If you find yourself wondering if it’s appropriate to take an issue or complaint to your human resources department, it pays to give the situation some serious thought. They are trained, and in certain cases required, to approach your problem with gravitas and thoughtful consideration.
If you plan to take this step, you need to be prepared. Meticulous and relevant documentation will present your case better than a disjointed monologue ever could. If you truly believe you are being harassed or discriminated against at work, start with writing down the date, time, what was said or done to you and by whom in what specific situation. Don’t ramble, and stick with the facts. Accurate records are the fast track to disciplinary action by your company against the perpetrator.
Author Sachi Barreiro in the book Your Rights in the Workplace: An Employee’s Guide to Fair Treatment advised, “Check the facts again. The human memory is not nearly as accurate as we like to think it is, particularly when it comes to remembering numbers and dates.” To ensure accuracy when documenting any workplace complaint, “Make a written record of everything that happened, with dates and other important facts.”
Throughout my time working with a variety of organizations, I’ve seen the importance of approaching HR to address a situation firsthand. Below are my tips on how you can tell when it’s time to bring HR into the equation:
When should you approach HR?
You experienced discrimination or harassment: Under no circumstances do you have to put up with discrimination or harassment in the workplace. There are very specific laws in place to protect you. Your employer is under a legal obligation to protect you against discrimination because of several factors that are addressed by federal laws, such as those in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the book The Essential Guide to Handling Workplace Harassment & Discrimination, attorney Deborah C. England explained, “Harassment and discrimination are related but distinct concepts. An employer discriminates against an employee when it takes an action against the employee because of his or her membership in a protected group.” She continued, “Harassment is actually a type of discrimination, a particular way employers mistreat employees based on a protected trait.”
You need to take medical leave: In my experience, at some point in your work life, you’ll likely need to understand the family medical leave act, or FMLA. Almost everyone goes through the experiences of having an illness or having to care for a family member — and that is exactly what FMLA was enacted for. If you expect to be going through these situations, or similar medical situations, contact your HR department as early as possible. They’ll have paperwork for you to fill out and forms for you and your doctors to sign.
Taking care of these requirements ensures that you cannot be fired from your job because of medical problems and employment parameters that are recognized by the act. Your HR department will be able to help guide you through the process, but if you need to know more specific information, there are helpful online resources, such as the U.S. Department of Labor.
You witnessed wrongdoing: If at your place of employment you observe illegal happenings, such as chemical or mechanical hazards, you need to know that employers must abide by all applicable Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, as well as comply with the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act, “which requires employers to keep their workplace free of serious recognized hazards,” according to OSHA.
Depending on the violation, the complaint might be covered under OSHA statutes, and you don’t need to fear retaliation. The organization website also said that “employers may not discharge or otherwise retaliate against an employee because the employee has filed a complaint or exercised any other rights provided to employees by the statute.”
Your HR department might not be tasked with dealing with this type of reporting, but they will know who is, and they can direct you in regards to reporting procedures.
When is filing an HR complaint unnecessary?
If you’re wondering when it’s not appropriate to go to HR with a problem, it might help you to remember that though you’re not in elementary school anymore, some of the rules still apply. For example, if you tattled to your teacher because someone said they don’t like you, the teacher would have probably told you to work it out among yourselves. Believe it or not, the workplace is similar. If it’s something very minor, such as you not getting along with a peer, don’t take it to HR. If you want to complain because your boss gave you a negative review that was completely justified, find a solution yourself or with the help of a colleague. HR is not there to solve problems that you’ve caused or problems you can solve yourself.
HR plays a critical role in your company.
In my many years of working with companies of all sizes in many different sectors, a common theme I encounter is how to best resolve these many types of serious issues. My advice to senior management is to not treat the HR department as one that brings in no revenue.
Although they might be categorized as “overhead” on your expense spreadsheets, HR is an important and integral part of corporate compliance. You might be dismissive, but understand that you ignore their importance at your own company peril. Just ask any of your peers how much was paid out in harassment, discrimination and OSHA noncompliance judgments with regard to companies they have worked for in the past. My informed recommendation is to hire your HR representatives with care, and always treat them with respect.
This article has previously been featured on Forbes