is it worth going to HR about a bad manager?

A reader writes:

I’ve always been told by colleagues at various employers that if you have difficulties with your supervisor, you shouldn’t bother going to HR. People have told me that it’s HR’s job to protect the organization and your manager, even if he or she is a bully or violating policies and laws. I’ve been told that if you go to HR with a problem with your manager, it will be your word against your manager’s word and HR will take the side of your manager every time. Is this true?

I have a manager who has been abusive for a long time. I sought help, including help from HR, to no avail. The HR rep I spoke with told me to work it out with my boss and that I had to change my approach with my boss. Even though I have plenty of evidence of bullying in the form of hostile emails from my manager, the HR rep would not comment on my boss’ behavior at all or, from what I can tell, address the problems with him directly.) As a result of having this conversation, now I’m pretty much persona non grata with my boss.

In the end, is it all on the employee to get problems like this fixed via a lawsuit if things are really that bad? Is HR pretty much expected by top-level management to take the company’s side and act as a sort of attorney defending them?

People have a lot of confusion around this topic, and in part it’s because the way HR operates can differ significantly from company to company.

What’s true at every employer is that HR works for the company. They’re there to serve the company’s interests. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll always take the side of a bad manager over a good employee — at least not at companies with decent HR departments.

At a minimum, having HR serve the company’s interests means ensuring the company follows the law — which means looking out for things like illegal harassment or discrimination, coordinating medical and religious accommodations, and ensuring the company follows laws related to payroll and medical leave. But at good companies, HR serving the company’s interests also means things like coaching leaders to manage their teams more effectively and being thoughtful about employee morale. And of course, there’s a lot of variation across organizations; some HR departments do all of this and do it well and others less so.

It’s also important to realize that HR only has as much power as the company gives them. HR can flag problems and make suggestions, but it’s often up to individual managers to decide what to do with that input. When something’s a legal requirement, HR has more power to insist — but even then, bad companies may overrule them. Ultimately, HR takes direction from senior leadership just like every other department does.

Moreover, HR is staffed by humans, which means that you’ll find all the problems there that you find in other departments, sometimes including a tendency to do what they think leaders above them want them to do rather than what their own business sense and moral compass dictate.

Plus, know that HR isn’t required to keep what you tell them confidential. You can ask for confidentiality, but if they judge that what you’ve said needs to be shared in order to address a problem, their job obligates them to do that. That might seem unfair, but imagine if you told a safety director about a serious security flaw in their system; they’d be negligent if they didn’t act on that info, even if you asked them not to tell anyone.

So, what does this mean for employees who are considering going to HR? It depends on the issue and on what you’ve seen of how your HR team operates.

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, or if you’re being discriminated against on the basis of those things, you should go to HR (and maybe a lawyer). Those are legal issues, and they’re squarely in HR’s purview. It also makes sense to go to HR when you have questions about any rights guaranteed to you by law (like if you need to take leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act or request an accommodation under the Americans with Disability Act).

It gets more complicated when the issue isn’t a legal one. (Workplace bullying isn’t illegal in the U.S. as long as it’s not tied to a protected class like sex or race.) When something is upsetting but not illegal — like a boss who’s simply a jerk — whether or not to involve HR usually depends on how egregious the situation is. In many cases, HR won’t intervene but instead will give you suggestions of approaches you can try on your own … often starting with, “Have you talked to your boss directly about this?” That can still be helpful! But it might not be what you were hoping for by involving them.

If what you report is concerning enough and you have skilled HR people, they might talk with your boss about the situation and coach him or her on effective ways to proceed. It’s in the company’s best interests to have managers who don’t alienate employees and drive them away, so a good HR person will speak up if they see that happening.

In most cases they won’t have the authority to just stop the problem on their own. They can coach and counsel a bad manager, they can suggest training, they can loop in the bad manager’s boss, and the good ones can make sure you’re protected from retaliation for talking to them in the first place. But unless laws are being broken, they often won’t have the power to do much beyond that. That’s not the same as taking your boss’s side; it’s just a recognition of the limits of HR’s role and authority.

That means that going to HR about a bad boss can be a risky move and depends heavily on how good your HR team is. Some are great and will do all they can to intervene when they hear of a bullying boss while simultaneously protecting you. Others are not so great and might not intervene at all or might intervene in ways that make the situation worse (as yours seems to have done). So you really, really need to know how your HR team operates.

To find that out, try talking to others to see what their experience has been. You can even ask an HR rep outright how they handle situations like yours before you go into detail. But if you’re not sure, I’d proceed with caution before going to HR about a jerky boss. HR people might disagree with that, but the reality is that it can be risky and there’s a not-insignificant chance that it will get back to your boss.

In your case, it sounds like HR didn’t help you at all, shared the conversation with your boss, and then stood by doing nothing while your boss retaliated against you for talking to them. That’s a sign of especially bad HR — and while it’s something you need to watch out for at other companies too, it’s not a universal (or acceptable) way of operating.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 109 comments… read them below }

  1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

    This is definitely a know your organization thing. Some places I have worked going to HR was pointless because there was no follow-up and odds are you were going to be getting a lawyer if you wanted redress. In others, quality of management was taken seriously beyond just legal requirements and changes would be made if a problem was there. You can guess which one was better to work for

    1. pleaset cheap rolls*

      “it’s HR’s job to protect the organization and your manager, even if he or she is a bully or violating policies and laws.”

      This is just stupid. It assumes companies don’t care if their employees violate their own policies or laws. Some might not, but to assume that all want to protect people violating laws or policies if they’re higher us is not logical.

      1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

        They often are concerned about policies and laws violations from their managers – BUT USUALLY IT”S ONLY WHEN THE COMPANY CAN GET INTO LEGAL OR PUBLIC RELATIONS OR FINANCIAL TROUBLE.

        And even then, they may not give a, well, excrement.

    1. Springella*

      I’ve been bullied at work before.

      My advice: don’t bothere and find yourself another job. It’s just not worth it, even in the countries where bullying is illegal (in my country of origin a bully can end up in prison).

  2. Kat*

    Yeah pretty much. I think its common to want to consider HR like your school-counseling office because of how they handle both administrative things (like onboarding or benefits) and also more holistic-seeming things like training and development. But no, they are not here to help you only to protect and advance the company. It is more accurate to think of them like IT. IT manages the technology resources and HR the human ones. They both need their resources to be reliable, effective, productive, compliant and to advance the business. They only need to care about workers being happy or treated well so far as it affects those things.

    1. Lady Meyneth*

      Yes exactly this. HR is there for the company, and the company’s best interests only line up with what’s best for the employees very occasionally. A good HR department will still help individuals, but only with coping mechanisms and dialogue advices.

      It’s Unions that are there for employees, or are supposed to be. I’m not American, but I gather they’re like a bad word in the US. So either they don’t fulfill their function there, or big corporations somehow thoroughly brainwashed people that unionizing is a horrible thing.

      1. Paperwhite*

        So either they don’t fulfill their function there, or big corporations somehow thoroughly brainwashed people that unionizing is a horrible thing.

        20%/80%, pretty much.

      2. B.*

        So either they don’t fulfill their function there, or big corporations somehow thoroughly brainwashed people that unionizing is a horrible thing.

        In my experience it’s both. The worst job I had, that I had to quit without notice for my mental health, was unionized (and mandatory union at that; I seem to recall complaints about pay raises they negotiated taking forever to come through too, but I’m not sure) but others have definitely had anti union propaganda built into the training.

      3. Koalafied*

        I would disagree that the company’s interests only very occasionally line up with what’s best for employees. There are definitely some short-sighted and wrong-headed employers who see things that way and treat their employees terrible as a result, but generally speaking it is in the company’s interest for the employees to be satisfied in their jobs.

        Satisfied employees don’t want to lose a job that they are contented with, so they’re often higher performers, willing to show flexibility in return for flexibility, more pleasant to others they work with, more likely to refer other competent workers to open positions, and things like that, which are all in a company’s best interest. The employers who do this right are not treating employees well purely out of the goodness of their hearts because they see their business as a social service provider giving out jobs as a form of welfare; they have a business with a bottom line to look out for and have made a reasoned business decision that treating their employees well is better for the bottom line in the long run.

        1. Corporate Stooge*

          I think this is an overly generous view of HR, at least in the US. Many, many employers have unhappy employees (overworked, underpaid, chronically harassed, physically exhausted and/or unsafe in their work environments….) I think that many companies decided long ago that profits far outweigh those concerns (looking at you, Amazon warehouses, McDonald’s franchises, chain superstores). They don’t mind if individual workers perform below par; those people are easily replaced—that is, higher profits do not come from satisfied employees, but instead from institutionally poor working conditions.
          What you’re saying may be true for some (maybe even many?) white collar workers, but that leaves a lot of corporate employees with little access to HR and even less support from HR.

        2. Black Horse Dancing*

          I disagree. Most companies happily will work people into the ground as long as they make a buck. Fast way to find out–if the job can be moved overseas, out of the country to a place with crappy employee laws, will they do so? Pretty much the answer is yeah then that company simply wants money and pretty much all of them do so.

    2. Smithy*

      I think that this is a really good way of looking at it. There are letters and commenters all over AAM where there was really high turnover at an organization or team, and it still didn’t reach a place where HR was properly motivated to step in.

      A lot of my friends have been sharing stories over the summer about how all of sudden now our workplaces are taking a more urgent approach to Diversity and Equity. Across the board, I’d say the assumption is that the motivation is largely out of fear of negative public attention.

      Making the decision to go to HR is often very emotion because it does often feel like a decision that’s been made after we’ve already tried, and possibly really hard, to fix a situation. I think that emotional heft can make the end of result of not much or nothing happening even more demoralizing.

      1. HR Help Us*

        Agreed. The motivation comes from a wish to avoid negative publicity, not a wish to truly connect HR professionals with POC in the organization. Which is too bad, because presumably a lot of HR folks have skills and experience that could really help improve DEI efforts at a lot of organizations.

  3. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    In general, I’d say no. There are possibly edge cases where you’re more valuable than your supervisor, but generally that’s not going to be the case. Your best recourse to deal with a bad manager is to vote with your feet and start interviewing for new positions in another division, branch, or company.

    1. NerdyKris*

      One employee might not be more valuable than a supervisor, but a bad supervisor affects many employees, and a department that drives away everyone that works there is not a well functioning department. A competent HR will realize that the effect of a bad supervisor is more than just one employee.

      1. sunny-dee*

        I had a terrible manager in a department with 40+% turnover and a (senior) role with 75% turnover within that department. HR basically shrugged and said they could recommend more management training but it was really my job to learn how to make sure my manager was happy and perhaps I should take some training and learn self-reflection.

        1. Han Solo's Members Only Jacket*

          That’s why I hate the whole “manage up” mind-set. Managers can be as awful as they want to be and it’s up to the employee to dance around and please them on top of getting their actual work done.

          1. Koalafied*

            Managing up doesn’t mean it’s the employee’s obligation to cater to a bad or abusive manager, and HR telling someone experience abuse they need to “manage up” are themselves incompetent at their own jobs. Incompetence reigns, but managing up is a legit strategy for adapting to your manager’s non-abusive on-the-job weaknesses, because we all have strengths and weaknesses in our roles. Managing up means figuring out that your boss doesn’t look at meeting invitations very closely until the day of the meeting, so if there’s important information in the invite it’s easier to just make sure you get that information to her another way than to try to change her deeply ingrained habit. Or that she provides better feedback if you give her two full days to review your work before the deadline than if you ask her to turn it around same-day. Or figuring out that you can get faster responses to your emails if you always start the email with a 1-2 sentence summary of the issue or question you have, or if you bold their name along with any questions you want them to answer. You adapt because you have the greatest amount of control over what you do, and you’re much more likely to get the outcome you want if you try doing your own work in different ways to figure out what gets the best result with your manager.

            IOW, you “manage up” with a manager who is mildly disorganized or has a different working style but is otherwise supportive, reasonable, and competent at her job. If the manager is being abusive or can’t do their job properly, that’s not a “manage up” situation, that’s a situation where the manager’s manager needs to be managing down!

      2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        One employee might not be more valuable than a supervisor, but a bad supervisor affects many employees, and a department that drives away everyone that works there is not a well functioning department. A competent HR will realize that the effect of a bad supervisor is more than just one employee.

        If you’re hoping to play that card, I suggest you go to HR as a team.

      3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        I’ve seen this work out this way once. I started a new job and the boss turned out to be a holy terror. Until one day, a couple of months after I started, he suddenly changed and became much better to work with. At my performance review the following year, he apologized for having been abrasive(!!) Turned out, a longtime employee had gone to HR with a complaint. It was a small company (maybe 100-200 people), the boss had only been there a few months before I started and the complaining employee was one of the first to have started at the company several years ago. And we had a really great HR department. It also helped that the boss was open to accepting criticism and to changing. He was really close to running most of his reports off at the beginning though. A lot of us would’ve probably left if he hadn’t changed. It was a fast growing company that had just won a large contract, and could not afford to lose people. Sadly, this was the only time I’ve seen it work out this way.

  4. Grace Poole*

    I worked for a problematic supervisor for several years, and I (and literally dozens of coworkers) went to HR about their workplace behavior. But, as Alison said, being a bully isn’t illegal. Eventually someone with enough clout complained, and this supervisor was moved into a position where they didn’t have any direct reports. Their behavior hasn’t changed a bit, though.

    1. Darsynia*

      I guess one of the takeaways is that if you can’t advocate for a change in leadership, the best you can do is advocate for yourself and try to protect yourself as best you can. Sometimes that comes in the form of redirecting energy that you’d like to go towards changing things that won’t change, so that the energy goes towards shoring up your own self-esteem and making sure you don’t fall into negative thought patterns. It doesn’t feel great as an alternative, unfortunately.

      The other thing is that as much as we’d love to think about karma getting everyone in the end, the bad bosses and jerk managers all have to support themselves somehow! Monetarily, that is. Our best way to serve our own needs can sometimes be to refuse to ‘support’ the bad attitudes by letting them get us down.

    2. crejitad*

      I worked for an overbearing boss years ago. What finally got people to act (not HR, but his boss & the VP) was the pattern of high turnover when finding & training qualified people took time. We had contractors walk off the job because of him. So sadly it seems that if the company is disfunctional enough, the problem would need to cost the company is some way in order for them to act.

      1. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

        Sounds similar to a situation I was in. I had a really horrible boss (although she was lots of fun in a social setting, go figure). She was awful to people in other departments as well. But she was really smart and delivered on difficult projects. The company more or less ignored her management style unless HR realised she had the highest turnover in the company. Then they had a meeting with her … I don’t know whether anything came of it. I never saw anything change.

    3. Pink Dahlia*

      Same experience, the guy made women cry regularly and was finally moved from a people manager to a “product manager” which wasn’t even a thing before that.

    4. Nicotene*

      Yeah, I know for a fact that a bunch of people who quit after working for ex-manager left explicitly bad exit interviews and then took to Glassdoor to complain. The company has never done anything about it even after knowing they’ve lost 4 excellent employees over the issue. Why on earth would I think talking to HR would make a difference??

    5. Mockingjay*

      I’ve gone to HR about a former boss. What worked for me was to invoke some of Alison’s advice: decide what outcome I wanted before the meeting. In my case (note, I wasn’t the only person who had issues and was talking to HR about boss), I wanted a clearer description of my duties and reporting chain. I had been assigned to a new large project and got conflicting tasks from the project lead and from the boss, literally daily. I decided against bringing up anything personality related (boss was hot-tempered, sent random emails with shouty capitals, and couldn’t remember what tasks he assigned from one day to the next) and focused on tangible things that could be fixed. Because I was able to articulate in clear terms what I wanted without drama, HR was able to get about 90% of things resolved.

      (Boss ended up splitting the team, promoting two staff to run them, and everyone was much happier, including him. His workload had crept up over the years as the company grew and I don’t think he realized how bad things were until HR sat him down.)

      Long story short: have a couple of acceptable resolutions in mind when you talk to HR. It helps them find middle ground for all involved.

    6. Jonno*

      The same thing happened to me! The supervisor in question also resigned at the start of the pandemic, so now they’re gone. Morale soared. They were truly terrible.

    7. anon e mouse*

      It’s funny this came up because I have a draft in my Gmail of a letter to Alison a lot like this, but I didn’t send it because I was pretty sure the answer was “either quit or unionize”. In my case, the person is a senior manager who is not only personally kind of sh*tty to direct reports but has also refocused our division on work that nobody likes, and hired at least one incompetent middle manager with several direct reports who is a problem in his own way. Currently I think the body count of people who have quit the organization because they couldn’t stand working for him is about 4-5 in a line of reporting of about 70? And I am personally aware of another 4 or 5 highly skilled people who are actively looking for either a new position or an internal transfer, and I’m sure there are more among the people who I don’t know well enough to know whether they are or aren’t. It’s crazy how much damage a toxic manager can do, and also crazy how much most organizations just… don’t care.

  5. Junior Dev*

    I ended up getting a terrible manager to act bearable by getting my therapist to write a doctor’s note saying I needed a disability accommodation of having my assignments written down in detail, and HR helped in this case with mediating because communication had broken down so badly. It was because she’d change her mind on what she thought I should be doing, not tell me, and punish me for not reading her mind. There were other accommodations like “no multi-hour meetings without breaks” (she would schedule us for 4 hours at a time and expect us to “work together” the whole time) that were basically just stuff most people would want at work anyway but 1) my boss was too bad at her job to understand that and 2) I genuinely do have mental health problems that take those things from “taxing and annoying” to “likely to trigger a breakdown.”

    I later transferred to another job at the same company and my new boss got the list of accommodations and was confused, and I told him he didn’t need to worry about it because all of it was specific to my prior boss, and I never had a problem with any of that stuff again.

    1. Rachel in NYC*

      I think that’s brilliant. I doubt it would work in a small company but any place decent sized, I would think that could be a good solution.

      Assuming a therapist agreed to the medical need, of course.

    2. yala*

      My coworker frequently recommends that I go to HR with department problems that range from poor communication to outright bullying, but honestly, it’s never made anything better. The one exception is regarding the ADA coordinator. I did manage to get some actual accommodations for my ADHD. (There was something that felt rather like retaliation that happened after it got put in place, but it’s wibbly enough that trying to bring it up would be more trouble than it’s worth.)

      Sometimes I still fantasize about going to HR with All My Grievances, but I know that really wouldn’t accomplish much. It’s not their job to babysit. It’s not even, really, their job to give my manager resources on managing people with ADHD or Autism or anything like that. It’s their job to protect the company, and to facilitate a productive work environment. So the fantasy stays primarily a fantasy, and maybe something that I vent about to my therapist sometimes.

      At the end of the day, it’s really just on me to try and work as best I can. I can’t make anyone like me, not even my manager. I can just do my best work.

    1. Teapot Librarian*

      I took a human resources course as an undergrad, and the professor’s thesis was “here are ways to be a good employer so that your employees don’t unionize.” So yeah, HR is there to protect the company.

      1. anon for this*

        Treat ’em just well enough that they won’t think they could do better. Lovely. (Snark directed at your former professor, not you.)

      2. RJ*

        I ran into a similar experience when I took an HR course in the past and it really discouraged me from pursuing it as a future (I was deciding on a major and went with BA). My own experience with HR has not been good, so Alison’s advice is spot on. You need to take the temperature of your HR department before you decide to launch a full complain against a jerky boss.

    2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      Sometimes it’s a mere happy coincidence that protecting the company protects the employee.

      1. MH*

        Head of company publisher supposedly had a big mouth and told our receptionist everything, and she, in turn, would tell the troublemakers what happened.

    3. NerdyKris*

      Protecting the company includes retaining employees and keeping morale up. Keeping a supervisor that drives away all talent or exposes it to legal problems is not protecting the company.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Right, but as I said in the response, that doesn’t automatically mean “side with the manager.” Sometimes protecting the company/acting in its best interests can mean something very different.

      1. Junior Dev*

        I’m glad that you clarified that. I think a lot of people think they’re being savvy or realistic when they say “HR is there for you, not the company” but the end result is often that people experiencing problems have no idea what their options are.

        In general I appreciate how this blog helps people figure out whether and how to advocate for themselves rather than just saying “there’s no point, you have no power at work.”

  6. lazy intellectual*

    I generally wouldn’t recommend going to HR for issues outside of legal/Very Serious issues. HR has no incentive to deal with your garden-variety crappy manager. However, if your org does anonymous upward evaluations, I recommend taking advantage of those. In some organizations, if a manager gets enough bad reviews, they get fired.

    1. pleaset cheap rolls*

      “HR has no incentive to deal with your garden-variety crappy manager.”

      No incentive? What about employee retention? And more generally the well being of the firm or organization?

      1. Arvolin*

        Businesses generally don’t try to get everything as good as it can possibly be. They will usually try in some areas, but for most purposes will go for good enough. A crappy boss might be good enough. He or she will get enough done. Another boss might do considerably better, but that’s a hypothetical, and another boss might do worse. There may not be a good alternative manager easily available. The risk is that of spending time and money and attention to make the department somewhat better, and it winding up worse, possibly going below the OK level.

        If the manager gets enough work out of the department without needing too much money, and without creating much legal liability, the manager probably is considered good enough.

  7. Former Retail Lifer*

    I worked at a site that consistently had the lowest scores on employee morale and satisfaction surveys in our region so they sent HR in to investigate. They asked me to be honest, so I gave them several concreate, verifiable examples of how our boss was causing the low morale and dissatisfaction, and they relayed that information back to him. He retaliated by writing me up for extremely stupid things, some of which were clearly not my fault. I got fired.

    At another job, a manager was reported for a multitude of issues, from sexual harassment to OSHA violations. HR came in to do an investigation, got corroborating reports from many employees, but determined that wasn’t enough proof to do anything. Nothing changed. I eventually quit.

    I probably won’t ever trust HR as a result of these incidents. HR at my current company has been great with helping me with an FMLA application and helping me address and work through issues with a problem employee, but I won’t ever trust them beyond that.

  8. gawaine42*

    HR may not be helping because they’re in the bag for that manager or for managers in general. Or because they’re lazy. Or because the manager has something that makes them think that acting against them will cause a lawsuit (for example, if the manager has complained about someone in the past, and they’re concerned it will look like retaliation). Or because there’s bias involved, and both the manager and HR are biased against Morlocks or only act positively to people from Latvia. Or – and this is hard to face – because bullying and abuse are sometimes in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes cultural. I don’t want to say that this is the case for the OP, but I’ve seen people who mistook terseness and directness for bullying, or corrective action emails for abuse. I’ve also seen people who just couldn’t take nuanced feedback, to the point where any feedback to them was something I would have thought of as rude, but it was the only way to get through to them. There’s just not enough detail on the OP’s problems or the OP’s experience to play internet judge and jury.

    If you’re able to look for a new job, that’s usually the solution to any of these problems, but keep an eye out for a pattern. Have you had good experiences with other managers? Are you seeing problems with other supervisory relationships? Have you been objectively performing? Have you had emails or communications that, in retrospect, should have tipped you off that something was wrong? Do you have friends that are comfortable giving you honest feedback? (That’s the test – you don’t actually need to ask them for more feedback, but if your friends are afraid to talk to you, that may be a sign that you can’t take feedback).

    At least in the US, I do think it’s a red flag for someone to talk about bullying and abusive emails and lawsuits and laws and policies all at once, since the phrasing sounds immature. It sounds like someone who doesn’t understand the differences between those words, and how they’d play out. I’m sure some of that is frustration with things not going the OP’s way, but there’s just too many concepts and too little detail.

    1. Mel_05*

      Yup. At my last job HR was pals with my grandboss and she was notoriously mean to people. But she was awful to people in our department, because our grandboss was awful to us. There’s no way that anyone would have expected action from HR.

    2. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      Very well-put. It’s not always that HR is evil and only looking out for the company, but they have processes they have to follow too and the bigger the problem, the more they have to document; one complaint often isn’t going to do it. From an individual employee standpoint, leaving is the best option; but when employees leave, HR not only has no incentive to continue an investigation or discipline procedure, but also the jerk will probably lawyer up too, so not having the departed employee available for questions or documentation anymore often means HR no longer has a “case.”

      In one case at my org, the VP that oversaw HR (in addition to a bunch of other departments) was the problem. He loved sexual innuendo jokes and gross “compliments” and had multiple sexual harassment complaints and a revolving door of EAs for his office. The actual HR people were trying to be helpful, but asking them to discipline the HR Director’s boss? not going to happen without higher authority. That one had to go above and beyond HR to the Board to finally “retire” him. It did have the benefit though of reorg-ing HR to report directly to the President rather than a VP, and eliminating that VP position entirely.

    3. Forrest*

      I don’t think it’s a red flag, exactly, but it definitely sounds like someone who is unfamiliar with bureaucracy–and I mean bureaucracy quite neutrally, things like policies, procedures, hierarchies, people having defined roles and ways of doing things, different sets of priorities, etc, which can obviously be stifling in some cases but are a fact of life in a larger organisation if you want anything to get done.

      If you’re in the type of job where understanding bureaucracy is part of your role, then I agree that this kind of language is a red flag, and “an abusive email” could be “an email with developmental feedback written in a direct tone”. But there are lots of jobs where bureaucracy isn’t part of people’s role, and those are also quite likely to be the jobs where HR/management sees you as fairly replaceable: service-level jobs, retail, hospitality, call centre roles etc. If OP is in that kind of role, then I don’t think it is a red flag, both because understanding bureaucracy and the possible steps between “going to HR” and “starting a law suit” *isn’t their job*, and because the likelihood that HR dismissed their problems rather than deal with their manager is that much more likely.

      But if you are in that kind of role, ALL THE MORE reason why you should be unionised, because then you’ve got someone who does understand bureaucracy and how to navigate it and who absolutely is (in principle at least) on YOUR side.

  9. Sled dog mama*

    This sounds so similar to something that happened to me a few years ago.
    I discovered that my boss was falsifying my time cards. (I was exempt so it didn’t affect my pay but because I worked for two business units where my hours went affected the productivity for both units). I also heard anecdotally that he was altering others tie cards to improve his numbers. So I went to HR, my brain said this is an HR issue, he is doing something that creates a problem for the company and I’m the only exempt person in the department so he could actually be altering how much people get paid with this.
    At HR I learned that the receptionist (really big company) viewed herself as a gate-keeper and refused to let me speak to anyone else until I told her why, then she still refused to let me speak to anyone. When I gave up hoping that an actual HR rep would walk through I returned to the opposite side of the building to find that she had called my supervisor to report that I was attempting to report his falsification of time sheets. That place was some kind of crazy.
    And nowhere in this did I mention that the company has been rated one of the world’s most ethical companies for the last decade…..

    1. Nicotene*

      Yeah with something like outright fraud I’m not sure where to go, but I’m not sure HR would be my first stop depending. In nonprofits there are sometimes procedures for whistleblowing that state who you have to go to, and sometimes it’s senior board members or the executive director. Even then, I’ve seen mixed results as sometimes fraud goes all the way to the top.

    2. Charlotte Lucas*

      I also worked for one of the “World’s Most Ethical Companies.” I heard anecdotally that they were also falsifying time cards. (Government contract & we had to report hours worked, even for exempt staff. I was told by my manager that they reported 40 hours/week/exempt staff member no matter what.) Also, they used government money to pay their lobbyist’s salary. (They did stop & pay it back when they were audited.)

    3. Roscoe's Pet*

      For something like that, I would report to the internal auditing group – at government contractors, they generally have that function. If it happened on government contracts – call the agency’s IG – THEY will definitely take it seriously

  10. Mel_05*

    It totally depends. But HR can be anyone from a really great, motivated person, to a vengeful sadist, to just some guy who’s pals with the owner and wanted a job. So, your mileage may vary.

    They also can’t over-rule their boss. When I left one company the HR guy was thrilled with my feedback, because a lot of people were leaving and he was collecting all of our, very similar, feedback to push the owner to make changes – but he couldn’t just insist on those changes.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      I am finally working with an HR department that is functional and led by a reasonable, empathetic, and smart person after years of everything ranging from impotent to sexist/good ol’ boy to byzantine. The key sign is that people feel comfortable bringing issues to HR and that HR has the good judgment to handle them effectively and make it very clear that retaliation for speaking to HR is completely unacceptable. (Some days, I think the head of HR might like to be less approachable, when they end up with disputes that could easily be resolved by people communicating directly with one another, but the reverse is worse.) Sadly, I get the feeling that this is not as common as it should be.

      HR works for the company – not the employee but also not managers (unless they own the company). If a manager is putting the company at risk – whether it’s discrimination, violating labor laws, causing expensive turnover, resulting in a host of negative GlassDoor reviews, or what – that’s a problem for the company that HR should care about. Having someone in a management position who’s exposing you to risk or losing the company buckets of money should be a problem for anyone in HR.

    2. HMM*

      Pretty much this. There are as many ways of implementing HR as there are people and your HR team will only be as effective as leadership allows. I say this being an HR person myself. It’s one of the biggest frustrations of the job.

      As Alison mentioned in a comment above, HR does exist to support the organization, not the employees, but what that looks like in reality can be very much pro-employee. It’s not like HR folks are gleefully rubbing their hands together thinking of ways to screw employees over. To see it as that black and white is to think that HR works in some kind of vacuum, when we’re are subject to larger internal and external forces at play just like every other role and team in a company.

  11. Hey Karma, Over Here*

    Dear OP,
    Your company sucks. This is not indicative at all of how companies work.
    Your manager is managing badly.
    Your manager is human being-ing badly.
    Your manager sucks.
    Your HR is acting worse than ineffectively, but actively badly (in almost a moral sense of doing harm to you as an employee.)
    Your HR is acting in ways not even in the best interest of the company long term.
    Your HR department sucks.
    Your company flat out sucks.
    Don’t let this color your view of the working world.
    good luck.

    1. Dream Jobbed*

      Please tell us how you really feel! :D

      But agreed. OP, try not to absorb too much of this negativity into yourself. Hopefully if you know the place is toxic you will be able to deal with it better. Just realize it’s them, you are fine, and do a good job while figuring out what your ultimate solution is.

      I’ve survived a bad place by remembering how much worse homelessness would be, and knowing I had the power to find a much better position. (Which I did, it just took awhile. But I can survive anything if there’s an end in sight.) Good luck!

    2. pleaset cheap rolls*

      I want to highlight this:

      “Your HR is acting in ways not even in the best interest of the company long term.”

  12. irene adler*

    I was dealing with a bully. Management said they could do nothing about him (yet throughout most of this, they were the OWNERS of the company.). I tried the EAP we have at work (there’s no formal HR).

    Mixed results. They gave me advice on how to avoid and reduce confrontations. Suggested self-care when I did have an “encounter” with the bully that didn’t go well. They suggested that I take the long view and try to find other employment (after I explained that management was not taking steps to alleviate the situation).

    They directed me to a page on the EAP website with job hunting info. Wonder if management realizes this. After all, they pay for the EAP service.

    1. Smithy*

      I imagine that having the job hunting service as part of EAP helps a lot of companies out in the long run.

      In my experience, a significant area of staff dissatisfaction tis when people don’t feel like they are getting opportunities or recognition. It can be raises, promotions, a combination of both. Sometimes that frustration can be based on inappropriate expectations or evaluations of their own experience – but often I find that frustration is more a version of “I’ve been doing this job really well for X time, and therefore it’s fair for Y title and Z salary.”

      For the most part, I haven’t met a lot of managers very comfortable with saying that the reason a title or salary aren’t available is simply because they either have no control over the budget or the budget simply doesn’t allow for that growth. Therefore managers give weird or vague reasons about staff needing more time/experience instead of being more direct about limitations for growth within a concrete time period. It may genuinely be easier for a company to encourage the EAP to step in there rather than trying to coach managers on how to walk that line where it doesn’t feel like they’re pushing anyone out.

  13. MK*

    To address the issuing the letter specifically, I would say that for HR to interfere with a manager over hostile emails, their contact would have to be pretty outrageous. The OP describes their boss as abusive, and I don’t want to question that, but the distinction between a jerk and an abuser is not always clear, especially to people who don’t experience behaviour first hand.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      They can also provide coaching to a manager on how to better communicate with their staff, too. One of my supervisors tends to come across as terse and strident in email. While it doesn’t read as abusive, it’s not the most constructive way to talk to people and could easily and reasonably be read in a harsher tone than was intended. They have received coaching on this because we’re not going for “not abusive”, we’re going for “respectful and professional”. (And, frankly, when they do a re-read before sending, they’re pretty good at cleaning up problematic things themselves; it’s their ready-fire-aim emails that are not what we expect.)

  14. Hiring Mgr*

    Unfortunately many folks have been burned by going to HR for things like this – not only because nothing was done, but because the very fact of them going to HR made things worse (gets back to manager, etc..). On the other hand, I don’t know anyone who’s had HR resolve something like this in a positive way, so like others I’d say be careful here.

  15. Goonies for Life*

    Yep, been there. After an awful HR experience at a previous job, I no longer trust any HR Department. They are a tool of the organization, and their sole function is to protect it at all costs. Period. Never forget that, even if they act friendly and concerned. It’s all a farce. There’s really no set of professional standards (the “certifications” are a joke), which is why the HR experience can vary widely from company to company. That said, tool is the keyword here. HR is a tool, so use them as such. But be prepared: document, document, document! Dates, times, what happened, what was said, etc. Document any encounters with HR as well. It’s a lot of work, but if you ever need to take legal action (hopefully not), you have a timeline and details.

    1. Lisle von Rhoman*

      Agreed. HR is not to be trusted in any way shape or form. Anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves.

    2. AnyaT*

      Completely agree. I worked for a quasi-govt organization several years ago that brought in a new director to oversee the 15 or so of us. For reasons unknown, she decided she hated every single one of us and was the most horrendously bullying, abusive person I have every encountered in a workplace. Screaming, threats, physical intimidation, psychological warfare – she did it all. After about 3 months all of us – every single employee except for her personal secretary – went to HR and made formal complaints against her. HR promised each of our statements would be anonymous and a serious investigation would be made. Then she dodged all our calls and emails. About 3 weeks later the HR manager & director called every single one of us individually into a room and terminated us. That organization paid out tens of thousands in severance to us all and would have had to completely restructure and rehire an entire team.

      So no, do not count on HR to help in any way, shape or form.

    3. L Dub*


      Full disclosure: I got burned about a year ago, so I’m likely biased. I reported to a senior manager that was harassing me, and at least one other person that I knew about. I had documentation and one incident that was witnessed by another person. I approached HR, and even told them all I wanted was to transfer to a different department. (I even knew the HR person as we worked together at a previous company and they had recommended me for this new role!)

      I got fired. I was actually told when I got terminated that it was for being an unhappy employee. No joke. They did pay me a large severance, but I actually got fired for being unhappy when all I wanted was to get away from that senior manager.

      There’s almost nothing that would make me trust HR again, after that. I’m in leadership so I generally have to work with them on things like certain levels of discipline, so I’m polite and civil but I can’t imagine ever bringing forth an issue of my own to them ever again.

  16. Competent HR Manager*

    Depending on what you mean by “persona non grata”, it sounds to me like your manager is retaliating against you for going to HR with what sounds like legitimate concerns. It may not be based off of a protected class as laid out in state or federal law, but unless your Handbook is written poorly, your policy states that you have the right to go to HR with legitimate concerns without fear of retaliation. HR has been put on notice -they have a duty to look into this behavior and address the situation.

    As a seasoned HR pro who has spent a majority of their 15+ year career in Employee Relations, I am sorry this has happened to you. While HR are humans, it is one discipline that I have experienced during the years where you can have ZERO HR knowledge or expereince and get a job in HR. This is because there is a mindset out there by non-HR people that HR is an easy job that anyone can do.

  17. Voodoo Priestess*

    Some of the best things I have learned here are from the “Your boss is a jerk and you should leave” type posts. I think for a lot of people, change is scary and we want an improved workplace but don’t want to leave and have a bad boss or culture. A third party wake-up call is valuable. I tend to believe at this point, if you can’t make personal changes to improve your situation, you need to look elsewhere. Trying to get another person or a company to change, unless they want to, is a fool’s game. If I had an abusive boss and became persona non gratta, I’d be polishing up my resume. No HR intervention is going to work.

  18. La Triviata*

    At a previous (horrible) office, there was one man who used sexual harassment as his go-to way of functioning. As far as I know, he didn’t do anything physical, but he’d make sexual comments on a routine basis. He’d often make comments about a woman’s putative/presumed sexual activities in front of management, Board members, etc. He often seemed to focus on women in a position of responsibility, although those on the lower tiers of the organization weren’t exempt. The organization had a peer review of their business practices and were told that he was a sexual harassment suit just waiting to happen and he should be reined in. Management never did anything; a number of women were driven out of the organization. He eventually left on his own, with no repercussions for anything.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Fow what it’s worth, leaving “on his own with no repercussions” might not have been 100% his choice. Its an old-time good old boy solution: “Mister, you’re great. We love you. But you’ve gotten complaints and we’re going to have to do something. I can probably put it off a few months, so maybe you should call A.B. at XYZ Co. about the new director’s position they’re about to post.”

  19. Allonge*

    I would add two points: in my experience, in the public sector you are expected to show some trust in the system by going to HR with certain issues. Not because they are magical problem-solvers there, but it helps your case if you follow the procedures.

    The other is that sometimes it works out better if you go to HR for advice, instead of with a complaint. It might not sound like a huge difference, but can yield better results.

    1. Governmint Condition*

      In my state, there are wide protections for employees who report issues, as long as you follow the procedures. If you take one step outside the process, all protections are null and void. So if you have to report something, make sure you research the proper procedures and follow them to the letter.

  20. learnedthehardway*

    I see a lot of distrust of HR in comments here, and wanted to point out that HR can only do as much as the leadership of the company will allow them to do. HR is an advisory service within the company, when it comes to these types of issues (bullying, harassment, etc. etc.) Even if the issue could result in a lawsuit, HR generally can only warn the company leadership of the risk, and recommend a course of action. They can’t force the company to do the right thing.

    So, I think a lot of the distrust of HR really should be anger at the leadership of the organization. Yes, HR is there to protect the company, and there are HR screwups who shouldn’t be trusted to walk a dog, let alone deal with human beings, but the leadership of the company sets the tone for how employees are treated. Poor leadership means that HR’s hands are tied (if the HR function is good) or that HR is not competent (if the HR function is not good). You can bet that if HR tells you they can’t help with a legitimate issue, it’s because the executive team doesn’t care/is resistant. If they’re good, they’ve likely already fought that battle and lost, or know that it won’t go anywhere.

    I think it would be helpful to redirect the distrust of HR to executive management, who set the tone for the organization, and who are the people with the actual power to make decisions. HR is just the messenger, a lot of the time.

    1. pcake*

      Sometimes, though, it really is HR – or at least a particular person in HR. I’d say that’s fairly frequent at clueless organizations.

    2. Absurda*

      I was thinking exactly this. HR just may not have the authority to do anything other than document and notify the grand boss and boss that there’s been a complaint. From my experience in the work world (not in HR), HR doesn’t have the authority to fire or discipline anyone. They can advise, they can raise issues/concerns, note the risk to the company but it’s ultimately up to management what’s done with problem employees.

      HR might try to mediate between OP and manager, or try to coach manager, but if manager doesn’t want to co-operate I don’t think there’s much HR can do about that unless grand boss steps in and makes it happen. Advising OP on how to navigate an a-hole boss may be the only thing they can really offer.

  21. CanadianHR*

    Thank-you for saying this Alison, “In most cases they won’t have the authority to just stop the problem on their own.” One of the most frustrating things I find about HR is that I can present to Senior Management and have data and facts to back up what I am saying, but they can decide to go in the complete opposite direction. It is HR’s job to advise, we cannot usually force the company to do anything.

    1. Black Horse Dancing*

      This is sad because employees have no one then. HR is basically useless as they can be overridden. Why go to HR at all save for FMLA clarification or ADA?

    2. Aitch Arr*


      Better companies will trust HR’s advice, but even then a company is only as good as its weakest manager.

  22. irene adler*

    I’ll say this about one very big, multi-division company I worked at. They did right a bad situation.

    For some reason the HR at the main office wanted to visit all the sites in each division.
    So we got all dressed up (this is a lab facility) and welcomed them. They gave a little pep talk.

    Then the head of HR wanted to review the employee manual with us.

    Huh? We were never given HR manuals. We didn’t know they existed.

    So the head looked over at our HR person for a response. She explained that she didn’t give out employee manuals because she feared we would lose them.

    HR head then read aloud all the benefits and policies contained in the employee manual. Many of which, we never knew about.

    So, at the end of the reading, HR head handed his business card out to each one of us. Then told us to call if we ever had questions about any of the company policies. Then he made arrangements for each one of us to have our own copy of the employee manual. Those arrived in a few days.

    Since then, whenever our HR person wouldn’t allow us to take advantage of a benefit, we’d pull out the HR head’s business card and say, “you think he’ll agree with that?”
    Then she’d backtrack and all would be good.

    1. Dr. Doll*

      You didn’t…get…manuals because…the HR lady…was afraid you would LOSE THEM? What on earth kind of reason is that?!! That is what COPY MACHINES literally exist to take care of!

      Good grief.

    2. Phony Genius*

      I’m surprised the HR head didn’t either fire her, or at least give her a stern warning about allowing employees to use their benefits. If he had done either, you wouldn’t find yourself having to whip out his business card at her.

    3. NotAnotherManager!*

      Wow. EVERYONE has a copy of the staff manual, and it’s posted on the intranet. It’s reviewed as part of orientation. And, for every benefit and right laid out, there is documentation of expectations and consequences, so not giving to employees isn’t just keeping them from knowing what they’re due but also a huge liability in a wrongful termination suit since the employee may not have been apprised of the policies in the manual.

      I hope she was at least reprimanded, since she wasn’t fired. That seems like some fundamental part-of-your-job stuff.

  23. Wisteria*

    It depends very much on the individual HR person and the amount of documentation you have. I had an overly punitive boss who first wrote me up and then a week later wrote a PIP, all with the help of Lucinda from HR. I fought back against the PIP bc they didn’t follow their internal guidelines, and Lucinda said, “Those are just guidelines.” I convinced my skip level boss to walk back the PIP, then I went to Maggie, Lucinda’s boss to get the write up revoked. I had all my documentation in a row, Maggie reviewed it, and my write up was revoked. So, you can’t make a general comment about HR.
    Lucinda was promoted to a manager like a month later, which still has me shaking my head. If one of her current HR director reports works with some overly punitive manager to write up or PIP some hapless individual contributor, that person will be hosed.

  24. Toaster_strudel*

    I’ve found that it’s better to go to a union rep if you’re unionized over HR. That being said, pick your union rep carefully as well. Not all union reps are the same and some of them seem to be in the union to toe the company line and keep them apprised of the union’s activities. I had an issue at my last company where management tried to pin disciplinary action on me for something absolutely ridiculous. I worked in a call center and had a customer being abusive. We were taught in training that we were allowed to give a warning in that case and then hang up. I followed that training and did just that. When that call got pulled they tried to tell me I “didn’t try hard enough to diffuse the situation” even though I did exactly as they trained. In other words I didn’t put up with enough abuse first. Call me crazy, but when someone gets abusive, diffusing the situation isn’t usually possible and nobody should have to put up with being verbally attacked.

    Anyway, I went to a union rep that I was friendly with and he was absolutely on my side. He was going to attend the disciplinary meeting with me to be my steward. Well last minute, management changed the meeting date to one where he had a prior scheduled appointment and wouldn’t give me the option to reschedule so I had to find a new rep on the fly. I approached someone else that I kinda knew but not as much as the first one. She did nothing. She did less than nothing actually. When I explained the situation she seemed like she was trying to be fair and equal. When we got in the meeting with management she just let them do whatever they wanted to me and said it was my fault that I didn’t deal with enough abuse. At that point I’d already been job hunting and had a few interviews because that situation was ridiculous but it certainly wasn’t the first event in the pattern of abuse I saw. I got offered my current job a week later and never looked back.

    1. irene adler*

      Union or HR- seems like a crap shoot whether someone helps the situation or just lets the employee twist in the wind, so to speak.

    2. Disco Janet*

      I would caution that union reps are not always going to help in a jerk boss situation, though. I was part of a union at my last job, and their primary purpose was to make sure we were getting our lunch breaks and cola raises. Our supervisor swore at someone in a meeting, and she called the union to say she was being bullied. The union rep said having a boss that was a jerk was not a union issue and hung up on her.

  25. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

    I think it’s best to avoid going to HR unless you and everyone else who’s encountering issues with a bad manager is squeaky clean. As long as you have one problematic employee involved, your manager can use needing to be heavy-handed to get that person in line as a justification for their behaviour.

  26. SINE*

    I worked at a company where HR was fantastic but at the end of the day, like Alison writes, HR can’t force the company/managers to do anything. They were generous with offering training and coaching to help employees succeed. Despite all this, there were cases where bad behavior continued (was very well documented) and HR gave hard recommendations for PIPs or firings. BUT some managers never took those steps because “oh but they’re so good at the technical aspects of the job”. Or “oh but they have 4 kids at home they need to provide for”. The managers tried too hard to be nice to the problematic employees but absolutely unkind to those who were affected by the problem people.

  27. employment lawyah*

    I would talk to a lawyer.

    if you’re being targeted BECAUSE you are a [protected class] all gloves are off; see a lawyer ASAP. Even if you’re just IN a protected class you may have a good claim.

    The bad news: Contrary to popular belief, “bullying” is not necessarily illegal. (In my view this is largely a wise thing, since there is no way to realistically define generic bullying which doesn’t rely hugely on employer discretion, which then leads to more problems.)

    Or, to put it more simply: Being an asshole is usually legal, so your boss may be fine legally EVEN IF he is making you miserable.

    But the only way to know for sure is to talk to an attorney in your state, because this is state-law-specific.

    1. Grace Poole*

      The tricky part of the situation with my bad boss was that they were part of a protected class. HR was wary of doing anything to make them look like they were discriminating against talking llamas, but being a talking llama doesn’t mean one can’t also be an abusive jerk.

  28. foolofgrace*

    I once worked at a medium-large law firm (220 attorneys) and the head of our department was a tyrant. Screaming abuse at attorneys and support staff alike. He reduced his admins to tears on multiple occasions. He once threw a stapler at a first-year attorney. HR knew all about this, he’d been like this for years and years, but he brought in a lot of money for the firm and had a good reputation as knowing his stuff, doing seminars and such on his topic of expertise. So guess what happened — yep, nothing. He just kept going through admins and terrorizing everyone.

  29. PSB*

    I have to reluctantly echo Alison and everyone else saying to think carefully about going to HR for anything less than clearly illegal behavior. Even then, have every bit of documentation, witnesses, etc, available when you do.

    Also consider what you know of HR within the organization. Do they have a strong presence in the work environment? Do you know the name of the HR rep for your department? Have you met them before? Do you know how HR has handled other problems? In my experience, HR was more helpful in jobs where they’re an active part of the environment with a physical presence than when they’re a distant, anonymous, centralized group that only has regular contact with management.

    Ultimately, if you want things to change, the cost to management of doing *nothing* has to be higher than the cost of doing *something.*

    A couple of years ago, I was moved to a newly assembled team with an absolute disaster of a manager. He was bullying and wildly inappropriate, openly commenting to his direct reports about other employees’ performance, gender, weight, sexuality, smell, and lots of other things. He was also utterly incompetent at his job. Within six months, 50% of the team had left the organization or transferred internally. Those of us who were left worked together to strategize, make notes, and gather documentation. We presented it all to our HR rep, a very nice person none of us had ever heard of before. She was surprised and seemed appalled at the severity of some of the issues we reported.

    The only thing that changed immediately was that the legally perilous comments stopped. That was nice, but it was really a side issue to the guy’s mistreatment of everyone around him. Unfortunately, the evil boss had worked for the grandboss for years, and the grandboss sheltered him. They’re both very much about control, liked proving to everyone that they’re the boss, and think everyone who isn’t a manager is expendable.

    Our group kept working together and pushing for change. The only thing we had going for us was that our entire department’s high turnover and widespread complaints about managers’ behavior had some attention within the organization. We stayed focused on facts and behaviors. We stressed repeatedly that we weren’t trying to get the evil boss fired, we just wanted to be treated appropriately. When necessary, we made it clear that we knew what our legal rights were, like discussing salaries. And of course, we kept doing our jobs well.

    It took a year but the evil boss was finally moved out of a management role. He and the grandboss tried everything they could think of to avoid the issue, from bribing us with unexpected “equity” raises to a ham-fisted attempt at retaliation that caused enough stress to shorten my life. Ultimately the grandboss realized that protecting the evil boss was more trouble than it was worth.

    In the end, was it worth it? Not at all. I should have left at the very beginning. I stressed myself out for a year and a half for some dumb, quixotic fight to end up with a kinder but still ineffective boss, under the same grandboss. The HR rep did have a role in handling the issue, but it wasn’t decisive, quick, or in any way reassuring.

    In these gray-area situations, or situations that could easily become a gray area, consider your options carefully. Set limits for yourself on how much time and stress it’s worth and if you hit those limits, get out. No matter how right you are, the feeling of righteousness won’t take away the extra stress.

  30. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    I recall advising someone on an issue — data security. And asked, hypothetically “If you received a subpoena or summons to appear and give a deposition, who would you call first?”


    Well perhaps but who else should you call? Answer = YOUR OWN LAWYER. Advise on the situation, tell him/her the truth and absolute truth about everything. And be advised = you may not hear the answers you want to hear.

    The company attorney is concerned about protecting the company and its assets first. Then the management. Then you. And HR – won’t help you.

    I recall in toxic job #1 – HR was of no use. They had a nightmarish manager and went out of their way to protect him. In my long-time experience HR will only come to the advocacy of an underling (non-manager) IF and only IFF —

    1) You have legitimate grounds for a lawsuit and they know you’re going to follow through (you may have already hired an attorney)


    2) The company is going to lose a lot of money – losing major clients, or business or facing fines, or,

    3) The company will face a debacle – either in the workplace OR a public relations nightmare.

    Then – they MIGHT just cave and try to strike a deal. But don’t count on it.

    Devious managers KNOW that HR and their own management will *usually* support them, to the point of litigation – and even then, they will almost always do anything to beat down a complainant.

    The best thing to do –

    1) Shrug your shoulders
    2) Spit (figuratively)
    3) Move on

  31. cheeky*

    In the end, is it all on the employee to get problems like this fixed via a lawsuit if things are really that bad? Is HR pretty much expected by top-level management to take the company’s side and act as a sort of attorney defending them?

    In my experience? Yes.

  32. Argh!*

    I’ve been pondering this very thing this week. Last week my manager sent me an email about supposedly doing something she’d told me not to do — but she had told me it’s okay to do it, and had several opportunities to reverse course. She has an indirect communication style, so I know I got the all-clear because I make a point of getting her to say “yes” or “no.”

    I suspect her boss wrote the email, because she has a super indirect communication style.

    So… if I document that her supposed supervisory direction wasn’t clear enough and find a way to add it to her email, the next step would be…? add a copy of my rebuttal to my HR file? Go above grand-boss’s head? Or just keep documenting everything, which would soothe me a little, but not really chanage the direction of this toxic relationship.

  33. Laura*

    I don’t know what unions are like in the US, but I’m a Union Rep in the UK and our members can come to us with bullying issues. If HR get involved then it does very much feel that they are on the side of the institution/management, but then the member has me (and the full force of the Union) on their side!

  34. Van Wilder*

    Reminds me of my old job. I had a toxic narcissistic boss and her assistant director went along with everything she said. I complained to HR and they did nothing.

    That said, knowing what I know now, HR did their job. My boss was a jerk but it wasn’t HR’s job to fix it. It should have been *someone’s* job to coach my boss, but I can’t blame HR for the pockets of toxic culture at that company.

    Also, there were problems with my work. Most of which were *because* my boss was a jerk and I felt demotivated. But I was definitely playing victim with HR when I knew there was more I could have done.

    I don’t really know my point but I would say, OP: you are not alone. Do what you can do to iron things out with your boss while you’re there, but then move on. It’s been six years since I left my toxic job and I’ve gotten promoted and large raises; I’ve slowly built up my self esteem and my reputation as a professional. You probably need a fresh start but things can get better.

  35. Waving not Drowning (no longer Drowning not Waving)*

    I went to HR once – never again! I had a micromanaging control freak of a manager, who drove me (and other team members) to a breakdown. HR spoke to her once, and there was a change in behaviour for oh, half a day, and HR was not interested in any further follow up despite our requests. She recommended I have mediation with the manager, which I agreed to, but then refused to actually organise it – despite me following it up several times. She also didn’t document my complaint, so there was no official record of it.

    I left rather than continually raise the same issue with HR over and over again when they were content not to do anything.

  36. Original letter writer*

    This is the letter writer. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Alison. I actually ended up finding a new job. I consulted an attorney and came to the conclusion that if things were at the point where I even had to consult an attorney, it was time to get out of there. Sure, I could have stuck it out, let legal letters fly, and maybe even won some peace. But it would have taken months. Instead, I applied to a few jobs and was offered a great position with someone who wants to use my skills, not bully and micromanage me. Considering the situation at my old job, and that my former boss was strategic enough to ingratiate herself with HR from early on (it became very obvious that my boss had a tremendous amount of support), I would have been crazy to turn down a good job offer at this time. Plus, I heard about how another employee’s personnel issue was handled recently. Based on that, I understood clearly that it’s toxic from the top down. I really loved my old job and had the best colleagues there. Leaving them is what hurt the most. But, at the end of the day, they did not have to report to a bully. I, however, did.

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