what’s up with HR? and when should and shouldn’t you talk to them?

You may have noticed that I frequently tell people here that HR isn’t the right place to take their concerns about their job or their boss. Too often, people mistakenly think HR is a neutral referee that’s there to mediate problems with coworkers or managers. In most cases, though, it’s more effective to try to resolve problems with the person causing the conflict, and a good HR department will direct you to do that.

HR really isn’t there to deliver awkward messages to coworkers on your behalf (like “stop talking so loudly” or “pull your own weight”). And in most cases, HR isn’t there to be your advocate when you feel your boss is being unfair.

But there are some (narrowly defined!) situations where it does make sense to talk to HR. Here’s what they are.

1. If you’re being harassed. If you’re being sexually harassed or harassed on the basis of your race, sex, religion, disability, national origin, age (if you’re 40 or over), or other protected class, HR has a legal obligation to investigate and put a stop to it. HR is often better to approach in this situation than your boss because HR staff tend to be aware that they need to handle this issues seriously and carefully and are generally trained in how to proceed (whereas your boss may or may not be). When you do this, make it clear that you are making a formal complaint of harassment, so that there’s no confusion on that front.

2. If you’re being discriminated against on the basis of your race, sex, religion, disability, or other protected class. Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of these traits, and companies are obligated to take action when a report of such discrimination is made in good faith. This is another case where HR is more likely to more likely to understand what the law requires and know how to proceed correctly than your boss might be.

3. When you have questions about or issues with benefits or rights guaranteed to you by law. Questions about health insurance, your balance of accrued vacation time, taking leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act, getting an accommodation for a medical disability through the Americans with Disabilities Act, or anything else related to benefits or legal protections are all in HR’s purview.

4. In very limited circumstances, when you encounter certain issues with your boss. In general, HR isn’t there to work out issues with your boss. If you feel that your boss is giving your coworker better assignments than she gives you or nitpicking your work unfairly, that’s not something that HR can generally resolve for you. But if your boss is being openly abusive, asking you to do something illegal or unsafe, or otherwise doing something that your company would likely be horrified to know about (like dating a subordinate or refusing to allow anyone to ever use paid time off or another benefit guaranteed by the company), then it usually makes sense to talk to HR.

5. But not if you just dislike your boss or her management style, or when you have trouble getting along with your manager or your coworkers. Those issues, while legitimate problems, aren’t ones that most HR departments will resolve for you. That said, in some companies, HR can give you useful adviceon how you can navigate these situations yourself. But you really need to know your own HR department to assess whether it will be helpful to approach them for that kind of advice; some HR employees are skilled at guiding people in those situations, while others may simply report the whole conversation to your boss, even without your permission. So you want to have a sense of how your particular HR department operates, as well as of the specific HR representative who you’re approaching.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. Meg Murry*

    I wanted to add – these are occasions when an individual (non-manager) should go to HR. In many companies, managers can also go to HR to help them work out the best way to approach an employee about a situation (for instance, how to have a tough conversation about someone needing to wear deodorant :-) ) or to discuss whether the managers concerns have reached the level of a PIP, among other issues. The manager wouldn’t be going to HR to say “here is the situation, now you fix it” but rather “here is the situation, what advice do you have so I can fix it? Are there any legal quagmires I need to avoid in dealing with this situation?”

    At some companies, the manager’s manager may be a better resource, but it depends on the company and the role they have defined for HR.

    1. Meg Murry*

      And d’oh, Alison pretty much did say that in the interview, which I didn’t read before commenting, I had only read the US News piece.

  2. Fed employee*

    Should I go to HR or my manager if I want to see my personnel file as I’m legally entitled to?

    1. fposte*

      I’d query HR on the protocol. (I’m presuming your handle is correct and that this isn’t something subject to state law.)

  3. HR Recruiter*

    I’d agree that HR shouldn’t be involved with petty squabbles most of the time. However, I would wish people would come forward about squabbles when say the last 5 people new hires have quit because of petty squabbles with person A and the manager is either fueling or ignoring issues with person A. At that point HR needs to get involved so they can coach the manager on how to coach person A and how to respond to complaints about person A to reduce turnover.

      1. Vicki*

        Sometimes, person A is the manager. And the manager’s boss keeps getting “coaching” for the manager. And people keep leaving.

    1. Ben Eubanks*

      Concur. Alison (and others) have written reams on managers who won’t actually *manage* anyone. One of my favorite sayings has always been, “We pay you to be a manager. This is the part where you start managing.”

  4. AMG*

    I wish I weren’t so jaded about going to HR. I had a #4 and it actually came back on me and I lost my job. (Discussed with an HR lawyer as well to be sure it wasn’t my issue. He agreed.) I’ll never go to HR for help with anything ever again.

    1. NJ Anon*

      I’m with you. I have had poor interactions with HR at my former job. It was a one person office and she was difficult to deal with. No one wanted to go to her for anything.

      1. blackcat*

        At my old job, we had a one person HR department and she was AMAZING! They fired her, though, when they decided her position needed a college degree (she had the job for 30 years and needed medical leave. They decided to “restructure” and redo the job description so that she no longer fit it). They put someone incompetent in her place, and my former coworkers still complain about it :(

        One person HR departments are hit or miss…

        1. Charityb*

          One person anything is usually a bad idea for mid-sized and larger companies, either right away or in the long run. If the person sucks, you basically have to work around their entire function which can be obnoxious if that function is involved in everything (IT, HR, finance) or if it’s mission critical. If that person is great, they’re probably not going to stay there for ever since people die, take vacations, find other jobs, need to take leave for a variety of reasons, etc. In my experience it’s always a problem — not because that one person is bad but because managers get complacent and don’t bother cross-training people or building up knowledge.

    2. Retail Lifer*

      Same here. I lost a previous job when HR investigated a matter involving my boss that someone else called them about. They asked me a bunch of questions, told me it was all confidential, then turned around and told my boss everything. I suddesnly started getting written up, and eventually fired, for the dumbest things but HR wasn’t interested. Luckily, eventually the boss got his and was fired, too.

      Had almost the same thing happen at this job, with HR fielding so many complaints about management that they had to come in and investigate in person. Absolutely NOTHING was kept confidential, and I’m one of the few people they spoke to that still had a job. That’s only because I refuse to give them any valid reason to write me up, and so far they’ve only been able to get me on one thing.

      I guess it’s one thing if *I* called HR, but I didn’t. I still suffered the consequences of giving honest answers to the questions they asked me.

    3. Ben Eubanks--all around HR guy*

      This is the same as any profession. We have good and bad as well, unfortunately. I’ve seen amazing ones and I’ve seen ones similar to this that make you shake your head. It’s like a less intense version of having a great manager–until you do it’s hard to imagine anything else. Here’s hoping you have a good one at some point in your future!

  5. ITChick*

    Our HR department actually has a mediator to help deal with petty squabbles between staff so that managers don’t have to, to help people learn how to communicate in difficult situations, and for staff to come to when they are not sure where to go. It’s like an in house AAM. My experience with it was great and the feedback I’ve heard from our boss is that it really frees up his time to deal with the stuff that truly matters and not stupid stuff that inevitably happens when you have a department of 50+ people. I think it really provides a consistent message so one manager doesn’t okay something that another won’t based solely on personal preference.

    I’m curious how Alison feels about this kind of program.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d want to know more about the nuances of how it works! One question I’d have it whether it ends up actually discouraging people from handling things on their own. And also, whether it ends up taking stuff to mediation that actually just needs a manager to say, “Hey, Jane, cut that out.” (I remember a post here a while back where a commenter who was a mediator kept insisting that a conflict between two coworkers should go to mediation, when in fact one person just needed to be clearly told she was out of line and to stop what she was doing. Mediation would have made it worse for the other person by forcing her to engage on something she should’t have to engage on.)

      But beyond stuff like that, I could see it being useful.

  6. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

    I was completely spoiled by my first job as a manager. Our HR director was my sounding board and provided excellent coaching advice on how to handle all sorts of situations. She really saw this as her job and was incredibly helpful!

      1. Graciosa*

        I have an HR rep who is fantastic – I really think she should be deified! I can call her up at any time and ask for advice on how to handle a situation, and she is always extremely helpful.

        Some difficult conversations do require a bit of thought in advance to make sure you are delivering the intended message. If I explain what I’m concerned about, she knows just how I should phrase it when speaking to the employee, and she gives me some clear direction about boundaries (keep the discussion here and don’t let it go there).

        Good HR deserves to appear in a MasterCard commercial.

  7. HRish Dude*

    A lot of people seem to view HR as the “miscellaneous department”. As in, if you can’t find the person who handles an issue, they come to HR with the issue. Or to the people who sit near HR.

      1. Finny*

        The HR person at my work actually is the person to go to if the toilets are acting up, because she has the contact info for the plumbing person and our toilets act up even when not clogged. So if the plunger or turning the water off doesn’t work, we do go to HR.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I can see someone going to HR with that question if there was no one else to ask what to do. I am not in HR, but I had a job where everyone asked me and that was because I did not ignore them and I had helped them find solutions for other issues. So for HR people who are getting the plugged toilet question, I would have to ask is anyone in the company willing to answer that question or are you the only one who does not ignore it?

  8. JP*

    The HR manager at the last place I worked was an awesome sounding board and had a great finesse with mediating things so it wasn’t super obvious you went to HR about it. I miss her a lot.

    1. Ben Eubanks--all around HR guy*

      I loved helping managers see the whole picture and letting them arrive at the same conclusion I had initially come to on their own. It’s a great coaching tool and helps the managers long-term versus the “Because I said so” approach.

  9. Stranger than fiction*

    I once had an HR manger (at a secular corporation) with a giant cross hanging on the wall behind her and a bible and other Christian books in the corner of her desk that would face anyone who sat in her guest chairs. I was always leery of what I told her and later found out several instances where she would always side with any Christian woman whenever investigating complaints. Yeah that company is no longer around but she got away with this for like 10 years.

    1. HRish Dude*

      HR people are human beings, too, and surprisingly have religions. Was there any evidence that her judgment was unsound or is your observation only made based upon your own biases and prejudgments? I ask that in all sincerity.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Whoa, I was raised Christian and would still consider myself one if on my death bed, but just not a practucing one, but HR folks should be totally neutral!! And yes I just said about the biases where someone would complain, like a male about a female, and she would side with the women, who were Christians, even though they were in the wrong.

  10. weewee*

    Never forget who pays HR staff. The employer pays them. That’s who they answer to. They are there to serve the employer, not the workers, and will almost always take sides with the administration/higher-ups no matter what is going on. I have seen this at more than one workplace. IRL, no matter what you are reporting, you are likely to be labeled a troublemaker if you bring a problem to HR.

      1. Sometimes Always*

        Not the union rep. :P It sounds like people are expecting HR to act as a substitute for the union person. They once did act that way — when they themselves could go to the union rep if their actions got them in hot water.

        If you want to learn a bunch about the lost legacy of HR, I’d do a google search for the “Human Relations” movement and Elton Mayo’s work for the Harvard Business School that once made HR everybody’s darling rather than something disliked by staff and tolerated by management (but not enough for HR to be on the management track).

    1. Ben Eubanks--all around HR guy*

      This heavily depends on the company. There have been plenty of times I have gone to bat for the employees to rectify things. Some HR teams lean more heavily toward the management side, but I’d say there are equal issues leaning to the employee side all of the time–it tends to lessen credibility at all levels to constantly be bringing up trivial issues that some employees need to just suck up as part of the job.

    2. Jeanne*

      Wouldn’t it serve the employer to have decent managers who don’t drive employees away? Hiring costs money. Training costs money. Yet I have seen so many support the manager no matter what.

      1. Charityb*

        Turnover isn’t always bad though, and it’s not always obvious to top leadership what causes a problematic turnover situation. It could be a toxic manager, it could be poor hiring practices/unsuitable employees, it could be an unpleasant work environment, it could be below-market pay, it could be a lot of things. Unless you have exit interviews and you have a bunch of talented employees that the company wanted to retain saying things like, “I’m quitting because Manager X is the Devil,” it’s very difficult for top management to justify making policy changes just because some people leave the job.

  11. Coralie*

    Yes, ultimately HR protect the company’s interests – not those of the employees, managers or not. I say that as a ‘higher up’ who has been thrown under the bus on occasion to ensure that regular employees were kept sweet and the company saved from expensive litigation that, where I live, could be drawn out for years and cost thousands, even if the employee is found to be in the wrong.

    1. Charityb*

      Turnover isn’t always bad though, and it’s not always obvious to top leadership what causes a problematic turnover situation. It could be a toxic manager, it could be poor hiring practices/unsuitable employees, it could be an unpleasant work environment, it could be below-market pay, it could be a lot of things. Unless you have exit interviews and you have a bunch of talented employees that the company wanted to retain saying things like, “I’m quitting because Manager X is the Devil,” it’s very difficult for top management to justify making policy changes just because some people leave the job.

  12. Jeanne*

    The real problem is that employees being bullied have nowhere to go. Bullying is not illegal so it happens with almost no consequences. You can’t go to HR with it since it’s a “petty” complaint.

    1. LBK*

      But what would you expect HR to do in that situation? They have no authority over your coworkers.

      This is what confuses me about people who go to HR for things that should be handled by a manager. HR doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) have the power to levy consequences, so even if they pull in the office bully for a chat, it’s meaningless unless their manager follows up on whatever plan is laid out. If the manager is too weak to enforce consequences, that’s going to be true whether HR is involved or not.

  13. Buttonhole*

    Good HR is scarce like chicken’s teeth. I agree with Jeanne, HR does not take bully serious. I once complained to my HR rep about the poor handling of my probation- my manager constantly put off meeting me to discuss my performance even though he had to according to their own official form. She said “Maybe he is just busy”, sure he is, but he had to.

Comments are closed.