employees vent to me — but don’t want me to do anything about their problems

A reader writes:

I am the head of an 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. 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 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. 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, but I want to do more 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?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 128 comments… read them below }

  1. Amy Sly*

    “I’m here to solve problems. If you don’t want the problem solved, don’t waste my time.”

    Okay, that’s probably too harsh of phrasing, but that needs to be the gist.

    1. Micklak*

      It’s a little harsh but it’s also true. The HR person’s time is valuable and they’re not really there for chatting.

      1. valentine*

        Why does OP need to serially witness or have a willing witness in order to speak to the problem employee?

        1. Amy Sly*

          The person repeated their decision to do nothing and asked me to do nothing as well and that’s where we left it.
          I understand an employee not wanting to stick her neck out and doing something herself. But if she doesn’t want HR to do something based on her complaints, she should vent to her friends and/or spouse, not HR.

          1. TardyTardis*

            I suspect the employee actually doesn’t expect HR to do anything, and may be afraid that if something is done, the employee will get singled out.

    2. MCMonkeyBean*

      It seems like the concern is less about wasting their time and more about not putting them in the awkward situation of having information they want to act on but feeling like doing their job would be a betrayal.

      1. Amy Sly*

        “If you don’t want the problem solved, don’t tell me.”

        The best part of that phrasing is that it points out the contrapostive problem as well: HR won’t solve problems they don’t know about.

            1. Arctic*

              It should be pretty obvious. If you tell people who are afraid of retaliation that you won’t even listen to them without the option to put you at risk then you are not going to learn about patterns of behavior. Because no one will report to you.

              1. Airport Song*

                Right. People want HR and upper management to know what’s going on, but they fear repurcussions. I understand this. Our exec team doesn’t know how lower managers are treated by VPs. I kind of want them to know, but at the same time I don’t want to have my own manager hate me forever.

                So it’s like…hey…you should just know this is happening, but please don’t say I told you.

          1. Amy Sly*

            To repeat what I posted lower down, Even when you’re just telling HR to document and you don’t think action is appropriate yet, you are still giving them information with the expectation they may do something with it eventually. The scenario we’re given is “my boss is terrible, but I’m not going to do anything to fix it and I don’t want you doing anything to fix it either.” Not “my boss has been doing some unprofessional stuff, and I’m afraid he may retaliate if I push back.” Not “this sketchy dude has been creeping me out; here are the few microaggressions and I’m worried it will escalate.” Just “I need to vent and you’ve never set a professional boundary that you’re not my free therapy.”

            1. Arctic*

              As an HR professional you want to know about a pattern of behavior. If one person complains that the boss is a jerk but then you get a bunch more that are more concerning you will know have a broader context for the pattern of behavior.

              It should go without saying but you should never be actively discouraging people to talk to you in HR.

    3. PatternsOnTheWall*

      Not sure it’s a waste of time if this turns into a pattern of complaints.

      If multiple employees complain (or its one that continually has new incidents) and HR sees this in other contexts…. not sure I’d worry about how one individual felt about it.

      You’d need to act for the good of your company.

    4. Arctic*

      HR discouraging people to report and document office concerns would be wildly unprofessional.

  2. Dust Bunny*

    I think people do this because they’re ambivalent: They want it to change and feel like they need to reach out to somebody, but they don’t actually trust the company to protect them even if it’s a valid complaint, which is why the part about following through on promises to do so is really important. The LW says she hasn’t observed the problematic behavior much in person and I think that’s something that makes underlings hesitant to report; they feel like it’s s/he-said, s/he said versus their boss, and if HR/whoever is in a position to help hasn’t seen it, they’re unlikely to see any retaliation, too, and will end up thinking the underlings are whiners.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      That’s so true. When I was younger and in toxic situations, I didn’t want HR to do anything. To be clear, “I” didn’t want HR to act, I wanted “them” to want to act. I didn’t want them to conduct a half-a$$ed investigation because they were being forced to. I only wanted them to act if they were invested in the problem and really wanted the bad behavior to stop. If they don’t care, then it’s better to do nothing.

      1. WorkIsADarkComedy*

        What I think you wanted back, then, and what perhaps these people coming to the OP want, is validation. They may worry that any HR action will backfire, but they sure as hell want someone how knows the rules to say yes, they were treated badly.

        And in some cases, validation may be enough when it gives the employee the backbone to push back against improper treatment. But OP’s folks don’t want to push back.

      2. sacados*

        I get that, but it seems like a shame since it seems pretty clear that the HR OP in this case does care and does want to act, and is prepared to do whatever they can to support and aid the employee — they’re just hamstrung because the employee isn’t giving them a chance to do it.
        Which like I said, I totally get where that fear is coming from.

    2. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

      I’d add that some of them might be providing info to HR in case there is a pattern. One person having a problem with a manger is one thing, and if they’re the only person they may not think it’s worth it to the company or themselves to have HR act. But if it’s a big pattern, which they may not know, they’d want HR to act.

    3. Slothy*

      This is absolutely the case. I work in an office where change is predicated on the manager’s boss thinking he needs to issue a course correction to the manager. It rarely (if ever) happens. Worse yet, we know that HR will listen but can’t do anything because manager’s boss is also their boss.

      I think it’s in this context that some decide that telling HR seems like they’ve fulfilled a duty to “tell someone,” although no action is ever taken. At least someone heard them out. Call it a release valve, if you will.

      If HR is aware of these potential or perceived problems, perhaps they should consider developing materials which provide for anonymous feedback or (gasp) a 360 review process for all management.

      Just a thought.

      1. TardyTardis*

        But if the HR person says they can’t act unless they personally see the bad behavior, then hey, what’s the point?

  3. AndersonDarling*

    This is tough because I’ve been in situations where I felt HR needed to know something was happening so they could start seeing a pattern. They can be ready to acknowledge it if they see the problem in person, and they are prepared when the next person reports the same thing.
    Frankly, I don’t expect HR to believe me. My experience dictates that HR won’t do anything until they are legally required to, but if I say something now then I can get the ball rolling.
    And other times I’ve said something to HR just so I could cover my behind when a manager inevitably tried to throw me under the buss. People say “document everything” but HR can just as easily dismiss your documentation. If I actually discussed the conflict with an HR rep, then the conversation cannot be easily denied.

    1. Yvette*

      Exactly, how many times have people been told on this forum to inform/report in case there is a pattern and it then escalates. When someone with anger issues finally crosses a line, that should not be the first time HR is aware of it.

    2. Amy Sly*

      Even if you’re telling HR that you don’t think action is appropriate yet, you are still giving them information with the expectation they may do something with it eventually. The scenario we’re given is “my boss is terrible, but I’m not going to do anything to fix it and I don’t want you doing anything to fix it either.” Not “my boss has been doing some unprofessional stuff, and I’m afraid he may retaliate if I push back.” Not “this sketchy dude has been creeping me out; here are the few microaggressions and I’m worried it will escalate.” Just “I need to vent and you’ve never set a professional boundary that you’re not my free therapy.”

      1. pamela voorhees*

        In their defense, it also might be “my boss is terrible, and I can’t fix it, and I’m scared you’ll make it worse. I want to have a conversation about what my options are, weigh them, and maybe come back later if I feel I can trust you and/or it escalates.” It might help if OP sees these not as frustrating ‘why won’t you let me help you’ conversations, but employees taking OP’s temperature — after all, how many comments are there on this site about people whose situations have gotten exponentially worse after they went to an unhelpful or even hostile HR? Now that they’ve gotten a response of ‘yes, I care’ they might well come back later and say “I’m ready to take next steps.”

    3. The Engineer*

      Documentation may be helpful to HR but you collect it for your needs. You always represent yourself. HR does not and should not have the employee’s interest as a priority. They exist to protect the company. Protecting employees is often the best way to do that but never forget who they really represent.

    4. RC Rascal*

      I’ve seen HR dismiss the documentation and go so far as to break the law to enable a terrible manager. In this same situation, I have also seen lawyers take extreme interest in the same documentation HR blithely dismissed.

    5. Airport Song*

      My manager threw me under the bus once with HR. I actually mentioned it once to our HR person I work with a lot and he was like, why didn’t you say something and when I said “what am I suppose to do, email the CEO and say that my manager was lying?”. How is that going to go over well? He agreed and said, yeah you can’t really do anything. I just sucked it up and moved on.

    6. Springella*

      I don’t trust HR at all. In my experience, they’re there to protect the company, not the workers. If the offender is seen as a (rising) star they’ll protect them. Even if offender isn’t a star, the company (especially the big ones) don’t want to admit they made a mistake and will protect them. This is actually supported by research.

      The fact that the employee doesn’t want an intervention is a sign that they don’t feel safe and comfortable to report or share officially. And all this 360 feedback nonsense – I recently positively evaluated my boss. Firstly, she would know who provided feedback from specific incidents. Secondly, maybe I’m wrong and I misunderstood her (I don’t really think this is the case but anyway). I don’t want to poo poo her unecessarily and if I’m right there’ll be other complaints against her in time. And thirdly, I’m taking into consideration Alison’s advice on one of the previous threads. It’s not my job to diagnose problems (for free) for my company and provide free HR consulting services for them. So far they’ve he’s never listened. Also, she’s a rising star, they aren’t going to do anything to her or about her.

  4. Panthera uncia*

    It’s also possible that when the employee wants you to “do nothing” they actually mean “I’m not yet ready to light this powder keg, but I wanted it on the record in the meantime.”

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Yeah, this. I think they’re testing the water to see if HR seems receptive before they risk blowing up their job by poking the bear.

    2. AnonAnon*

      Agree. I have been in a similar situation. I thought I was going to be the first one to come forward. Come to find out I was not and as a result, along with some other evidence I had provided, the person was removed from the company immediately.

      1. ACDC*

        Could have written this comment myself. Same situation happened to me last summer. I really didn’t think any action would come from reporting, but wanted to document it. Alas, I was the 4th person to complain that month and my really specific examples were the straw that broke the camel’s back.

      2. Putting the "pro" in "procrastinate"*

        But that is an example of HR using your information to address the issue. This is exactly what OP says the reporters have asked her *not* to do.

        1. pamela voorhees*

          I think their point is that HR wasn’t using one person’s information, though, they were using multiple people’s information, which lowers the chances of it being traced back to a single person. Think about the difference between these two scenarios —

          Bob is a bad manager, and manages Gene. Gene goes to HR with a complaints of incidents. HR follows up with Bob, who can guess where these complaints came from and immediately blames Gene. (I know in this scenario, the employee asked HR not to tell, but I imagine it was because they saw it going down like this. I also know there are protections against retaliation, but that depends on an HR that’s interested in enforcement, which can be hit or miss.)

          Bob is a bad manager, and manages Gene. Tina and Louise also see the way that Gene is treated. Gene tells HR but asks them not to follow up, but after Tina and Louise also complain, HR now has a variety of examples that can’t be traced back to any one person. They follow up with Bob, who can no longer tell where the complaints are coming from. That’s the value in creating a record — even if one or two people say, please don’t follow up, by the third or so HR should have enough information to act without it being “traceable”.

    3. Washi*

      But from HR’s perspective, why is “having it on record” better than addressing the issue? If something really kicks off, HR would want a record of actually trying things, not a record of being told problematic things and doing nothing.

      Social workers and therapists are advised to be upfront about the limits of patient confidentiality (if you tell your therapist you’re literally going to go hurt someone, they have an obligation to tell authorities) and it might help for the HR person to also be clear rthat they will have to act on serious allegations.

      1. New Jack Karyn*

        As AnonAnon states above, if it’s on record, they can see whether a pattern exists.

    4. yala*

      That would be my thought.

      There was an incident a little while ago that I keep thinking I should go to HR about (it’s been a couple of weeks now, so it’s probably too late). I don’t want them to Do Something–I don’t even necessarily want them to talk to my boss. But the incident in question is part of a pattern of miscommunications we keep having, and
      1) if they have ideas for how *I* can communicate better, that would be good
      2) if my boss brings the incident up in a report or review, I want to make sure I’ve already told my side
      3) while I understand why the incident happened, I’m not really sure how I can prevent something like that from happening, since it’s all about other people’s feelings and responses being different than what I would’ve expected
      4) …I kind of feel like the incident shows an example of the bias that keeps existing in our department

      All that said…I don’t really want to make any more waves than I already have. I DEFINITELY don’t want to wind up venting at the HR person instead of trying to go in with problems and steps that *I* can take toward a solution.

      But it would be nice to have it on the record.

  5. Jennifer*

    It’s very weird to me that some people seem to think going to HR is like going to therapy or their priest.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      See, when HR finds themselves getting into this situation, I’m tempted to think that they’re at least partly to blame for not having earned the trust of employees. If you don’t want people to dither, you have to convince them that you’re not going to just tell them to go back and work it out (despite the power imbalance and difficulty of proving that their boss is a jerk). If people don’t feel like they can come to HR with a reasonable complaint and trust it will be handled fairly, then HR is either not visible enough or has already demonstrated that it’s not trustworthy. It’s very much a two-way street.

      1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

        Sure, some people have good reason to not trust HR, but if I didn’t trust them I certainly would vent to them and expect them to keep it confidential and not have it backfire on me.

        1. Delphine*

          I think there are layers of trust. One is, I don’t trust you to keep this confidential and I also don’t trust you to act on it in a way that helps solve the problem. Another is, I trust you to keep this confidential, but don’t trust that you can effectively help me. You want people to get to, I trust you to keep this confidential and to help me solve this problem.

      2. SheLooksFamiliar*

        Eh, I think a lot of people trust HR just fine, but they look at HR as a fairly powerless and reactive ‘personnel department’ of days gone by. A friend told me he went to HR when he needed a gut-check on something at work: ‘It not like they can do anything I don’t want them to…’ He was genuinely surprised when I told him no, his Fortune 500 company has a pretty powerful and savvy HR org, and they would act on whatever they saw fit to in order to serve the company – or comply with law.

        But I agree that a lot of HR people earned bad reputations by being reactive or ‘The Policy Enforcer’,or were just plain bad at their jobs – in which cases, no one would trust them.

    2. valentine*

      They might only decide what they really want after talking it through with the person who knows the options.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        This is a good point, too. They may have one outcome in mind and find out it’s not how things are likely to go, and decide it’s not worth the risk.

      2. Jennifer*

        But that makes no sense to me. Almost like going to the police, giving them information about a crime in excruciating detail, and then expecting them not to do their jobs and at least investigate. Of course, there are some cops who take a report and then do absolutely nothing about it, but anyone who goes to the cops and reports something has to at least be prepared for the fact that they MIGHT do something.

        They could be held liable if it came out that they knew of a situation and did nothing about it.

        1. pamela voorhees*

          That happens sometimes, though, usually when there’s something minor that isn’t quite a crime yet, but could escalate. I don’t think an employee came to OP and said “here’s a massive violation”, but rather “here’s something concerning me.” If you have a potential stalking situation, for example, it’s encouraged to go to police stations even if they can’t do anything yet, so you can have it on record that this concerning thing is beginning to happen and come back to them with more and more information as you get it. Or something like, “I have a child who’s autistic and sometimes trespasses on other people’s property — I need you to know that this might happen so if you do encounter them, you won’t assume they’re willfully not following instructions.”

          1. Jennifer*

            I guess it just depends on your point of view. I would never go to the police to alert them that my child is autistic and sometimes trespasses. I’d be worried that they’d go arrest him. That’s a possibility whenever you report something to an authority figure. They have no obligation to handle it a certain way just because you asked them to.

            1. pamela voorhees*

              They don’t, but a smart authority figure knows they need a very, very good reason to disregard what someone wants, because it has a massive impact on whether or not that person (or anyone else) will report again. If OP decides ‘well, this isn’t something huge that must be reported (like sexual harassment) and Alice didn’t want me to say anything, but I really think I can handle this’, tries to fix it, fails, and it ends up being worse for Alice, Alice will never, ever come back and will likely spread to all the other employees that OP can’t be trusted. That’s why Alison’s response of “tell them first you can’t offer them confidentiality” is so important, so the person can choose whether or not to go forward. It keeps the trust there instead of essentially saying ‘I don’t care what you want.’

          2. TardyTardis*

            A black person isn’t going to do this, because that child could end up dead (sadly, too many examples to enumerate here).

      3. AnonForThis*

        Yes. I did this. I had an abusive boss, and I went to Equity (I worked at a university) to discuss the situation. At the time, I didn’t *know* that the only next step they could take was to mediate a discussion with my boss. I was absolutely not willing to do that.

        I had been hoping Equity could help me get transferred to another department, or somehow get away from the boss, or use the information I reported to make sure the boss’s promotion didn’t get renewed. I didn’t know my options until I’d spoken with them.

        Once I spoke with them, I knew how limited my options were, and I decided to leave the university rather than have a mediated discussion with my boss.

    3. Hiring Mgr*

      Blame the offending boss, or the reputation (deserved or not) of HR being either useless or harmful…not the employee who’s getting yelled at

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I wasn’t blaming the employee and was, in fact, blaming HR for not proving themselves.

      2. Jennifer*

        I’m not blaming anyone. I’m just saying I don’t understand why anyone thinks their HR rep is their therapist. It’s weird.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          Suggesting that the employee here is using HR as a therapist seems like an overstatement, though.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          I think that this happens because many people truly do not know what HR is there for. When it used to be called the Personnel Department, I think it was clearer. But now they are human relations and it sounds more like they help people get along with each other, I mean that is what relation is.

          I had a boss with decades of experience with the company. She said all the time that “HR is there for us!” No, they are not, they are there for the company. Well this lead to all kinds of problems as you can foresee here. There were many, many let downs. The company did manage to hire good department heads for HR, but none of them stayed that long.

    4. Eve's Husband's Mustache*

      I can’t stop thinking about the Conflict Resolution of the Office, when Michael airing all the things people have confidentially vented to Toby about explodes the whole group.

      1. Jennifer*

        Lol, maybe that’s the reason. Toby really was like a therapist. He wrote it all down and put it in the warehouse.

    5. Arctic*

      People likely aren’t looking for therapy. They are looking to document the behavior.

      Yes, it’s true that documenting does *nothing* if you don’t allow HR to act on it. The offender hasn’t been given a chance to change. But it makes people feel better that it has been officially documented. So, that if the behavior suddenly escalates and intervention becomes necessary there is a trail to back up that it’s been a consistent problem.

      It’s odd because these comment threads are very often like “document, document, document” and now that people are doing so it’s like “what the heck do you think telling someone will do?!”

      1. Jennifer*

        That does make sense. I do think telling people to “document, document, document” is more about making note of what has happened for your own records, not necessarily documenting it with HR. I think there’s a general understanding that if you go to management or HR with an issue there’s a chance they will act on the information you provided.

    6. Springella*

      It actually is a part of their job, almost like being a therapist. My relative was HR manager for a 400+ people and she did see listening to people venting as a part of her job.

  6. Blueberry*

    Is it actually possible to protect someone from retaliation, though? This is a sincere question. Since we’re all human and we all make mistakes, and our coworkers report those mistakes and our supervisors evaluate them, I don’t see any practicable way to keep someone from blowing a mistake up hugely, or a couple of mistakes into a “pattern”, to peg the complaining employee as a bad performer. And that’s just one scenario.

    1. Jellyfish*

      Yes, in a former job for an awful boss, there was no protection. People kept reporting my boss to HR, and then those people would mysteriously get fired for other reasons. Suddenly my boss “discovered” they lied about their credentials, they had inappropriate files on their company computer, etc.
      I kept a long document where I detailed as much as I could, backed up with emails and such, for my own protection. I never breathed a word to HR though.

      Even if this HR department is a solid one that wants to protect employees, many of those employees may not trust them. I think the OP would need to provide concrete examples of how they would protect workers from any kind of retaliation.

      1. alienor*

        My department had a terrible manager, and at least three people that I know of spoke to HR about them. “Mysteriously,” two of those people were let go in a big round of layoffs, and the third quit in frustration when they saw nothing would change. What happened to the manager, you ask? They got a big promotion and were transferred to another department, where I’m sure they’re continuing to wreak their personal brand of havoc.

    2. Trout 'Waver*

      I’m of the same mindset.

      There may theoretically be some overlap between managers that need HR to get involved in order to manage appropriately and managers who won’t retaliate. But I sure haven’t seen any examples of such creatures in real life.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If you have management that’s committed to preventing retaliation, yes. I’ve been in situations where I’ve made it very clear — like “stern, pissed off, don’t F with me on this” clear — that I would be watching very closely and checking in with the person’s staff regularly and if there was any hint of retaliation, even subtly, that would be The End, and then followed through on that. But you need someone committed to doing that. (And when it’s HR rather than the person’s manager, you need HR that has the ear of someone above them who’s committed to empowering that.)

      1. Courtney Kupets*

        And HR is looking to protect the company as a whole. So if they have a very high producing experienced top manager, a lower level employee is going to seem less important. Maybe not even consciously. But, I’ve seen this play out so often. I’ve never had HR have this kind of direct power that actually would work.

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          You said this *in reply to* Alison’s post about how she has done this very thing.

    4. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      If the HR department is run fairly and properly yes. I’m not sure I understand your example – it’s not just about making mistakes. In the example from the letter, the boss is unapproachable and his behavior is unacceptable. If someone goes to HR with a legitimate complaint, it’s their (HR) job to keep that employee from being treated unfairly for making the report. And if they are treated unfairly, enforcing consequences for the offender up to and including losing their job. You shouldn’t have to put up with a toxic boss or colleague for fear of being treated worse.

      1. New Jack Karyn*

        I think Blueberry is saying the the reported boss would amplify the normal, run-of-the-mill mistakes made by the reporting worker into HUGE errors, or a PATTERN of errors, that require a PIP or termination.

        1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

          And if you work in a dysfunctional or under-resourced environment to begin with, those run of the mill mistakes are a matter of daily function, because you don’t have the ability or resources to do your job the way it is supposed to be done. So it’s really easy for a boss who wants to retaliate to say, “Well, I didn’t terminate Fergus for reporting me to HR, I terminated Fergus for not calling the veterinarian within 24 hours when Lucky the Llama sprained his ankle,” even though there was no money in the budget to pay the veterinarian that year and the emergency expense claim was denied by Boss.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        One of the biggest problems I saw with HR was the statement, “I don’t see it first hand. I can’t say I have seen it.” This excuse was used to kill about any complaint imaginable.
        It’s laughable because, of course, people will be on their best behavior if they know HR is nearby. So why would anyone rely on HR to find out what is going on? That’s not a good plan.

        In OP’s setting she was saying that because the employee was refusing to file a complaint. I get that. However, it would be good for people to know that excuse is so overused and in some instances it’s used as a crutch so the speaker does not have to do real work.

        The odd thing here is that it would be so easy to say the same thing in a different manner, such as, “I need to have a formal complaint from somewhere before I can do anything about this. I can try to observe but the likelihood of me seeing something is very low.” This gives the employee room to start thinking in terms of who may have noticed something and who may be willing to report it because their setting is different.

        I remember I reported a boss for X. The HR person said, “I have to ask permission to go into your department and talk to the boss. I have to ask our mutual boss if I can do this.” So I thought she was complaining that she had a bunch of extra work just to start the complaint rolling. I said, “I am sorry, you have all this extra work on my behalf.” She shook her head. “No, that isn’t where I was going. What I was trying to say is I need your permission to use your name with the Big Boss.” [Me: Well say that then! How was I supposed to get that out of what you said!] In my out loud voice I said, “You have my permission to do whatever you need to do and do it where ever you need to do it.”

        It’s very easy for some of this stuff to come across like whining because people have no background context for it. How was I supposed to know that she had to ask the big boss before she could handle my problem? Granted, I was pretty young then but I had never heard of such a thing. It would have been much clearer if she had said, “Company procedure requires me to ask the big boss for permission to talk to people in other departments that are not mine. So I need to ask your permission to talk to the big boss using your name.”

        I still kind of wondered if that was some kind of veiled threat. I was pretty young and sick of being blindsided. I gave her permission and everything went well from there.

    5. RC Rascal*

      One thing it keep in mind is that retaliation is only legally enforceable if it occurs after an employee makes a discrimination compliant of following a few other specific instances.

      Your company can make all the rules and policies it wants that says it won’t retaliate, but it isn’t legally enforceable. If management feels like retaliating, it can. As an employee, if you report an issue based on a policy or person who assures you who non-retaliation, and they do anyway, you have little recourse. I am specifically referencing many points of Ethics policies.

    6. Gazebo Slayer*

      Really the only way I can think of is specifically calling that out to the boss – telling them “You are NOT firing Lucinda unless you catch her red-handed stealing from the company, punching someone, or the like. I know that managers often make up pretexts to retaliate against people who complain, and that is not going to happen here.” And then hold to that, even if Lucinda’s performance appears to nosedive after her complaint.

      1. Courtney Kupets*

        But people can make your life miserable in other ways. They can take longer to get you what you need. They can make you feel bad in communications, etc.

    7. Airport Song*

      Not at my company, and I respect HR. I think if there was something illegal or harassment it would be totally fine. If it’s just someone who is so mean and makes people cry, then…meh. The employee would just be thrown under the bus, the manager told to stop and then the bad things would start. It wouldn’t be firing, just more nastigrams and things like that.

  7. Lily in NYC*

    Interesting – I am friendly with our HR director. She once mentioned that much of their jobs is simply listening to employees vent and that they rarely want action taken. And that the employees often feel much better after having someone just listen and understand.

      1. BravesLove*

        Seasoned HR pros can tell pretty quickly when someone’s just venting or action needs to be taken.

    1. BravesLove*

      I work in HR and this is accurate. I often end our conversation with something along the lines of, “do you want me to say/do something”, and only once in the last 6 months or so have I had an employee say yes.

      1. TL -*

        The one time I went to HR they told me that my manager could manage how he pleased and they couldn’t really do anything.

        It helped that he listened, still, but that was wild.

  8. Media Monkey*

    totally agree with Alison. this is also exactly how you deal with a child bringing you a problem that is too big for them to handle alone. sure, it might be something which needs coaching or a bit of empathy, but it also might be something that you can’t keep to yourself. you are honest and upfront (before they tell you) that you may not be able to keep a big issue a secret and that means you build and keep a culture of trust between you.

    for example, happy to listen to my 11 year old complain about this friend or her boyfriend but if (as happened last week) she tells me her friend cut herself, better believe i am telling the pastoral care person at school.

    somewhat off topic, but if your position is that if what they want to tell you is serious, you will need to take it further and can’t promise confidentiality, you might cut down on the small complaints, but people will trust you to deal respectfully and discreetly with the big ones (and those are the ones you really need/ want to know about!)

    1. Outta Here*

      Completely this. I had a situation a couple of years ago where a female assistant on my team confided in her female supervisor what was a really clear cut case of sexual harassment. The harassment wasn’t usually directed at her, but she sat at a table with three other assistants and saw a male assistant from another team harassing the female assistant on that team. She didn’t want us to do anything about it though. In her words, “I’m not bothered when he directs those comments to me, I just want the other assistant to have back-up because she’s going to bring it up to her leadership.” (One of the comments he allegedly said to my assistant on his first day was “You shouldn’t have any problems moving up. You can just fuck your way there.”)

      So my supervisor (rightly) said that wasn’t going to work, and brought it to me (female Director). I grabbed both the assistant and supervisor and went into my (very strong, liberal, feminist female) VP’s office and we had a really direct closed door conversation with our assistant about why this needed to be addressed. I think she finally got it when I said, “If this is what he’s doing as an assistant to peers, imagine what he’ll do as a supervisor with females under her.”

      My VP went to her SVP, the two of them together went to our department’s HR rep and meanwhile the poor assistant who was actually getting harassed had told her (male) Supervisor and (female) Director and they did…. nothing. (I am pretty sure they both they got ripped into by their (also strong, liberal, feminist) SVP when she heard about it through HR. The only reason action was taken was because my assistant had enough common sense to say something to us, and back up her friend’s story.

      The HR rep had a “stern talking to” with the offender and gave him a warning. About 3 months later, that team got a female intern. They had the male assistant working directly with her and training her. He sent her a bunch of harassing sexualized messages over our internal chat, including trying to shame her into going out to drink with him (she was underage), which she saved and then after a month brought them to the attention of her leadership team, which is when he *finally* got fired.

      The icing on the cake was a few months later when a bunch of female leaders for our pretty big company held a forum about being “women in advertising” and someone asked the question about how they handled harassment in their career. The female lead of HR said “that doesn’t happen here.” /facepalm

  9. Dust Bunny*


    The OP says: “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,”

    But then says: “However, I rarely directly observe the boss’s behavior and have little current first-hand information to address this with the boss myself –”

    So which is it? Has the OP seen significant changes, or does OP not observe much of the boss’ behavior? Is it possible that the boss is on better behavior when the company at large can observe her than she is with her team, who don’t have the clout to call her on it?

    1. Jean*

      This stuck out to me too, and I think it speaks to the reason that employees don’t want HR to take any official action – i.e. people don’t trust that OP’s department has the discretion/competence to handle their issues properly.

    2. irene adler*

      This is exactly why I would NOT trust someone in HR who says they can protect me from retaliation. They don’t see the full picture. And they never will. Folks like this boss will always act properly when they know they are under observation by HR or others that can do something about their abusive behavior.

    3. sacados*

      Can’t it be both? It makes sense that an HR person would not necessarily have a lot of interaction day to day with any particular manager, especially in a large company — or not much interaction beyond small talk and casual greetings.
      I read this as — there was a separate issue with this boss at some point in the past, during which HR worked with them and kept an eye on the situation to ensure things improved. Once that was handled, HR stepped back to their typical level of interaction/observation, which means they haven’t had many chances to directly observe that boss’s behavior recently.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        . . . sort of. In the sense that diets work but only as long as you stay on them. If the boss’ behavior backslid, or the boss improved only on one specific thing but continued to be out of line in a lot of other areas, then, no, the OP doesn’t know that the boss’ behavior improved *for good*.

    4. Adric*

      The first line may have been in regard to other issues.

      Say, issue X arises and the boss is given feedback about how to handle issue X better. If the boss takes that feedback to heart and makes meaningful improvements, then HR has a reasonable basis to believe that the boss takes feedback well.

      HR, from prior experience believes, the boss will react appropriately, but the worker with the current issue isn’t privy to that prior interaction. Since HR is not in a position to observe the current issue directly, they’re stuck unless they out the worker.

  10. Emily*

    Be certain that you actually can keep them from being retaliated against (or strongly punish it if it happens) before you say it. Like, that’s just not a given at all in many organizations. If it’s not the case that you should ensure that, I think you should take a different approach.

  11. Smithy*

    I actually wonder if part of this includes the very common situation where many non-HR people actually don’t know what HR generally or specific HR staff members do. I think lines like “nothing here is confidential” is helpful, but I think this is more helpful when it’s coupled with “in my role my goals include X, and because of that – I can’t guarantee confidentiality – but we can discuss options such as Y or Z”.

    HR can easily be a department where people make assumptions of what the role is – perhaps based on previous jobs or more pop-culture exposure. And while there can be differences from HR team to HR team, I think there are also a lot of misconceptions about what HR is actually for and how reporting concerns can or should work. So it can benefit the OP but lots of other people in HR to be more upfront about their job specifically, HR at their specific organization, and what their job actually is.

    As a very young adult in a camp counselor style summer job, I was witnessing some behavior by peers that was bothering me, against the rules, liability concerns, etc. I reported this to a staff member senior to me under great distress, as I knew that speaking up would clearly make me ostracized from my counselors and all that. This senior staff member took my distress as a sign I didn’t want to “make trouble” and was just looking to vent. Pragmatically, I understand why this staff member didn’t want to escalate this as a formal concern (two weeks left in the summer, large number of staff involved) – but it also clarified for me that if I didn’t ask questions about processes and next steps – my assumptions would just be assumptions.

  12. goducks*

    There have certainly been employees in my career that have wanted to just vent, no action from my HR role. I always try to clarify what they’re seeking when they come to talk- intervention, advice, just to talk? I also tell them that there are things that I HAVE to act upon if they tell me, but that even if I’m required to act, I can do so in a way that’s sensitive and as confidential as possible. And that if I have to act because of what they tell me, I’ll be sure to protect them from retaliation (which is the fear, most of the time).
    Often, though, people just want either validation or advice on how to navigate a situation.
    But I really think the OP needs to stop thinking she needs to directly observe a behavior to believe it is happening!

  13. Emily*

    As someone who works in HR, I empathize so much. I do exactly what Alison is saying. I always tell the person, I can’t promise confidentiality – but I will do everything I can to protect you from retaliation.

    The worst one for me was I once did my standard, I can’t promise confidentiality and the person completely shut down. About 6 months later, she did report and it was sexual harassment. We (the company, myself and my boss) took swift corrective action once we knew and did the investigation…but 6 months had gone by. I had a good relationship with the woman and we talked about it afterwards and she just didn’t trust the process. The thing is, I get it. The process fails more often then it should and the risk to her was high in coming forward (the person was her boss).

    All this is to say, it’s hard and we just have to keep trying to make it better.

  14. Buttons*

    My job is to help leaders be better leaders and to hold them accountable for the standards we have set for our leaders. I will let people vent, but I also let them know I can promise anonymity but that if there is an issue that can be solved or addressed, then I have to do it, it is my job. It isn’t fair to the employee or their manager for not addressing an issue.
    That being said, my company and I are fully equip to take action. Meaning, I can order a 360 review of any manager at any time, I can insist on training, I can insist that we create action plans around engagement results. If none of those resources and actions are available to the OP, and there is a culture of non-accountability, the OP should think about what they can put in place and what their scope of influence is over bad managers.

  15. Aggretsuko*

    I would absolutely not feel safe actually having someone else “do anything” or addressing it with certain bosses under certain circumstances. This kind of thing is why I ranted to an ombudsman back in the day in this kind of situation. I would also not feel safe being honest in a 360 evaluation, or any evaluation.

    Sometimes people just gotta vent. Let ’em vent. Sometimes people can’t be solved short of leaving.

  16. That'll happen*

    “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.”

    OP, I’d like you to rethink this line of thought. The employee IS the victim in this situation and I’d suggest you not blame them for that. They may be afraid because of the inherent power imbalance, and the (justified) fear that they may be subject to retaliation by the boss. If you think the employee is dwelling on what has been done to them, try to put yourself in their shoes. They have been mistreated by their boss. They might’ve spent time figuring out if there was even anything wrong with what was being done to them. They are coming to you because they have decided to take the first step. It’s possible they have never spoken out loud about it, and they are having second thoughts once they do. Show some compassion to these people who are brave enough to speak up.

    1. Well Then*

      Agreed. That rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve been this employee, and it can really wear you down. Sometimes you just want support and validation because you know the situation won’t change and you’re just trying to get yourself through the day. Or, like you said, they’re testing the waters and taking the first step to build up to doing more.

    2. Marthooh*

      Yes. There’s actually a lot of victim blaming in this letter, what with “They won’t let me do anything!” and “Bob seems like a swell fellow though!” If employees don’t trust you, OP, maybe it’s because you’re not hiding your impatience and skepticism as well as you think you are.

  17. Ellie May*

    I had a family member that always wanted to vent and had zero interest in solutions – she thrived in drama and wanted pity. Being a problem-solver, I had to recalibrate myself when dealing with her.

    What is troubling is the headline says employees, plural … this isn’t just one person’s behavior. This makes me wonder if employees are seeking validation from the LW but are encountering a culture where they fear retaliation. Or do they not think a positive outcome will emerge?

  18. Don't Send Your Kids to Hudson University*

    Is there any benefit to your organization in having an ombudsmen? These roles are typically designed for confidential conversations and guidance without the expectation that further action be taken. If set up correctly, they can also provide cover where disclosure to another employee might be construed as putting the employer on notice of a condition the law requires that it remedy. The advantage might be directing employees who simply want to vent to a more appropriate place than your office.

  19. Arctic*

    “I disagree with this, having seen significant and sincere changes in the boss’s behavior in response to feedback, which I told the employee.”

    I’d like to know more about how you have seen these changes. Because the face a manager shows HR is often very different from the person their employees see every single day.

    People aren’t treating you like a therapist they are documenting behavior.

  20. Koala dreams*

    This is a very interesting question because it happens on this blog too. People ask questions about toxic situations that happened at a previous job, years prior in a few cases. Sometimes people just want a reality check, and they have not yet come to the action step. Maybe for you it’s obvious that something needs action right now, while the other person only just realized that something is wrong.

    That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything about issues, it just means you’ll have to decide if you can do something on your own, even though the employee is not ready yet, or if you will accept to just give suggestions and hope the employee will find them useful later, when they have had some time to let your talk sink in.

  21. Leela*

    “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.”

    OP I sympathize with a lot of your letter, but this mindset is something I’d ask you to break. People who bring forward real issues that have deep, long term effects aren’t dwelling on wrongs that have been done to them, they’re just continuing to experience the effects of what was done. Actions may be trapped in the past but their impacts aren’t.

    It’s not to say that no one will ever hold on to anything longer than they should and no one will make a bigger deal out of a wrong than it was, but I’d really, really caution you to rephrase this in your mind, because this is how you get victim blaming and this is what drives people to do, well, exactly what you’re experiencing: not being willing to move on a problem because of how victims get treated.

  22. Fikly*

    In the example given, I don’t think this person is embracing the role of victim at all. I think they’re probably (justifiably) terrified of their boss behaving abusively during the conversation, and then retaliation, particularly the kind that is too subtle to prove, afterwards.

    1. RC Rascal*

      One thing to keep in mind is by the time HR hears about problematic behavior, they are likely only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Direct reports, peers, subordinates from adjoining departments, and in some cases customers may be seeing much more of the behavior than upper management and HR.

      It’s like the old saying that where there is smoke, there is fire. If you are seeing smoke, assume there is a fire. This also applies when you are dealing with problems a skip level down from you in an organization. By the time bits of it escalate up to you, you better believe there is a whole lot more going on you don’t know about yet.

  23. GreenDoor*

    I think so many of us are raised to “be friendly” to “not cause trouble” and to “try and get along” that we feel bad about reporting someone at work, even when the accusation/complaint is totally legit. I bet if you use Alison’s suggested wording and honor your promises to try and protect confidentiality and prevent retaliation people coming to you will actually be relieved. I worked for an elected official and we’d have people call and say things like “I hate to bother the police with this” or “I hate to get my neighbor in trouble so I don’t want to complain.” But a few days later they’d be calling us back in tears thanking us for taking care of their problem and keeping their name out of it. I suspect this is a lot of what the OP will see, too!

  24. Jedi Squirrel*

    When I was teaching and coaching, this was the exact same wording I would give students: you have no guarantee of confidentiality. This is because I am obligated to report certain things, and not doing so could result in repercussions.

    My goal was student safety; not their happiness. The same is true here: the goal of HR is the continuation of the organization, not the happiness of the employees.

  25. (Former) HR Expat*

    OP, it sounds kind of callous to put it like this, but it’s not up to the employee whether you take action. You don’t tell the accountant not to report your expenses on the books, and the employees can’t dictate this, especially when it comes to legal or policy compliance. The best thing you can do is protect the employee, communicate with them if you do have to escalate or take action, and show through actions that you can be held to your word.

  26. RC Rascal*

    OP–I would like to take the Problem Boss Counter-Argument to the very situation you presented. Here, the employee has come to you because they fear negative/abusive behavior from the boss for delivering bad news.

    Problem Boss twists this situation and claims the employee has poor communication skills and is deliberately with holding relevant information from the boss. Employee may even be trying to sabotage the Problem Boss. It’s probably because the employee isn’t collaborative and has poor interpersonal skills. The fact employee even felt it necessary to bring to HR’s attention is because employee lacks self awareness and doesn’t understand they are the problem, not Problem Boss. Problem Boss thinks employee needs to go to communication and interpersonal skill classes, and should maybe even be on a PIP while they work on improving their communication skills.

    What do you do? Lots of HR manages would rather support the Problem Boss—they have resources to deal with communication skill improvement, spots in classes they need to fill on Leading with People Skills or whatever. This situation is easier for HR to deal with that managing a problem, abusive manager who is a peer to them. So they take the easy way out, and the employee pays the price.

    This is why savvy employees stay as far away from HR as they possible can.

    1. (Former) HR Expat*

      Then you investigate further. There are more people around than just those two. You speak to boss’ colleagues, you talk to other people on the team. You look at all angles as an unbiased observer. Never draw conclusions until you have all the information to make an informed conclusion (if possible). Maybe the employee just got some poor feedback on their performance review. Maybe boss dislikes them because they wear green and boss hates that color. You can’t just go off the information provided by the two people involved in a situation.

  27. Mill Miker*

    This reminds me of the time I actually got fed up enough with a coworker’s actions to report them to the company owners (too small for HR at the time), and the options basically boiled down to “Throw me under the bus”, “Have an awful but ‘mediated’ conversation”, or “Nobody does anything at all, we forget all about this, and why are you wasting our time?”

    They were annoyed I went with the 3rd option, but the option I really wanted, “management becomes aware that their top sales guy has no trouble abusing his position, monitors the situation, and takes appropriate action as needed” wasn’t offered.

    I’m squarely on team “They want to document”

  28. Airport Song*

    The problem is usually it DOES harm the employee. At my company, unless it’s harassment or something, the VPs will get the benefit of the doubt. They will tell the VP that what they are doing must change, and then that person makes the reporters life miserable. And I don’t think I work in an awful place. I just think some people are considered more valuable. It happened to a friend of mine. His career was basically derailed due to what his manager was told from HR and they let it happen. Of course, as the HR person, you could stop this from happening, but reality is often….not that.

    It’s good advice though to tell people it’s not confidential. That protecting the org may mean coming down on a top manager if they hear about it, which could then be traced back to you. Also good to remember if you’re an employee! HR is not your therapist and if they hear something that is concerning they will address it, which may stop the behavior, but then you’ve basically ruined your career working for that person. In this case, my friend had been friends with someone in HR. Instead of telling him that they weren’t the best person to complain to because of their HR position, she let him vent and then said “I feel obligated to report to HR”. That was incredibly crappy. If you are a friend of someone and you feel like you could not keep something confidential due to your job…tell the person! They can find another friend to ask for advice!

    I think people just want HR to know what’s going on, but fear repercussions, which is why they tell HR, but then don’t want anything done about it. Usually there is a lot of stuff happening and you just want upper management to know but cant actually say it. It sucks, but I understand that mentality completely.

  29. Nonke John*

    I don’t know. Maybe my sample just isn’t representative I know a lot of people in HR are deeply trained in psychology, organizational behavior, or employment law, and I know that they work hard to apply them to their employers in ways that don’t always make impressive bullet points. But in all the presentations I’ve heard at a half-dozen organizations over my time in the workforce, I’ve never once heard an HR luminary just come out and say, “The outcome by which HR is judged is a productive workforce that operates in compliance with the law and corporate policy. If you have a problem with someone that you can’t solve yourself or with your manager, we want to hear about it. But understand that we may need to discuss it with others to fix it. We’ll be transparent about our process, and we’ll look for the path forward that’s as good as possible for everyone involved, but we can’t promise to protect you from all unpleasantness.”

    The focus, instead, has always been on how the certified MBTI-erator on staff can help you discover your personality, the amenities team is working to get Kale Smoothie Day moved from monthly to biweekly, the comp team will be sending around its new animated short about creating GOST goals and writing self-assessments for the coming year, and we should let them know whenever there’s a way HR can help us improve our work-life balance (always, always, always on a slide illustrated with a stock photo of a woman getting a hot-stone massage). Org structuring and compliance are usually mentioned perfunctorily in the intro and then dropped for the sexier stuff. And it’s the same with the HR space on the intranet and the messaging that goes out.

    Therefore, it isn’t all that surprising that people get the vague sense that HR’s job is to ensure that work is happy-fun time and listen to them whine when it’s not. Or that they feel betrayed when the department that works overtime to project friendliness and approachability suddenly turns brisk and hard-nosed when a complaint about harassment or misuse of power comes up.

  30. HRArwy*

    So, I work in HR and conduct investigations into workplace harassment, discrimination, workplace violence etc..You will not guess the number of people who approach me to say (essentially): “I’m feeling harassed by XYZ, but I don’t want you to do anything about it. I just wanted to let HR know.”

    I’ve started letting people know that, I am not a confidential body – which means that if anything violates the law our company policies I will have to raise it and possibly conduct an investigation. I also, make it clear that I do not need their expressed permission to do that. I then let them know if they want a space to vent then they need to go their family, friends or to the Employee Family Assistance Program because in my role I am legally obligated to look into matters that would violate the Health and Safety/Human Rights Legislation etc…

    It’s stopped a lot of the venting and people are understanidng my role better – I’m not a therapist.

    1. Billiards15*

      As someone who isn’t in HR, but President of a Union, I deal with similar situations where someone wants to make me aware of a situation, but they don’t want any action taken. I always tell them before they begin, that depending on the severity of the situation, I may have no choice but to follow up with HR. I’m not necessarily talking about violations of the Collective Agreement, but actions that violate legislation/laws.

  31. Jenny*

    I was that employee once. I reported to HR when a senior staff member just started shouting at me for a very minor mistake that was a mistake only in their eyes. The staff member was a known bully, especially with people under them. My HR person really wanted to talk to the senior staff member using specifics from the event as an example, stating it would have more impact. Lots of people had run ins with this staff member, but everyone was afraid to be the example.

    I refused to be the example because I was petrified of retaliation. I realize that there are protections, but sometimes retaliation is very covert and difficult to document. I was already very worn down from the staff member’s actions over time leading to this blow up, and just wanted the issue to die down and not burn any more bridges.

    Fast forward a couple of years, I am gone from that workplace, but the person is still known as a bully. And I have several things documented against said staff member that could seriously damage their job and professional reputation. But, like others, they go undocumented because people really just want to move on. I don’t want to relive that chapter of my professional life dealing with a known bully. But yet, they’re sill in their role, just somewhat marginalized and not given any direct supervisory roles.

  32. ToodleOodleWhordleOrdle*

    I wonder if a lot of people have worked in environments that either doesn’t have HR, or is very removed from it (I’m sure the nation-wide cafe chain I worked for as a cashier had HR, for example, but I never learned how to contact them)… but DID have bosses who said things like “my door is always open If You Ever Need To Talk”. And I wonder if a lot of us as a result really didn’t learn the skill of differentiating between venting and asking for help/action, in a work context.

    I’m involved on a hobby basis in a badly organized arts organization that has no formal HR, in a (minor; no authority to enact organizational change unfortunately) leadership role. I had the WORST time last year with a team member who randomly appointed herself the unofficial therapist/priest/HR advocate for some of the younger people on the team; she kept coming to me all upset and serious with “Jane is EXTREMELY upset because Fergus did (annoying but non-egregious social faux pas), you HAVE to talk to her” and then Jane would actually be fine and not want anything done. As far as Jane was concerned, Self-Appointed-Therapist saw her looking annoyed and asked her what was wrong so she vented for a few minutes and that was it, but S-A-T had got the idea that it was her Duty to bring it to my attention so I could Take Action. It was very, very tedious; we eventually managed to shut it down but it took up a lot of energy I would have rather used for other things. As we enter our next bout of working together I’m planning on giving a bit of a speech at the outset about the difference between “asking for help” and “venting”, and how if you’re not clear which one your friend is doing you should ask, and if they need help you should encourage them to ask the person who can help directly, rather than using a go-between.

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