when should you go to HR — and when should you not?

If you’re like a lot of people at work, you’re not entirely sure what HR does—and when you should or shouldn’t seek their help, and whether you can trust them when you do. Some people think HR is a sort of referee between employees and management (they’re not!) or between employees and other employees (they’re usually not that either). So what is HR all about, and when should you approach them?

What does HR do, exactly?

Human Resources covers a huge range of things: benefits, compensation, personnel policy, legal compliance, investigations, hiring assistance, employee relations (which can be anything from identifying and addressing employee complaints to helping a manager address a performance problem), and much more. In larger organizations, these functions are generally separated within HR; you’ll typically find a group of HR staff who are dedicated to recruiting and hiring, another group dedicated to compensation analysis (like benchmarking salaries and making sure salaries are fair and in line with the market), another dedicated to training and development, and so on.

Employees often don’t see a lot of what HR does. HR might be most visible to you when you’re first hired since they’ll generally be involved in your hiring and onboarding… but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

Is it true that you shouldn’t trust HR?

You often hear people say, “HR works for the company, not the employees.” That’s 100 percent true! But that doesn’t mean that HR is inherently untrustworthy or that you should expect them to be adversarial if you go to them with a problem. It just means that HR’s function is to serve the needs of the company. In many cases, serving the needs of the company also means serving the needs of employees—for example, with things like ensuring the company is offering competitive salaries, addressing bad management, and working to raise morale. But other times, what’s best for the employer won’t be what’s best for employees. When that happens, the employer’s interests are the ones that will govern because that’s who HR works for.

Good HR people do care about what’s fair and right… but keep in mind that their job is to assess issues through the lens of what makes sense for the company.

If I talk to HR, don’t they have to keep what I say confidential?

No! HR employees aren’t doctors or priests, and you shouldn’t assume confidentiality when you’re talking to them. If they hear something that they judge needs to be shared, they’re professionally obligated to do that. In fact, with reports of harassment or discrimination, they’re legally obligated to act.

That doesn’t mean that you can never talk to HR in confidence. There might be things that they’ll agree no one else needs to hear about (like that you’re getting divorced or have a health issue), but you should work out the terms of that confidentiality before sharing anything you want kept private rather than just assuming it will be.

If I’m having problems with a co-worker, should I talk to HR?

A common misconception about HR is that they’re a sort of playground monitor for adults—but they’re not! In most cases of minor interpersonal conflicts with co-workers, you’ll generally be expected to try to solve the problem on your own through direct communication with your colleague, and then bring in your boss if the problem continues and you judge it serious enough to escalate. If you go to HR about that type of problem, they’re likely to simply coach you on how to fix it yourself. (And that can be helpful! Just don’t go in expecting them to intervene on your behalf.)

However, if you believe you’re experiencing (or witnessing) sexual harassment or discrimination, HR is the right place to go. They’re trained to handle those situations and have a legal obligation to investigate any good faith complaint of harassment or discrimination that’s based on race, sex, religion, disability, or other protected characteristics.

What if I’m having problems with my boss?

If the issue isn’t a legal one like harassment or discrimination, this can be a really tricky question. If the behavior is upsetting but not illegal (like a boss who micromanages you or is just a jerk), whether or not to talk to HR depends on how severe the situation is. If it’s not terribly egregious, HR usually won’t intervene, but will coach you on strategies you can try on your own.

But if the problem is a very serious one (like a boss who’s openly abusive or who tells you to do something unsafe or illegal), HR might talk with your boss about the situation and try to intervene. Note, though, that they generally won’t have the authority to resolve the problem on their own. They can escalate the situation to the manager’s own boss, coach a bad manager, and suggest training, but if no laws are being broken, they often won’t have the power to do more beyond that.

That means that going to HR about a bad boss can be risky. In many cases your boss will find out about it, and some HR people can end up intervening in ways that make the situation worse. Good ones will work to protect you from retaliation, but not all are skilled at doing that, and retaliation can sometimes be subtle (meaning it might be obvious to you, but hard to explain its significance to your HR person).

What if my company doesn’t have HR at all?

Smaller companies often won’t have an HR department. In those cases, you’re usually stuck talking to your boss about the kinds of issues you might otherwise bring to HR—which is not always ideal, especially if your boss is the problem. If the problem is a very serious one, in some cases it makes sense to go to your boss’s boss, but going over your manager’s head can be dicey. Your direct manager is likely to hear about the conversation at some point, and if their boss doesn’t handle the situation skillfully, that can make things worse. Because of that, before you go over your manager’s head, it’s smart to make sure the person you plan to talk to has both good judgment and a track record of handling employee complaints well.

There are some exceptions to this, though! If you’re being illegally harassed or discriminated against or if your manager is doing something illegal or seriously shady (like having an affair with a subordinate or pressuring employees to loan them money), those are things you should definitely escalate. (If your boss is at the top of the organization and there’s no one higher to talk to, your options are a lot more limited, although in the case of harassment or discrimination, you could speak to a lawyer or file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or your state labor department.)

First published at Vice.com.

{ 104 comments… read them below }

  1. AnonEMoose*

    Apologies to all of the HR folks out there who are doing their best to try to help employees. In my experience, though, HR is there to try to keep the company from being sued, most especially from being successfully sued. And usually to manage whatever benefits package the company offers. Anything that actually helps employees in the process is more or less coincidental.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Nah, there are loads of HR employees whose entire jobs are about things like employee engagement, or compensation analysis (like benchmarking), or management training. It really varies by company (and size).

      1. Jean*

        My company’s HR dept has a person whose whole job is arranging and documenting “fun stuff” (i.e. not strictly work related) for employees. She puts together all the community outreach/volunteering opportunities including regular blood drives, plans the annual “family day” at a local beach/water park, and takes photos at all the events. She even puts together little posters of each event with people’s photos and clip art. My direct manager kind of side eyes her position and says he thinks it’s frivolous, but I think it’s really lovely. It makes it feel more like an actual community of people and not just a soulless profit machine.

          1. voluptuousfire*

            A lot of times these roles are under a new title of “employee experience.” It can be a hybrid HR/office staff role.

            1. Kimberly*

              Yes and I like new titles that have come out lately like “head of people”. It’s more personal and less like we are just things.

          2. Carol the happy elf*

            And if my job morphed into that, I would know I had died and was in hell.

            My work does community outreach, but someone else plans it, schedules it, and gets it publicized, and we’re asked to give up 2 weekends each year at a shelter.

            1. allathian*

              Ugh, no. You don’t get to dictate how employees spend their free time. I’d much rather volunteer for a charity day on my employer’s dime.

        1. Countess of Upstairs Downstairs*

          I don’t work in HR, and probably every place is different: my understanding is these activities usually fall under the bucket of Employee Engagement or Workplace Engagement. There are often metrics and KPIs associated with these activities, and I’m sure the HR “fun stuff” person need to be deliberate about meeting them. Sounds like she’s doing a good job. To me personally, it doesn’t sound like a job I would love but it also doesn’t sound that frivolous.

          1. Eldritch Office Worker*

            Also most places have ~some kind of employee engagement (who plans the Christmas party or buys the retirement card or whatever) and it usually falls on some female worker who does not have activity planning in their job description so having dedicated staff for this is great in my book.

            1. 3co*

              Yes! If the same person is responsible every time, they can learn what does and doesn’t work. They can develop and follow some best practices and the time dedicated to event planing isn’t taking them away from their official responsibilities.

              If a different person is in charge of each event, someone will probably fail to check if the venue is accessible for people with disabilities or neglect some people’s dietary restrictions when ordering food or choose a vendor who isn’t approved by the company or something. And even if that person feels bad and learns from that mistake, the organization’s events don’t actually improve over time because the next event might be arranged by someone else who doesn’t have the benefit of that experience.

      2. AnonEMoose*

        I am admittedly a confirmed cynic when it comes to HR…I do think it’s good when some of the HR folks are focused on things like working against unconscious bias and working for equitable compensation for employees of color, women, and marginalized groups in general. Those are good things.

        And I have known HR to be helpful when arranging short-term disability leave for medical stuff, that sort of thing. Though for me, that does kind of fall into the “keeping the company from being sued” bucket.

        Maybe it’s more “understand that they are there for the company’s interests, if your interests and the company’s are conflicting at any given point.” Making sure their employees aren’t being harassed/doing the harassing? That’s in the company’s interests. Trying to keep managers from treating employees unfairly due to a protected characteristic? In the company’s interests.

        Do those things also help employees? Absolutely, and that’s a good thing. Just understand that it helps the company, too – which isn’t at all a bad thing, just a thing to be aware of.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think that’s basically correct. I’d add, though, that good HR people understand that it’s in the company’s interests for people to feel they’re treated well and with dignity, and will incorporate that in their work.

          1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

            I have a feeling that this is the crux of the issue: good HR people ______. In my experience, outside of large, private corporations or government (e.g. big, sue-able entities), the quality of HR is really, really variable. Often it seems that people who are hired into the job in smaller organizations have experience and aptitude for part of the job, but very rarely all aspects. Which makes sense! HR covers a broad spectrum of skills and finding someone who is decent to great at all of them has to be hard, so employers select by what they feel they need right at that minute.

      3. Sea Anemone*

        HR employees whose entire jobs are about things like employee engagement, or compensation analysis (like benchmarking), or management training

        Much of which still comes down to keeping the company from getting sued. For example, when I found out I was being paid comparably to people with less than half my experience, they adjusted my salary so that, in a nutshell, they would not be open to allegations of either age or gender or both discrimination. Sure, the salary analysis allowed them to adjust my salary to something more in line with my experience, but the reason they do those salary surveys is partly to keep themselves out of lawsuits in situations like mine.

        Likewise with management training. For example, when I had complaints about my manager’s actions, they didn’t look into it to be fair. They looked into it to keep themselves out of a lawsuit.

        1. tamarack and fireweed*

          While this is true once you get to the bottom of the layers of reasons, there are mechanisms in place that remove these activities a few steps from their ultimate cold-and-hard business purpose. For example, there’s the concept of best practices, or professional standards for HR. There’s also company culture that can be helpful.

          This isn’t only true for HR. I have two friends who work (for different employers) in the oil-and-gas industry. One detects gas leaks and monitors pipeline systems; the other oversees a regional spill response plan. The reason they have these jobs in the first place are 100% based on regulatory requirements, avoiding being sued and reducing risks to the business. This doesn’t mean that my friends aren’t highly competent at what they do and rightfully are proud of their accomplishments. (In turn, recognizing this second point doesn’t imply that *I* would work in that industry – I wouldn’t, if I have any alternatives!)

          All the “nice” things that companies do – for their employees, their customers, or their wider community – are ultimately to the benefit of the company. There will not be a department that the company controls, which would fight on the side of employees, customers or communities *against* the company. (It might fight on the side of all three against someone else, if this is in the company’s interest.) This is very important to understand and keep in mind for the cases when employee and employer interests start to diverge.

          But some situations in which some employees feel that they won against the company – getting a leave approved, a raise, a bonus… – are not at all of this type. Bonuses, perks, streamlined and well-designed processes for helping employees through illness/bereavement/pregnancy etc. are excellent retention strategies for the employer. This is also why smart employers keep looking for perks that their staff wants – especially “tax-effective” ones. At the same time, we’d all rather work at an employer that has these in place than one who is a disorganized chaos! Retention cuts both ways.

          Just like I’d rather have a pipeline company with a well-designed and tested spill response plan than one without. Doesn’t mean I have to sing the praise of a problematic industry!

          (And this general configuration of interests is also why it feels so shocking when an employer who sponsors youth soccer, offers cupcakes every Friday and was great about helping solve a housing predicament is suddenly not any more on the side of a woman who was sexually assaulted by a manager. How could they do that! Well… only one of these disrupts their processes and hampers employee retention, and only one of those requires taking action against people in positions of power…)

      4. Carrotstick21*

        Hi Allison – I am a senior-level (man, that makes me feel some kind of way) HR professional who has worked in several industries. I know you’ve done some behind the scenes interviews at times (I am thinking of the excellent interview with the commenter who turned out to work at an EAP) and since I see a lot of misconception around what HR is, what constitutes an HR issue, and what the heck the motivations are of these HR people sitting in their offices or cubicles, I wanted to offer that if you would ever like to have one of those type of conversations with me as an HR person, I’d love to. I am a writer as well (and a huge fan of advice columns including this one) so I just thought I would put it out there. Happy to share my background or anything needed if you are interested.

    2. Magenta Sky*

      One of the groups they want to keep the company from being sued by is their employees. And, in fact, from HR’s perspective, that’s probably the highest priority when it comes to “keep us from being sued,” since the hazards usually greater there.

      1. Cat Tree*

        I think the point that is often overlooked is that several different goals can overlap. HR genuinely wants to stop/prevent harassment because they are decent people and it’s the right thing to do, AND it protects them from being sued, AND it increases employee retention. Avoiding lawsuits isn’t mutually exclusive with all other goals.

        1. goducks*

          Right. Endlessly backfilling roles when dissatisfied employees leave is EXHAUSTING. As is trying to find good employees if your workplace is known as a rotten place to work. While not getting sued is one goal, the much bigger goal is to have employees who are happy and productive, and key to that is making sure that they’re treated fairly and compensated fairly. Lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming, sure, but they’re also incredibly rare. What’s far more expensive and time-consuming is having a dissatisfied workforce. A big part of how I protect my employer, is by protecting their bottom line by having engaged, satisfied employees. That’s good for everyone.

        2. UKDancer*

          Definitely HR wants to not get sued but that doesn’t stop them from wanting people to have a pleasant work experience. Also most of the time they prefer people are not harassed or bullied because most of the ones I know are decent people.

          1. Tinker*

            Also, one of the classic ways lawsuits happen is that a person had some sort of grievance that could have been resolved amicably and perhaps even mostly by attending to their feelings, but when they raised it the other party’s response was such that it caused further offense, and they tipped over to “fuck it, getting a lawyer”.

            This for example is some of what was involved in the infamous “hot coffee” lawsuit — the original ask was for paying some portion of the person’s medical bills (I don’t even know as it was all of them; it was a surprisingly low amount and she was very badly injured), the company responded with a lowball offer in the hundreds of dollars, and — okay, asshole, court it is then.

            (The other thing in that is that when the company lost, the case was used as part of an intentional campaign to portray personal injury lawsuits as shameless money grabs, and the narrative was rather substantially distorted as a result. Much like the Kitty Genovese case, there’s a big gap between what entered into the public consciousness and what actually happened. )

            1. Junior Assistant Peon*

              Definitely true for the two coworkers I had who sued the company – they both had good reason to feel disrespected.

    3. WellRed*

      Even if this were entirely true, I’d guess if the company is being sued in such a way that it’s HRs responsibility, than that means the company is trying not to run afoul of certain employee problems, no?

      1. WellRed*

        Since someone always chimes in with “protects company from lawsuits” comment, I’ll chime in with what my HR is doing this week for me: contacting our FSA administrator to see why it’s giving me a hard time about something.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          I’ll +1 for the benefits administrators. One of my children was inexplicably dropped from my health insurance several years ago, which we only found out when a mound of unpaid pediatrician’s bills hit our mailbox. Our benefits admin had that fixed within 24 hours (kid re-added with no coverage lapse, bills paid, written confirmation from insurer) with a single call from me.

    4. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I’m one of two HR employees in my org and we split things where OtherHR does benefits, payroll, paperwork, keeps the fridge stocked with healthy snacks, etc. I do the more people stuff like training, mediation, reviews, hiring, buying junk food. We both have more general firm responsibilities too. We have lawyers to keep the firm from being sued, we’re mostly there to take care of the employees and make sure they’re getting the support they need.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Obviously training, mediation, documentation, etc DO keep the company from being sued but what I’m saying is that’s not the goal. We are oriented to the well-being and advancement of the staff because that’s how we retain good people, and how we show appreciation for their hard work.

      2. Cat Tree*

        I love it that you split your responsibilities between healthy food and junk food. I almost hope that’s in an official job description somewhere.

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          Hahahaha it’s more personal philosophies on what “taking care of the staff” means.

          I like to think we’re both right. Sometimes you take care of the body sometimes you take care of the soul.

          1. ecnaseener*

            You’re definitely both right. More options = better!

            That doesn’t stop me from picturing your two offices across the hall from each other, yours with a therapy couch, inspirational posters, and a candy bowl; hers dimly lit and full of nothing but file cabinets and flavorless oat bars.

    5. Gipsy Danger*

      This has never been my experience with HR. I’ve had a couple jobs where I needed accommodations, and the places that had robust HR departments were always better about it than the places without HR. IME, HR can be super helpful if you’re disabled, chronically ill, etc. Obviously there are bad apples, but there are good apples too.

  2. Ben Marcus Consulting*

    I would love to see something like this formatted as employee training materials, ideally as part of onboarding. My boutique focuses on business restoration, and one of the more time consuming tasks is training staff on what HR is and is not. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to land on anything that I feel is worthy of incorporating into a training program.

    I’ve found it a pretty common need to explain that HR isn’t a babysitter, they’re not clairvoyant, and they’re not a means to sidestep work duties. The most interesting ‘training event’ was with an employee that struggled to understand that HR is not a party planning service.

  3. Nonke John*

    This is all really good stuff, Alison, but I think it’s also worth noting this: I know that I’m not a representative sample, but HR in every organization at which I’ve worked has marketed itself as “your people team!” In tech, its intranet spaces are decorated in bright candy colors and festooned with cartoon-y graphics. It sponsors in-office massages and ice-cream days and, since the pandemic, has encouraged lots of virtual happy hours and parties. Things are more restrained in other, more staid industries, in my experience, but the overall image projected is that these are fun, friendly folks you go to if you need something.

    Yes, during onboarding and at the ends of webinars there will be disclaimers about how you can’t bring every little issue to HR, but I’m not really surprised that the “we’re here to help you achieve your best work-life balance” part (mandatory accompaniment: stock photo of hot-stone massage) drowns them out for a lot of employees and gives rise to the subconscious expectation that HR is there to make them happy and give their meanie-meanie coworker a time-out.

    Just so it’s clear, I’m not speaking out of resentment over some bad personal experience with HR. (The business partners I’ve been assigned have almost all been fine. I’ve rarely dealt with a compliance or benefits person who wasn’t responsive and able to resolve issues quickly. I have a good work buddy in org development who does a lot of useful, data-driven things for the company that aren’t very visible.) I’m talking about the overall HR public face everywhere I’ve worked, at least here in the States.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      You’re right, and I always aggressively side eye that kind of messaging because it reeks of “trying too hard”. My gut says places that need to be that in your face about ‘wellness’ or ‘HR is your friend’ are painting over deeper issues.

      1. Anon9*

        This is definitely true. For example, places with cafeteria perks (free froyo, fancy barista) and nice break rooms are glossing over the fact that you’re gonna eat 3 meals a day there because they will work you like a dog.

    2. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

      Funny, I have never worked in a company where the HR dept marketed itself like this or projected any warmth or friendliness. Makes me wonder what industry you work in.

      1. Nonke John*

        I’ve always been in some combination of tech, life sciences, law, and finance. I’m sure there are plenty of places in which HR is different, and there it makes perfect sense to wonder why people want to over-rely on it for personal stuff.

  4. WellRed*

    I accidentally nested a comment above. My HR this week is working on why my FSA administrator is not allowing me to use my benefit on something. What has HR done for you recently? (And yes, there are inept HRs out there just like every other dept.)

    1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      My last interaction with my HR team was them changing the rules on our tuition reimbursement plan in the middle of my final semester and denying me my last year’s reimbursement based on a loophole. And while I was literally sobbing in frustration on the phone with them because now I was on the hook for (what was megabucks to me and literal pocket change to my org), she started cracking jokes about how she’d love to write me a check out of her own pocket, but it was so much money that she’d be screwing over her own kid’s college plans. (Luckily, that was pre-Covid and I haven’t had to interact with our HR since then, which is why I still work here.)

      1. SnapCrackleStop*

        That’s terrible! My HR team grandfathered me in when, similarly, our tuition reimbursement policy changed during my last semester. It’s wild that your org would invest to get you that far and not support you for the very end.

    2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      Oh jeez. I had a 1/2 hr onboarding call with my HR department 2 years ago and that’s been pretty much my only contact, which, to me, is a good thing in general. No need for short-term disablity/FMLA, no work conflicts, their documentation makes sense so I can figure out questions on my own, etc..

    3. braindump*

      My HR showed me how to access my FSA account since I did not know I was auto-enrolled in it. (at no cost to me)

    4. Anonymouse*

      The last interaction I had with HR was asking what the current bereavement policy was because I was having trouble locating it in our handbook after my father passed away a month ago. HR sent me the information and expressed their condolences.

    5. Shark Whisperer*

      At OldJob, my department used to try and lure HR people to our office with candy and snacks. Our department was stuck into a weird hidden corner of a building across the street from where HR was. We normally never saw them face to face. My department also had a position that we were constantly hiring for (there were about 20 of those positions year round and we hired seasonal workers as well). It really went smoother when we had a relationship with HR. They got our job postings up faster, got resumes to us faster, were more communicative about new employee orientation once we started the snack campaign. I don’t think it was conscious in their part. I think they just worked for a big org and sometimes our stuff got pushed to the bottom of the pile. But once they started associating us with that nice department who always feeds them, they naturally were more willing to do us favors and stay on top of making sure our stuff got done in a timely manner.

      I guess the moral of this story is that HR people are just people and you should be nice to them. Also, having good snacks you’re willing to share will go a long way.

      1. TardyTardis*

        My husband always refilled the Twizzler jar for the secretaries after a Certain Un-Named Vice Principal would clean them out.

        Guess whose requests got done first. :)

  5. nonnynon*

    Probably an outlier, but when I worked for HR it was within a health clinic (considered a part, but operated by separate employees, of HR). Confidentiality was very much maintained. They did not have access to our files in most circumstances and unless the medical information was directly related to their job, think WC or a work mandated drug screening, it wasn’t known by anyone outside of the clinic employees. It took a long time to build that trust with the employees but turnover in the health clinic tended to be very low (MUCH lower than the rest of HR) it git there.

  6. Coco*

    As an HR person, I really appreciate this! HR is often times viewed as some evil entity that actively tries to screw over the employees. But HR are employees too! Like all employees we have a range of skills, ideas, roles, concerns responsibilities etc. We are not robots, we are people! HR can be a challenging role. You must balance competing needs. In larger organizations you can have a speciality, in smaller organizations you must wear many hats. It can be lonely, because you usually can’t have “work friends” outside of the HR department for assorted reasons.

    1. Retired HR manager 1990-2018*

      Coco, HR is often times viewed as some evil entity that actively tries to screw over the employees. And it’s often presented as the employees’ friend, confidant, trusted career development partner etc. If you work in the field, you probably know the same thing I do, that HR departments are as different as the organizations that employ them, staffed by people who have good and bad aspects.

      Reading AAM, I think that young people start out thinking of HR as some kind of arbiter that will resolve disputes in their favor when the boss is mistreating them. Sometimes, as we gain experience with HR departments, we evolve to a more cynical “evil screwing entity” attitude about HR; but it really depends on what happens to us when we interact with them.

      1. tamarack and fireweed*

        That’s a good way of putting it. HR is never the second, however much they *can* make employees’ lives easier and contribute to career development; and in a functioning organization, they aren’t the first either.

  7. WulfInTheForest*

    I think this is the first time I’m truly disagreeing with Alison, because I DO think that HR is generally untrustworthy. My first job I went to HR one time when a load of things started happening at my job which basically made me miserable due to a new supervisor. Things like “I don’t have a place to pump breastmilk and I’m having to kick a coworker out of their office 3x a day in order to pump” and “my new supervisor is pushing me to increase my productivity when my previous supervisor was perfectly happy with it, and I have a new baby so I’m exhausted and am still adjusting back to work” kind of stuff. Everything that I said, in confidence, went straight back to my supervisor, and not in a “we want to help resolve the issue” kind of way. I have never trusted HR since, not at any job, because it nearly got me fired. Luckily, I eventually found somewhere else and noped it out of that job. Since then I’ve heard similar stories of HR from coworkers at each company I’ve worked for, and I’ve completely kept my distance from using HR because of it.

    1. SushiRoll*

      I don’t have the details and it was your experience, not mine, but it sounds from what you’ve shared that the company you were at didn’t have a great culture, but you place the blame only on HR. They didn’t provide a place for employees to pump, their managers were not great, they did not provide a good balance for returning-to-work parents. And the article mentioned that HR can’t keep everything in confidence – if you went to HR about those issues with your manager, what outcome were you wanting? How could the manager fix issues they were not told about? Your HR could have sucked 100% but it doesn’t mean the entire profession is useless.

    2. Coffee*

      I have also had the “everything you say to me is in confidence, by which I mean I’ll be telling your boss immediately” conversation with HR.

      It was overall a very mixed experience with HR. They completely violated my trust, and that made a difficult time even worse. But they did transfer me to a different boss in the end. In retrospect, I would have preferred to know “HR aren’t on your side” so I could have been more reserved in my dealings with them, and so I knew to document our meetings from the get-go. But I was glad to have someone to go to, because when I talked to my boss about it she just told me I was pretty when I cried.

      1. Coffee*

        I will add: having HR policies and someone to enforce them? So worthwhile. Leave, extra time pay, holiday rostering, benefits etc etc etc – all consistently given, and not at the mercy of Guacamole Bob.

    3. tamarack and fireweed*

      It looks to me like “I would like HR to take my side against my manager” is a good example for the kind of situation that should raise caution signs: HR *may* be helpful, but I wouldn’t expect it’s a given, and getting them to do something is likely to require a strategy. Once I see “trust” with respect to HR, my warning flags appear: They’re in charge of a portfolio of services and processes, is all.

      This said a) in the milk pumping situation I would have expected them to get on it (approach as “I think the company is not in compliance with the law here”), and b) I *have* had HR take action on my side, all on their own, when my manager repeatedly dragged their feet about the my contract renewal every semester when I was a grad student worker: After the first time when a deadline was nearly missed, they got all the details from me and sat on my boss until the right forms were submitted with the right details given my immigration status, in time – even though this would have been my boss’s responsibility. But they knew that if this didn’t happen in time, I would be the one to suffer the repercussions – and they were a great help avoiding that.

      Also, like any other department that serves business processes internally (IT, facilities management…), HR can be more or less good at their job, approachable and professional.

      In your case I think HR was a reflection of and in line with a crappy overall culture.

  8. Recruited Recruiter*

    HR Person here –
    Anything that can be handled confidentially, I will handle confidentially. If it can’t, I won’t spread it beyond the people who NEED to know. I encourage the need to know people to be discrete about sensitive things, but can’t guarantee it.

    I have not yet in my career (knock on wood) had to do a major sexual harassment investigation. The last situation that I dealt with was very cut and dry [if you do choose to sexually harass someone (and I strongly prefer that you don’t make that choice), HR prefers for you to do it in writing – it greatly decreases the amount of work in determining whose story is accurate], and nobody except the four people involved, their manager, and the HR Department knew who was involved.

    I will also absolutely fix your benefits problem, or at least tell you how to fix your benefit problem if I can’t fix it.

    The last thing that I want to do is be a “playground monitor for adults.” I will absolutely coach you on how to deal with your co-worker if you ask. If I actually hear you being an a$$hole at work, I will call you on it – keeping good employees is a lot cheaper than replacing them.

    Know that I am a representative of the company who was hired because I am cheaper than a lawsuit, but as long as your best interests align with the company’s best interests, I will absolutely make your life better.

    Finally, I am friendly to everyone, but if I don’t share a lot about myself, don’t assume that I am prickly. I just can’t have friends at work. It’s just easier to be professional when I don’t have personal attachments outside my department. If I’m a HR Department of One, I will likely pass on going to the bar after work, but it’s not because I don’t like you. It’s because I don’t want my impartiality questioned if something goes down.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      “if you do choose to sexually harass someone (and I strongly prefer that you don’t make that choice), HR prefers for you to do it in writing”

      I’m laughing and it’s awful but it’s true

      1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

        It’s why the HR lot at our place remain so friendly with IT: they know we can find that stuff for them :p

    2. tamarack and fireweed*

      Nearly all the interactions I have had with HR were no more confidential than contract details typically are (ie, I would expect they are shareable with my manager), and for the one that comes to mind that wasn’t – sorting out regular sick leave and extended medical leave of a few weeks for a surgical procedure – the HR rep said from the outset what part would be confidential and what wouldn’t. Which is what I would expect from a professional!

      (In my case, harassment/discrimination reporting is part of a different office, not HR – this is in higher education. And they, too, are very up-front about how confidentiality works. I’m also required to report certain kinds of information I hear to that office, and our training suggests that even before someone we are talking with goes into detail we fully disclose any limits on confidentiality, and provide resources where people can talk confidentially about harassment and assaults. This wasn’t always the case, but in the last few years has become increasingly clarified, I think to everyone’s benefit. It’s particularly important when the target of harassment is a student, thus particularly vulnerable.)

  9. KittenLittle*

    Random question: Is payroll usually grouped with HR at most organizations? Our administration moved payroll from the accounting office to HR because they thought the two areas belonged together. Just wondering!

    1. SushiRoll*

      I think it varies. We’ve moved it in and back out of HR here for various reasons. We still have to work closely with them, but they are under accounting now.

    2. goducks*

      Ah, the age old payroll dilemma. Is it accounting, or is it HR? Different orgs have different opinions on this, and I think it largely comes down to how big the department is and whether the actual processing is done in house or outsourced. Regardless of which department owns payroll, both are heavily involved.

    3. NotAnotherManager!*

      Ours has always been in accounting because of tax reporting/compliance something or another, but they work very closely with HR. With one glaring exception that was entirely one person in HR’s fault, it works well. Our payroll people have always been great, too. Super helpful and always quick to respond to any questions/concerns.

    4. Julie*

      At mine, accounting does it, HR handles issues with time entry and is a double check for the accounting system to keep the powers somewhat separated. I’ve had it go back and forth but usually I feel like HR has their hands in it in some way.

  10. Sea Anemone*

    If I’m having problems with a coworker, should I talk to HR?
    What if I’m having problems with my boss?

    I think the answer to these really depends on the company. My most recent employer did *not* want people resolving problems on their own. They wanted you to complain to that person’s boss as the first choice or come to HR as the second choice. And that was true even when the person in question was your boss!

    On the other hand, a similarly sized company (ginormous) at which a colleague works *does* very specifically want you to set up a one-on-one with the person to resolve interpersonal conflicts.

      1. SnappinTerrapin*

        It depends. A lot of miscommunication can be cleared up if the parties involved will take a little time to talk to (and listen to) each other.)

        Then there are situations where one (or both) are unwilling or unable to work through the issues without someone else looking over their shoulders and coaching them on how to act like adults.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      To me, it depends on what you’re complaining about. If you’re having workload issues where your coworker’s not doing their share, that might be a boss-first issue. If your coworker won’t lay off the loud music with no headphones or keeps taking your office supplies, that feels like something adults should be able to work out on their own.

      I get annoyed when people come to me to mediate their interpersonal annoyances before just talking to their coworker like grownups. I’m happy to provide advice on how to approach it, but I’d rather adults talk to one another. When you bring the boss in, it tends to make issues that tend to be minor/personal preference into a boss-level performance issue.

    2. tamarack and fireweed*

      This really seems to depend. At one former employer (UK), HR held a mandatory training workshop about resolving conflicts with co-workers – not the big ones with legal repercussions, of course, but the day-to-day stuff about weird noises, smelly lunches, dirty dishes etc.

      I’m surprised your HR wants this kind of small-potatoes crap on *their* plate.

      (This workshop was a moment of unexpected bonding between myself and the other German who worked in the same office. We didn’t even like each other very much – tho we had no professional overlap [he – sales, me – tech] so it didn’t matter. But in this case, the very sweet and nice junior HR person started out carefully constructing an example (“let’s say you really dislike the smell of vinegar, and your office mate brings in a big portion of chips with vinegar for lunch every day. it disrupts your concentration. what should you do?) and other-German and I just looked at each other and went “You… tell them? And ask them to eat elsewhere?” in complete confusion why this was a question at all, while many of our British co-workers looked on in horror.)

  11. CW*

    At one of my previous employers, I had a boss who was disorganized, absentminded, and wasn’t always professional in her attitude. Plus, she repeatedly made accusatory remarks to my face in front of other employees – it was really embarrassing. In fact, one of the remarks was made during a meeting with another department, luckily with only two employees in that department. It was so bad I couldn’t face these two employees again or even look at them in the eye. Two weeks later, my boss told me I couldn’t be trusted and I feared my termination was imminent so I sent an email resigning immediately and walked out the door.

    A week later, the payroll administrator, who was part of HR, texted me and told me that she wished I went to HR instead of resigning. I replied and asked her why, and she told me that multiple employees complained that my boss did not treat me well and accused me of making “mistakes” in front of others – all of the complaints were behind my back so I had no idea anyone complained at all. I was reluctant but thanked the payroll administrator for suggesting it, but it was too late as I had already quit. Either way, I never said anything to HR and I am wondering if I should have. Even though I still feel like it would have been over the top to do so.

    1. AnonEMoose*

      That’s one time when even cynical-about-HR-me would have recommended talking to HR. That kind of treatment is something that’s in their wheelhouse, both because, assuming they’re decent people, it’s appalling, and because it does potentially put the company at risk. It wouldn’t have been over the top.

      Boss says one critical thing? Unless it’s REALLY bad, probably not an HR issue.

      Repeated pattern of horrible stuff, especially said in front of others…that’s an HR issue.

    2. TiffIf*

      I’m wondering why HR never reached out to you proactively when they got multiple reports. Why wait for you to approach them?

      1. TiffIf*

        Either way, I never said anything to HR and I am wondering if I should have. Even though I still feel like it would have been over the top to do so.

        I’m not sure how going to HR is considered over the top, given that you quit. I would assume going to HR would be at least a step below quitting.

    3. anonymous73*

      I’m concerned that you’re still questioning whether or not you should have gone to HR even after they contacted you and said you should have come to them. Yes you should have gone to them, without question. I hope you don’t hesitate to stand up for yourself if this happens again in the future.

  12. HR is Pointless; My Mind will Not Be Changed*

    The need for HR itself is somewhat questionable as their entire job function is to take routine, but tedious parts of other job functions and offload them into a single new position. Siding with the company keeps them in good graces, and keeps the jobs alive much longer than other positions where their benefit proposition is much clearer, or easily measured.

    For example, technical hiring. I have consistently worked with HR teams that are trying to recruit for highly specific technical talent, but are not competent enough to judge people with closely related backgrounds. They might try to comb through the best, and send me a list that I tell them doesn’t have what I’m looking for. Their solution? I need to “edit the job description to better reflect what I am looking for”, or “come up with some sort of screening questions/skills assessment to help weed out unqualified candidates”.

    Meanwhile, I could just go to Linkedin and assemble a shortlist of 10-20 people with various levels of seniority and different current employment situations who could fill the role reasonably well. Besides, I’m also the one that sets the salary range, so I could reach out directly, give them a fair number range, and have a new head within 1 week.

    This is just one example of why HR is a completely unnecessary role in the modern corporate workforce. Anything they can do, someone in a more focused role could do better.

    Someone in Finance/operations/accounting could do payroll, benchmarking and demographics analysis to deal with paygaps far more accurately than HR.
    Department Managers/team leads can hire faster, with greater accuracy, and with a more personal touch than HR.
    A PR group can handle social media and branding better than HR.
    Individual employees/committees who are given a generous budget can plan employee engagement events better than HR.

    They simply continue to exist because they are clever at justifying their existence, and serve as a convenient catch-all employee category for whatever needs doing because other employees can’t prioritize. They excel at nothing, and have a cursory knowledge of everything… which is the root of nearly all problems experienced with HR.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      In some organizations that’s absolutely true! In others it’s not. It really depends on the priorities of the organization, and how HR is used. “HR” can be a catch-all term that extends over a wide variety of specializations. Some of those it’s good to have a dedicated person for, depending on your operations, some might be able to be rolled into another position. Or maybe you don’t want to add to the plates of those positions, because they’re more mission critical. It’s really case-by-case as to how well it’s implemented and whether or not it’s redundant. Sometimes a generalist is exactly what an organization needs.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        To your point, I said elsewhere that I’m one of two hr people at my job. Neither of us has an HR title. It’s not technically our primary function, I’m operations and she’s finance. However HR takes a LOT of our time. So we functionally have half a finance person. Okay, small firm, we manage. A lot of places can’t function with half a finance person.

        Your issue seems to be with having a generalist role, someone who isn’t specialized. That tells me you didn’t read Alison’s article. She addresses that.

    2. Cleverly Justifying My Own Existence*

      I am truly delighted at the way this comment entirely proves the point of Alison’s article.

    3. Sea Anemone*

      This is funny, bc in the strongly matrixed work environment, I feel like managers can be replaced by HR.

      For those who have never worked in one, in a strongly matrixed environment, managers do not manage work. They handle dissemination of information, discipline (PIPs, etc.), reviews, and hiring/firing. Discipline and reviews are entirely based on what the project people tell the manager. The first could be handled by admins, and the next two could be HR functions. Hiring would probably have to continue to be done by managers for the reasons you give. Firing could be an HR function, and HR has to be involved with firings anyway.

      Work management is handled at the project level. There are project managers and leads as well as individual contributors. A manager could be a lead or an IC, and if they are a lead, they are not necessarily the lead for their own direct reports. It only seems weird until you work in that environment, and then it quickly becomes unremarkable.

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      Totally a YMMV thing and Good HR > No HR > Bad HR. I could have done without my terrible HR department at my last job (or the truly atrocious OPM my spouse has to deal with), but our current HR team is lean, efficient, and excellent. For me, on the legal compliance factor alone, HR takes care of itself, especially over the last year with compliance with COVID-related laws/regs.

      I love my HR folks and am happy to have them take certain tasks off my plate. I hire both entry-level and experienced people, and my recruiters are excellent – no issue at all letting them screen my candidates and would far rather they do my initial cull for the entry-levels to take hundreds of resumes down to a number I could actually read while continuing to do my regular job. They also recruit from and impressive and diverse network of sources, so it’s not just hiring managers of varying capabilities/biases sourcing from wherever the People Like Them gather. They just landed me a very hard-to-find senior person with a really creative offer package.

      As a manager, I don’t want my people who are legit busy doing work that makes money having to participate in party-planning committees or benefits teams or any of the other crap that would end up getting distributed if we had no HR. My admin occasionally does this sort of thing for a department appreciation event and two gifts/swag bags per year, and even the most efficient of them ended up having to spend more time on it than either of us would have hoped.

      I’m not an HR person, either. (Neither the patience, nor the people skills for that.) I manage a department made up of 3.5 different teams and about 50 people. HR takes care of a bunch of crap that I don’t have to, so I get to do strategic projects and revenue-generating work instead of bureaucracy and tedium.

    5. tamarack and fireweed*

      I’m not gonna try to change your mind, just note a few things in contrast.

      As far as I can tell, a minuscule amount of HR’s work has anything to do with “taking sides”. Other than payroll and contracts, which other business units could take over (tho it would still require the same amount of labor effort), here are some things that HR does that I’m glad someone is in charge of – and that tend to pose problems in organizations without a designated, professional HR function:

      – ensure hiring processes – from the initial job ad, interview… – are in compliance with applicable law and regulations (“no, you cannot ask candidates for their current salary as per the law in our state”)
      – ensure dismissals are done in a way that safeguards employees’ rights
      – ditto for any disciplinary action
      – maintain employee records and deal with inquiries – in compliance with whatever level of confidentiality applies
      – sort out parental and medical (etc.) leave, including how to deal with shortfalls in sick leave, FMLA rights (US)
      – deal with retirement
      – sort out accommodations, also pro-actively (eg. provide accessibility maps, collect and forward requests for ergonomic improvements)
      – arrange for training, including mandatory training (according to regulatory requirements) and informational workshops about benefits (“how does the get-a-partially-govenment-sponsored-bicycle scheme work”)
      – organize vaccination clinics

      As for your hiring example, it seems like HR is involved in tech interviewing beyond its area of expertise – but that’s not an HR problem. It’s a garden-variety “who gets to decide how we do X” problem. As for your LinkedIn example, I actually shudder though. Your suggested way of doing this is exactly how we reproduce in-groups and iniquities. It actually illustrates why you DO want someone, HR or an equity officer or an ombuds team, to keep an eye on how hiring into desirable professions is done. Sure, it’ll slow you down a hair, and you don’t get to do it the easy way. But in exchange maybe someone who isn’t already your LinkedIn buddy gets a shot at a job in the future.

      Sure, I don’t *trust* HR, and I am all for vigilance to prevent HR growing beyond its britches. But I do want a well-trained and managed HR department at my employer. In fact, absence of a functioning HR team is often cited as a reason for dissatisfaction and turnover in tech, because deficient situations become endemic if no one is in charge of remedying them.

  13. goducks*

    I have often called my role working in HR as being the Dream Killer. So often my job has involved telling a manager that the “brilliant” thing that they want to do is not in fact legal. No, you can’t bring in unpaid interns to get around paying warehouse workers. No, you can’t give someone an extra week off a year instead of paying overtime. No, you can’t make the filing clerk salaried exempt. No, you can’t give that guy a raise because his wife had a baby. People may not see the value in HR, but often we’re the only ones who know anything about the laws that employers have to follow, and with few exceptions, even when HR’s not great in an org, the alternative is waaaay worse.

    1. Aitch Arr*

      That’s a common title, because folks in that role do generally everything!

      I’m an HR Business Partner now, but when I was an HR Generalist for a small software company, I did:
      – payroll
      – benefits administration
      – 401k administration
      – stock option administration
      – visas
      – employee / new hire onboarding
      – employee offboarding / terms
      – events
      – recruitment
      – leaves of absence
      – workers comp
      – policy updating/revisions

  14. ShowTunesOnMyMind*

    It’s taken me a long time to trust HR again because in my first full time job I was sexually harassed along with two of my coworkers on a daily basis. After all of us reported to HR and went through a process to repeat our documentation over the course of months, nothing happened, not even a seating arrangement change. I ended up finding a way to transition to a different state on my own. I’ve worked for a lot of toxic organizations that have used HR against employees. Learning when to trust HR was totally worth it though! At my last place we had super thoughtful and considerate HR folks and they helped me to navigate my boss making things up on performance reviews. Even though I ended up leaving to escape the boss, I am so grateful to HR for helping me preserve my sanity. Because of them, I can hold appreciation for my time there without it being completely tainted by my boss’s toxicity.

  15. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

    Contrary to what some people believe, HR is not there to help employees deal with bad bosses, bad co-workers, bad aspects of one’s job or the poor work environment. UNLESS it is illegal (or truly dangerous) behavior/conditions. If you are having problems with your job, the work environment or someone at work, my advice is: do not go to HR about it*unless* it is illegal behavior/conditions, and you have a level of certainty that it is illegal. And you should brace yourself for negative repercussions for yourself if you go to HR about any of these things, whether illegal or not, and especially if you complain about your boss or a higher level person. This is cynical, but based on my actual experience and observations during several decades in the office environment of numerous employers, including law firms.

  16. Amethystmoon*

    I’ve had too many co-workers over the years who went to HR for all the wrong reasons, and used HR as a first resort instead of a last resort. Examples include annoying co-workers, bosses who did something they didn’t like, and so forth. In all cases, HR basically just talked to them and nothing was really done about it. Also, this was in a large Fortune 500 corporation. What I’ve learned from watching that is that HR should always be a last resort and only if all other options are exhausted.

  17. Heffalump*

    I’ve been dealing with a toxic coworker (in an otherwise very good company) for some years, and I recently emailed the head of HR (without naming names) and asked straight up if dealing with that sort of thing was in her wheelhouse. She said it was.

    I’m probably going to retire in the next year, and I suspect that realistically, working with “Fergusina” would become awkward if I lodged a complaint, no matter the outcome. So I’m thinking of laying out the case shortly before I retire.

    In this case, Alison said this kind of thing is the role of management, not HR:


    But if HR is willing to get involved in my case, fine by me.

    I’ve been disappointed a number of times in my career by management’s failure to rein in toxic employees. For me it’s a real “don’t get me started” thing.

  18. Catabodua*

    I’m a “seasoned” employee. I’ve worked in multiple industries over the last 32 years – manufacturing, medical services, currently in higher education. I thought HR was there for employees for about two weeks into my first job.
    Since then, I haven’t thought HR was in any way a trustworthy department. I’m amazed at reading some of these comments that some folks have positive things to say about their interactions with HR.

  19. Kimberly*

    We have a full HR team at my company, but any HR related matters go to the office administrator at my particular office (we have like 70 offices). The administrator is technically the direct supervisor to the people I supervise (meaning, they perform work for me, but they report to her about it). I have my own supervisor, who supervises my supervision over the above-mentioned people. I’m having trouble with one of the new hires. He’s not cutting it at all. I’m not sure who to go to in this instance. I mentioned it to my supervisor – that he’s really not performing and isn’t going to work out. We decided to give it some time. But if it turns out he simply cannot hack it, do I go to the administrator or my supervisor or both? I’m unsure how to escalate this because I think right now my supervisor is just chalking it up to me personally not liking this person and needing to warm up to him. But it’s not that – it’s that he’s terrible at the job.

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