later/tell her she’s too loud on the phone/ – all retaliation.” The reason for calling it out is that when the bully manager inevitably does something, it makes it hard for her to claim ignorance (or, if they do, I can tell them it appears they don’t have the competencies to be a people manager if she couldn’t realize that changing Joan’s on-call hours to every weekend would considered retaliation, and exit them on that).

          The business has to truly support no retaliation for this to work, though.

  9. fposte*

    I’m not really familiar with this kind of HR. In what ways could a person in this position minimize the impact of the boss’s anger on the employee? Does it require the HR person to have greater authority than the manager? I can see being able to ensure that the person won’t be fired or penalized via promotion or salary growth, but can an HR person successfully coach and curb a manager in such a situation?

    Might be more of an Evil HR Lady question, but hey, here’s where it came up.

    1. BRR*

      And even if HR is responsible for taking on this role, it requires a good HR person. Sucky people aren’t confined to certain departments, in my experience they’re everywhere.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think if HR has a mandate from the employer to ensure that employees are able to raise reasonable concerns without retaliation, the company as a whole can make that part of their culture and make it clear to managers, and then HR can have a role in carrying that out. But it can’t just be HR doing that; it really has to come from the top of the company and have buy-in beyond just HR.

      1. fposte*

        And it sounds upthread like you’d schedule periodic communication/meetings with both the manager and the employees (not necessarily together)–is that right? I’m just trying to get an idea of the concrete actions that get taken.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Definitely not together — they were totally intimidated by him and wouldn’t have spoken freely with him there. But yes, lots of informal checking in about how things were going, if they felt they’d been targeted in any way for talking with me, etc. And lots of very direct feedback to the manager about how he’d been handling things, and a higher level of scrutiny afterwards.

      2. Cajun2core*

        You hit it on the head here. It does have to come from higher up. Also you said previously that only sometimes bad bosses’ behavior changes or the bad bosses are moved. If a person’s job is on the line, do you really think they are going to take that risk if the outcome is so low?

  10. Ad Astra*

    I am increasingly confused about how a good HR department is supposed to function. At my first job, HR was just The Payroll Guy, and I only talked to him when I needed to change my address for paperwork. At my second job, HR was located in another city, but encouraged me to contact her for advice about how to handle conflicts with my manager. Maybe this third job will be just right?

    1. Three Thousand*

      A lot of very small companies will combine HR, payroll, and accounting into one department or position.

      1. Ad Astra*

        Yeah, my past experience was at fairly small newspapers that were part of a larger media company. My current company has an HR department that includes payroll, recruiting, and training, and it blows my mind a little.

    2. Adonday Veeah*

      For an HR department to be “good” it needs the backing, respect and support of good management. Without that, HR cannot be anything other than the Payroll/Benefits Guy.

      Having said that, there are a lot of crappy HR professionals out there who make it tough for the rest of us.

      Yep, that sound you heard was my own horn tooting. And my management is exceptional.

    3. HM in Atlanta*

      In general – Think of the Human Resources function kind of like you might think about the Finance function. The Finance department is about managing the company’s money. Under that definition of Finance you would also have things like Accounting that does things like receivables, payable, inventory, fixed assets, internal reporting, and sometimes even the payroll processing. You might also have separate departments that focus on audit, external reporting, investment governance, SOX, cash management, ROI, or other topics.

      The HR function is all about managing the human capital. Just like with Finance, HR can vary wildly depending on the size of they organization and how the owners/leaders view the importance of that human capital. Since we are all that Human Capital, we feel it much more personally when leadership/HR is poor (much more so than we would even notice if the Finance leadership was poor – apart from paychecks bouncing).

      When you see a company that has poor leadership and poor HR, you see a company that doesn’t put value in human capital. When you see a company that has effective leadership and effective HR, that company understands why you want to have strong performers and hold on to those strong performers (that company understands how much it costs in real dollars when you don’t have that).

  11. Bend & Snap*

    I don’t think it’s acceptable to “vent” to HR. Action needs to be taken on one side or the other, by the employee to fix it or by HR to aid in fixing it. If the culture is such that people feel comfortable bitching to HR, it sounds like something needs to change.

  12. Retail Lifer*

    I’ll never speak to HR again because I’ve faced retaliation at both jobs where I did, but it boggles my mind why you’d report something and then ask them not do anything. Why would you even bother?

    1. steve g*

      In a way, me too. A coworker and I at the job I got fired from used to walk at lunch or lunch together. We both complained about salary, well, “somehow” HR found out I “complained” (as in we both casually discussed what we couldn’t afford on our salaries, she discussed property taxes). Why she went to HR was beyond me. Why they took her complaint seriously was also beyond me. The HR person made a defense for the salary, I said, I know, I know, it’s market rate (there) I accepted it, I like the job, but I’m few hundred short every month, that isn’t a complaint, that is just the way it is, and I would never walk over the HR and go into it, but since an unrelated party found it so relavent, I did.

      But one question about this response I’m confused about – is AAM suggesting the HR persons role is to not hear the complaint at all? That’s what it looks like to me, but I’m having trouble scrolling on my phone to go back up….

      1. Coffee Ninja*

        “Why they took her complaint seriously was also beyond me”

        I’m not HR but I would absolutely take it seriously if I found out my employees were “complaining” about their salaries, or if Jane came to me and said “Steve G and I think we’re underpaid” or whatever. Salary is a large part of why we work (none of us do this for free, obviously) and can have a very strong affect on staff morale and turnover. I would want to identify the problem and possible solutions – is Jane is underpaid & can we give her a raise?; are Jane’s salary expectations out of line with the position?; we pay market rate for the position but Jane still can’t pay her bills, so therefore she might leave & we have to plan for possible turnover?

        I’m not sure why you thought it was so out of line that HR took your coworker’s complaints seriously. I would take more of an issue with your coworker bringing you into her conversation with HR – that’s really none of her business.

        1. Steve G*

          I thought it was out of line because there was no action to be had (unless they had said “please don’t discuss money, did you discuss salary? Which they didn’t ask, and no, we never mentioned salary amounts), and the only issue was that somebody said I participated in a conversation that was not hurtful or mal-intentioned. I think it was a bad precedent to let people gossip about private conversations like that and then jump on them and act on them, unless there is a real, hardcore issue.

          On a side note, “market rate” does not always even = “able to afford to live meagerly.” For example, look at entry level fashion and publishing salaries in New York. They knew the salary was low. We always say “but the market sets your worth” here to give candidates or employees a reality check, but that works both ways, if you pay so low that you are afraid your employees are going to leave, then it is not going to be solved by talking to the employees. $800 was the absolute lowest rent to be had in that city at that time, and I managed to find an apartment for $800. It’s not like I was making $60K then and still complaining about $.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            The times I have seen situations like this it was because a comment like yours was mentioned as an aside/tangent.
            Looks like this:

            Employee: “I feel I deserve a raise and the boss won’t give me one.”
            HR: “Have you tried talking to the boss?”
            Employee: “Yes, I have and nothing happened. But, you know, even Steve G agrees with me. You know what he told me when we went walking the other day? [Fill in with the rest of the story.]”

            It sounds like your name got dragged into another discussion because –well, there is safety in numbers. If two people feel the same way, that is more powerful/credible than one person feeling that way, supposedly.

            1. Steve G*

              I never thought of that, that is interesting. I never spoke with her again, I was PO’d. But that could have been the conversation, I mean, she was a nice person…thanks for this comment

    2. Jennifer*

      This reminds me of the ombudsman’s office where I work. As far as I can tell, they ARE there just to be ranted/vented at, rather than actually having any power to do something. They seem like nice people, but I guess I don’t get what the point of them are.

      1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

        If so, that’s a pretty odd use of an ombubs (the field has dropped the “man” part from the term). They should be highly skilled and trained in conflict resolution – both in coaching one person about handling a conflict and in mediating between people involved.

        1. Jennifer*

          We’re very brand spanking new to the entire concept. I went to several presentations of theirs and as far as I can tell, that seemed to be what they were there for–that and compiling a report pointing out that a lot of people are secretly unhappy working here due to management issues. But then again, it may not be safe for some people to go into formal mediation processes either.

    3. some1*

      I think some people just want confirmation that they are right in their assesment of the situation from someone or entity that they feel makes the opinion more valid.

      Look at some of the letters Alison (and other advice columnists) get with the same strategy.

    4. Stranger than fiction*

      I thought the same thing but then someone above pointed out some people just feel better getting something off their chest and others hope for strength in numbers like perhaps several people will complain and something will be done about it

  13. HRManagerNW*

    “Instead, I’d recommend making it clear to people when they first come to you that you can’t promise them confidentiality.” – This, absolutely. I do this at the beginning of a session with employees, before they start in with the concern they have. Rarely does it shut them down from continuing and it sets that stage for describing my role in HR. Another idea would be to add an official grievance process for concerns unrelated to harassment and discrimination; it gives a documented and outlined process for employees to take management concerns forward.

    1. NoCalHR*

      This! In 19 years of HR work, in multiple companies, no one has ever walked back out of my office when told I can’t guarantee absolute confidentiality.

      People who come in to ‘vent’ do so, and are asked, “How are you going to deal with this next time?” It is surprising how much creativity flows once the angst is released.

  14. Graciosa*

    I think people don’t consider the duty of loyalty very often in these scenarios (yes, it’s a real thing). I have had to have similar conversations as an attorney with employees who “want to tell me something but keep it confidential” (I’m not sure why they always start this way!).

    This is my cue for The Speech. My duty is to the company. If you’re going to tell me about something the company needs to address, the most I can promise is to limit disclosure to the people who need to know to address the issue. That’s it.

    “Share” with your religious adviser, your therapist, or your coffee klatch.

    Which brings me to the fundamental difference between venting and coaching – the expectation of taking action based on advice or feedback. I talk to HR all the time about problems, but it’s because I want advice. How can I do this better – resolve this problem – deliver this feedback more effectively?

    My HR is fantastic at this – I think they should be deified. But there’s no point in having these great resources on staff and not listening to their advice.

    If this employee is not going to value your input, you have permission to spend your time – the company’s time – doing something that will actually add value.

  15. Kate M*

    Did anyone else think of the Office episode “Conflict Resolution?” I mean obviously that’s not the workplace to emulate. But funny nonetheless.

  16. Ivy*

    On the specific question OP has for the current situation, why not organize a quick ad hoc “training” session for managers focusing on issues that “you have seen occur frequently in the organization”. You don’t point fingers, but you coach them on handling bad news, problem solving with employees, whatever is relevant. Maybe something will stick.

    1. Cordelia Naismith*

      I don’t know. People never seem to recognize their own behaviors in this kind of scenario. The worst offenders tend to be oblivious, and the good, conscientious people start to worry that they’ve been guilty of the behaviors being covered in the training…

      I think talking directly to the people in question tends to be the best route to take.

  17. Bea W*

    I’m a bit baffled that people go to HR to vent. Is this a normal thing for HR people?

    1. OriginalYup*

      I worked with someone who went to HR at least once a month to report an instance of being slighted, not getting along with someone, etc etc. It’s like she thought their job was to ensure that she was happy and fulfilled in her job at all times and to remove any discomforts she encountered.

      It was exhausting. We could have powered a small city with the energy wasted on managing her petty grievances.

  18. Who manages the managers?*

    Senior manager here with a somewhat similar situation. A number of employees came to me to complain about their manager being ineffective and “retaliating” if they spoke up. The problem was that these complaints and the retaliation were all very vague and difficult to address. How to say to a manager “some of your reports (who don’t want to be named) think you’re fake and insincere and you don’t pick them for task group/ committee opportunities ” ? That is, the complaints seems to be based on personality traits rather than specific actions. And other reports found the manger warm and supportive and appreciated not being tagged for committee work as a sign of respect for their workload. The thing was, though, that the manager was ineffectual but it took me a long time to capture concrete examples that could be addressed with the manager so that they could have a chance to improve. In the end, I had to go more with what I directly observed and expected from the manager in my role. So it all took longer than ideal. In retrospect, I should have worked harder to concretize the early vagueness and tried to get at actionable feedback behind the seemingly personality based criticism.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, being fake and insincere, while annoying, doesn’t really rise to the level of needing someone above the manager to get involved. It could definitely be interesting feedback to share with the person, with people’s permission, but it’s not exactly a burning must-address issue, unless you can tie it to an actual impact it’s having.

      “you don’t pick them for task group/ committee opportunities”: This could be for legitimate reasons (like that they’re not as skilled/easy to work with as the people who do get picked). But this is the kind of thing where you, as the manager above the manager in question, can observe and probe around and get a feel for what’s going on and whether it’s problematic or not.

      1. Who manages the managers?*

        Yes, and trying to sort out the legitimate from the personal was hard. The personal complaints did turn out to be important though as kind of a “canary in the mine” flag about a manager who wanted to be liked and coach from the side more than to lead from the front. Which backfired on the manager because this high performing group of professionals wanted a manager they could respect and who they had confidence would effectively advocate for them in the organization. If they found the manager fake, they assumed that others inside and outside the org. would too. It was a proxy complaint. And it turned out to be true.

        1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

          Can you ask questions like, “tell me how this is impacting your work?” and then go from there? Like Alison is saying, probe more – help them figure out how to tell you what you need to know so that you can tell if there is useful feedback to share.

          The other thing I might do is to see if I can find a way to see this behavior myself. Ideally you’d get to see it in an organic way (ie, don’t start sitting in on all the manager’s meetings if you’ve never done that before) and then make a comment about it without referring to the fact that other people have mentioned it. Like, “I noticed that when you said x, Jimmy seemed to shut down somewhat. Instead of x, try y next time to see if that will help you get (more engagement, etc.).

          1. Who manages the managers?*

            Thanks – I really like the “tell me how this is impacting your work?” question. Our workplace can tend too much toward the “this is how I feel” angle and keeping the focus on the work is important. The current situation is resolved so my goal now is to figure out how to see warning signs earlier.

            1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

              I can certainly related to the “this is how I feel” think – I work in human services. Lots of touchy-feel-y people. I have, however, had a good bit of success shifting that over the past few years – at least to the point where we acknowledge out loud when we’re are helping someone manage their own feeling and boundaries (you have to provide that kind of support in our line work) vs. solving a workplace systems or management problem. It can be as simple as saying “it sounds like you’re having a tough time processing this situation. Let’s talk about how you can approach it so it’s less stressful for you, and still effective for the client” vs. “it sounds like the process we have in place isn’t (efficient/working well/serving the clients’ needs). What ideas do you have to adjust it and make it work better?”

  19. Amber Rose*

    We don’t have HR. Or its spread out between a bunch of people, and one of those people is me.

    I really want to talk to my boss and one of the managers and ask them to lay off on the jokey jabs they send at our safety coordinator because I hear all about how stressed that makes her, a subject I’m a little tired of. But I doubt she’d appreciate it, and I’m not sure it’s really my place to get involved.

    I feel like they need to be told that she isn’t doing her job AT them, and she needs to hear from them that the joking around isn’t meant in a hurtful way and then they need to discuss boundaries. But there’s a bit of “don’t rock the boat” culture here. :/

    1. Soupspoon McGee*

      I think you can tell them that jokey jabs can be perceived by her and others as cruel or undermining, and regardless of intent, they undermine themselves. I mean, if you notice the jabs, others do too, and the people least likely to speak up are the most likely to feel targeted. “Can’t you take a joke?” is not a good defense.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        “Can’t take a joke” is something bullies say. I don’t mean these managers are bullies. But if a person is reminded, “oh, bullies say things like that, it is probably best not to say it”, that might connect the dots for someone who never thought of it that way before.
        Sometimes people just need the dots connected for them. When they realize their words are hurtful or have a much heavier impact than intended they stop immediately.

  20. LBK*

    I’m a bit taken aback by everyone here condemning the manager. I agree that in many situations where the LW is an employee of a bad manager with no access to someone who has authority, there isn’t much they can do. But in this case we’ve got an HR rep who says they’ve seen the manager adapt based on feedback and a higher up boss who’s on board with talking to this manager about issues. What’s leading people to believe that the manager will never change – or even more than that, that he’s just a bad person who must know what he’s doing and doesn’t care, as I’ve seen several people state?

    I think “bad managers will never change” is a good mantra for employees who are stuck working for one but really detrimental to take literally when you have some measure of power over that manager. Managers still deserve feedback and chances to improve. Most managers are given zero coaching or help when they first move into management and bad habits and behaviors can cement into otherwise good people. If anything, good people can actually be more susceptible to turning into bad managers because they’re uncomfortable exercising authority or they rely too much on emotion and empathy.

    I’m just not ready based on one example with a reasonable explanation to say this manager sucks. Frankly, I’d be furious if someone did that to me as a manager because I absolutely made mistakes in how I operated when I was one and I needed someone who could see what was going on from the outside to clue me in.

    1. Amber Rose*


      Being a manager is hard. And in terms of leadership training, there usually isn’t much or you have to think to ask for it.

      1. Graciosa*

        I did receive a fair amount of training, especially in my first year, but I’m not sure it really helped very much. The problem was that it was very theoretical / cookie-cutter and didn’t address the areas where I actually needed to improve.

        In my case, it took a few months to get over Imposter Syndrome and I was very rigid and formal until it passed. I can laugh about it now, but I would actually have benefited from someone helping me to relax a bit and not take everything so seriously.

        It was not covered in management training.

        1. LBK*

          Yeah, I think management *training* exists in relatively abundance, but you’re often left on your own once you actually start managing. Having a few really good mentors and a manager that was constantly coaching me and giving me feedback throughout my first few months in management was invaluable because it’s so much more about adjusting your mindset than knowing what to do in specific hypothetical situations.

      2. Who manages the managers?*

        I’m really enjoying Alison’s Managing to Change the World, seeing what I’ve been doing right and wrong all these years. :) I’ll be hiring a new manager next month and am planning to use the book as a kind of curriculum with them. It will be very helpful, especially as it references one of my favourite pieces of advice, i.e. “monkey management”!

        The Resources and Tools at the Management Centre are also great – http://www.managementcenter.org/tools/

        It’s my goal to start this new manager off with good information and support.

    2. pineapple*

      Because a manager blaming an underling like that is completely inexcusable and likely a sign that he or she plans to blame the underling when higher-ups at the company ask what happened. There is no way in the world I believe a person who is crappy enough to yell at someone under them really changes so much as represses the behavior in front of important people and goes underground with his or her torture. You don’t need coaching to tell you not to behave that way to another person whose job depends on you liking them.

      1. LBK*

        You don’t need coaching to tell you not to behave that way to another person whose job depends on you liking them.

        See, it seems like that should be extremely obvious from the outside but I genuinely don’t believe it is once you’re on the inside. When people become managers they get all these ideas about how they have to be authoritative or strict or treat their employees a certain way in order to be A Manager ™. It warps your perception of your actions and dulls your ability to be self-aware. Sometimes all it takes is for someone else to say “Hey, this is how it looks when you do that” and then your view refocuses and you realize you’re being a jerk without even meaning to. I am 100% guilty of this and I owed an apology to one of my employees for being wildly unfair with her as a result.

        I think the OP actually gives a perfectly reasonable and coachable explanation for the manager’s behavior right in the letter: “It seems like the boss might sometimes struggle with managing their own dismay, fear, and anger when they hear bad news from a direct report.” That’s something you could definitely work on with an employee, no? So if you’d be willing to work on it with an employee, why wouldn’t you give a manager the same benefit of the doubt?

        Really the only difference between an employee and a manager when it comes to making mistakes is that a manager’s mistakes are usually more public and have more of an impact. They need to be taken seriously, for sure, but they can still be discussed and worked through rather than immediately writing off any manager that does something objectionable.

        1. pineapple*

          Yeah, but in every case I’ve seen, the managers also get all the credit and promoted when things go well and they get paid $100K more, so it’s hard for me to cry for managers who treat their employees poorly because they somehow wrongly got the message that being authoritarian = traumatizing their charges while employees just have to sit there and take it.

          1. LBK*

            Well, yeah, that’s part of being the manager. More responsibility also means more reward. And the employees don’t have to “just sit there and take it” – that’s my whole point, that if the manager has someone coaching them and providing feedback, that behavior can be stopped and (if needed) employees can be apologized to. Employees only have to suffer indefinitely if everyone above the manager does exactly what you’re doing, which is write them off as someone who can never change and therefore never bother to give them feedback or performance manage them at all.

      2. Graciosa*

        Honestly, sometimes people need to be *told* that what they are doing is yelling, and that someone else perceives it as personally directed. The individual may believe they are only blowing off steam, or expressing frustration about an impersonal situation, or demonstrating passion for their work.

        Just as there are people who may take things too personally, there are also people who genuinely don’t understand why other people take things personally at all. Then there are also familial and cultural triggers – and personality preferences (the infamous E vs. I trait) – and physical or environmental issues – and so on.

        Managers are just as human as the employees they manage, and we have blind spots. Like employees, we can improve with coaching- and deserve to be actually told about problematic behavior before being condemned.

        1. I'm a Little Teapot*

          Someone who doesn’t understand why a subordinate would be upset by being yelled at and blamed for something not their fault is someone with a real lack of empathy and common sense – not a trait you want in a manager. I wouldn’t say that someone like that won’t change – people do change – I would say that person shouldn’t be managing anyone unless and until that change happens.

          1. Graciosa*

            I think you missed the point that people have different perceptions of what constitutes “yelling.”

            Also the point that sometimes even people who know they are yelling about a situation may not realize that other people perceive the yelling as directed *at* them.

            Becoming a manager involves change. I am sure it would be very handy to have a magic mirror to identify only people who will make this transition flawlessly to become perfect managers so that we could avoid promoting anyone who does not qualify. Unfortunately, we don’t.

            What we have is imperfect information about imperfect humans. Sometimes they need to be coached to improve.

            Instantly demoting an employee for the first mistake they make on the job is not generally good management.

            I realize that everyone has higher expectations of managers compared to non-managerial employees (as a manager, I actually agree with this) but we are still fundamentally human. I find it frustrating to encounter the idea that we should not be treated as such.

            This includes the basic respect of explaining issues or problems with words and giving us a chance to fix them.

  21. Vicki*

    >> ” I’d recommend making it clear to people when they first come to you that you can’t promise them confidentiality.”

    Alison – This is the primary reason why people Don’t go to HR. We _need_ to expect confidentiality. We fear retaliation (it may be illegal but that doesn’t stop it). The manager is someone we need to interact with every day and he’s the one with all of the power.

    The moment HR says they can’t promise confidentiality os the moment the employe walks back out the door and starts sending out resumes.

    1. LBK*

      That’s not the point of HR, though, and if you’re going there expecting confidentiality then you’re not understanding why HR exists. If you consider HR your last line of defense against a bad manager, what do you expect them to be able to do if they can’t share the conversation you have with them?

      1. A Bug!*

        I’m confused about that, too. If someone’s only willing to give information to HR if it’s kept confidential, then what value is there in HR having that information, except to potentially put the HR person in a really uncomfortable position?

        If a workplace is one where disclosing something sensitive to HR results in retaliation instead of an appropriate response, then the problem isn’t HR’s discretion, and it’s certainly not going to help those employees to have an HR that can’t do anything beyond listen sympathetically.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That hasn’t been my experience. People will still share info with you if you have a transparent track record of operating reasonably and openly.

    3. V.V.*

      I don’t disagree with most of what you have said Vicki, I would add a caveat to your last sentence though, that that happens mostly when HR drops the ball and people get burned or burned again.

      I do think unscrupulous HR employees will sometimes mislead people to believe that their conversations are confidential; in fact I have seen it first hand, and it is very, very wrong when it happens. I have also seen HR intimidate and bully people to get the information they want, and even left a job once partly because of one’s repeated harassment to “confide” in her.

      I have no delusions about HR’s job (which is to work in the best interest of the company full-stop,) and usually only approach them if what I have to say will allow them to act without the risk of retaliation.

      But I do expect them to act. If they don’t, or I already know that they can’t, I am probably getting out the resume anyway.

  22. LookyLou*

    This reminds me so much of my own company.

    Since we are small there is 1 person responsible for HR but she works in another administrative role as well. People were often coming to her to simply vent because she was HR and they thought that was what she was for. It frustrated her that no one wanted anything done about this stuff but she continued to allow people to drop by and vent.

    Well one day it turned ugly. It had gotten out that other employees repeatedly overhead/seen her discussing these various workplace issues with people but never doing anything about it. Not only did everyone begin to think that she wasn’t doing her job but people began to stop trusting her because they thought she must be gossiping with everyone dropping by her desk to chat about their problems.

    The management actually had to put a strict policy in place that all discussions with HR must be documented and all parties involved must be informed of the situation. It put an end to the “high school nature” of many of the complaints that went through HR and she was relieved that people only actually came to her more seriously.

  23. Not So NewReader*

    Venting. I think that people “vent” to HR because they hope that their complaint will lay the groundwork for some change in the future. They may realize that their complaint is not substantial enough to move forward, but several complaints of the same type over a period of time might be enough to move forward.

    Retaliation: Alison, you are an extraordinary person. I wish we could clone you. I don’t think a lot of people out there are prepared to follow up to the degree that you did. I think employees are very much aware of that and expect to be on their own when reticulation strikes. If we cataloged all the ways bosses can retaliate, it would fill volumes of books.

    And I think there are people out there that do not want to put forth a complaint that costs the person their job. They just want the nonsense to stop. So there could be a bit of that in the mix of reluctance to allow HR to carry things forward.

    Victimhood: I am sitting on the fence on this one. What was the statistic? Seventy five percent of adults consider themselves as growing up in an abusive home. I could be mistaken- but the percent was jaw-droppingly high. It’s darn near impossible to filter out the people who identify as being a victim of something and impossible not to hire such a person. I think it’s more to the point to realize that some people have had extremely difficult lives and, yes, a yelling/swearing boss is going to set them right on edge quickly. It’s not the employee’s job to clean up the hot mess of a boss. I guess my concern here is that just because someone identifies with victimhood, does not release someone in authority from their obligation to work on this person’s concern. It’s a fine line. You don’t want to feed the negative self-image the complainant has by blowing her off as a chronic complainer, but, people have to be willing to actively participate in the solution to their complaint.

    This is tough stuff. One thing I felt as a supervisor was that I had to stress we have more control over our lives than we believe at first glance. It takes the second look to see what can be done. People don’t want to take a second look because the first look was too scary. It’s a big hurdle to jump. Then to move to being actively involved in the solution is another big step.

  24. Cassie*

    My friend who is the HR director at her job runs into this problem all the time. I think many staff approach her to vent because they have gotten so used to doing so (she is a very personable person and I think she is able to help them in some sense by working out their concerns/feelings). But they always ask her not to say anything because they’re afraid of being retaliated against.

    She tells me about it because now SHE needs someone to vent to. And there’s nothing I can do it, since I don’t work there, I don’t have the authority, etc. It’s a bit frustrating which is why sometimes I end up telling her to stop telling me all this stuff.

    I do think she needs to tell the employees at her job that she can’t be the bottomless pit for vents or at least put a limit on it. Because after a while, it is just a continuous loop of negativity that will never have any improvement because she (my friend) wants to honor confidentiality.

  25. brownblack*

    This is tangential, but I had a boss just like the person described by the OP. You simply couldn’t tell him bad news, unexpected events, or setbacks, regardless of who was to blame (if anyone) or what the actual effects of the setback might be. The parking lot is being paved so you’ll have to park elsewhere next week, such-and-such client is moving across the country and doesn’t need our services anymore, our accountant called to tell us about a new tax regulation – whatever. The boss would EXPLODE with irrational and occasionally scary anger and people frequently left his office in tears. Several of us sought counseling while we were there, and the entire office turned over in the 3 years I stayed in the job.

    I eventually developed strategies for dealing with it; by my last few months on the job, I was simply telling him outright that he was being ridiculous. This was remarkably effective.

    It was absolutely awful and it had real effects on the organization – imagine if you had a boss who you couldn’t consult when things went awry, or when the lay of the land changed in an unexpected way.

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