Tips for Approaching HR About Workplace Issues

The recent allegations of harassment at Uber illustrate the challenges that tech pros can face on the job—as well as some options for pushing back.

Given the industry’s poor track record of dealing with complaints, you may wonder whether your company’s Human Resources department can really do anything to help. After all, raising the issue may create workplace tensions and damage relationships beyond repair. (Plus, nearly 60 percent of female tech workers in the Silicon Valley who reported sexual harassment were dissatisfied with the outcome, according to a recent study.)

Before you march into HR to detail your case, consider these tips and the potential ramifications.

When to Contact HR

HR’s primary purpose is to serve the needs and interests of the company. Even if you request confidentiality, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get it, according to Daniel B. Griffith, director of Conflict Resolution and Dialogue Programs at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis.

That’s especially true if the issue creates a potential liability for the company. The HR manager may feel compelled to act on the information you provide, even if that means informing your boss or upper management, or launching a formal investigation.

For this reason, it’s usually best to try to resolve differences and issues on your own before asking HR to get involved, advised Tim Sackett, president of HRU Technical. For instance, if you have an uncomfortable encounter with a colleague or take offense at his off-color jokes, don’t be afraid to speak up. Just be sure to keep notes or otherwise log the actions you’ve taken, and don’t wait too long to talk with HR if the problem persists.

It’s also a good idea to keep your boss in the loop, Sackett added. Since you will be describing conflicts with co-workers or potential violations of company policies or labor laws, it would be better if your boss hears about them directly from you, in order to minimize any unexpected damage.

If you’re not sure how to bring up your concerns, consult a trusted advisor or mentor outside the company for advice, especially if the issue involves a high-profile manager or colleague.

“If you’re afraid of damaging your career, make a preliminary call to HR and state your situation generally to see how they typically handle such matters and what you can expect if you meet with them,” Griffith said. “Being educated on the process can alleviate fear and help you decide how to proceed.”

Should the situation not improve—or if you experience retaliation—you may have to schedule a meeting with HR.

How to Prepare and What to Expect

The HR rep will want to hear your side of the story, so prepare to hand over any evidence or documentation. Be clear about the facts, and report as objectively as possible. If you’ve made mistakes, come clean—if your missteps come out during the investigation, it can damage your credibility.

If you make an assertion about how you’ve been treated, be prepared to provide supporting examples and the names of any witnesses. For example, if your boss consistently gives the best projects or learning opportunities to younger employees, that may suggest age-based discrimination; and if colleagues witnessed that pattern, it will only help your case.

“If your only evidence is hearsay, he-said-she-said, that’s not evidence, that’s a story, so it’s hard for HR to really help you in that case, unless the other party confirms your story,” Sackett noted.

Don’t expect HR to automatically take your side. A real pro will investigate and listen to all sides before reaching a conclusion. If you’re worried about impartiality, ask to have an outsider investigate your claim.

Also, come to the meeting with a proposed solution or the outcome you’re looking for. Is your goal to make HR aware of the problem, or do you want a transfer to another department? Do you want the wrongdoer reprimanded or fired?

Keep in mind that HR’s enforcement authority varies by organization; punishment is often based on the seriousness of the offense and may require the approval of upper management. Nothing may happen if the investigation is inconclusive.

If you’re displeased with the outcome, or you feel that HR gave the offender a pass, you can always consult an employment attorney or file a claim with a government agency such as the EEOC.

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