Silently suffering harassment from a toxic boss? Witnessed some sort of regulatory violation you’d like to report? Then a trip to the human resources office may be in order. But not so fast—sometimes talking to HR can make a bad situation worse. Although there’s no way to guarantee a positive outcome, there are steps you can take to improve the odds.
Try To Resolve The Issue Yourself
The first step to dealing with a workplace issue is to correct the person in the moment, suggested executive coach and career strategist Michele Woodward. Sometimes the root of the issue is a simple communication problem, and airing out grievances can lead to a quick resolution.
“If they don’t respond or they don’t change, then you do have to take it to HR,” Woodward said. “HR is going to say, ‘Have you talked to your boss about this?’ and you want to be able to say yes.”
HR May Well Listen
Because they have a low opinion of their HR department, many people opt to speak directly to attorneys or public agencies when dealing with workplace issues. But even though some HR staffers primarily want to cover the company’s behind, others are very invested in addressing legitimate concerns—especially those that can lead to legal action.
“Especially now with so much awareness of the treatment of people in the LGBT community, the treatment of people of color, the treatment of women, I have seen HR organizations snap to when they have a person in their organization who is racist, homophobic, using belittling language, excluding people of color or females,” Woodward said. “I have seen organizations recently really jump to fix that, which is a good trend.”
That’s not to say that you’re guaranteed a positive outcome, especially if the person you are complaining about is well regarded within the organization; but if your ideal outcome is to stay at the company, speaking to HR may well be worth a try.
Ask For Confidentiality
Logan recommends asking HR to schedule a confidential meeting, without mentioning that the topic of discussion is your boss or coworker. If pressed, state that the get-together is to discuss yourself or your concerns for your future.
Confidentiality isn’t exactly guaranteed. Many companies are legally required to respond to certain concerns, and it can be hard for HR staffers to keep things entirely confidential while investigating a claim. Some companies may even require you to discuss the issue face-to-face with the person you’re targeted for a complaint.
All that being said, most companies will have policies to protect confidentiality as much as possible, which could work out to your benefit.
Document, Document, Document
Bring documentation when preparing to meet with HR, recommended career coach Janet Logan: “Any proof, dates, and times of complaint are extremely helpful.” Don’t have anything yet? Try to reconstruct the situation on paper as best as you can (start by scrolling through old emails, texts, calendars, and call logs).
Bring these documents to your first meeting, Logan added, because it not only gives proof but also shows the seriousness of the situation, and makes it more difficult to retaliate.
Speaking Of Retaliation
If you are concerned about retaliation, Logan recommends saying so when you’re meeting with HR. “I would check the handbooks and print them out and bring the policies with you,” she said. That way, HR knows that you’ve done your homework and will be less likely to bend the rules.
In addition to being prepared with the company policy, it may be worthwhile to contact an attorney if you’re really concerned with retaliation. If retaliation actually takes place, legal assistance is recommended.
Make The Business Case
While bringing up concerns, make sure to focus on the fact that you can’t properly do your job (for example) rather than your personal emotions. HR departments are looking at the bottom line, and hindered workplace productivity is likely more important to them than the way it makes you feel.
Know What You Want
Human resources personnel will often ask you what you want them to do about the situation you described, so make sure you know what to tell them—whether it’s an internal investigation, a mitigation of the issues you’re concerned with, or something else entirely.