Is Filing a Complaint With HR Ever Worth It? Here are the Risks and Benefits — Plus, How to File

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k
July 24, 2024 at 7:55PM UTC

We spend a lot of time at work. Even if we complete our responsibilities remotely, work still makes up a huge portion of our lives. And it’s critical for us to feel safe and comfortable in our roles and environments.

But for some people, unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Employees may face discrimination, harassment, unfair practices and other problems in their workplaces — problems that can have a huge impact on their lives, both personally and professionally.

When this happens, it’s often the best course of action to go to your human resources (HR) department or representative and file a formal complaint. But HR tends to get a bad rap. Why is this the case? And how can you file a complaint successfully, one that will lead to a better outcome — a safe and productive workplace — for you?

Why HR complaints get a bad reputation

HR tends to get a lot of criticism. We see this in the media — just take Michael Scott’s vitriol toward Toby Flenderson, the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton HR representative, on The Office — and in real life. Perhaps in some companies, this may be justified. But there are also many well-run HR departments and highly skilled and successful HR professionals.

Many people associate HR with a finger-wagging authority finger, much like a high school principal for adults. They see people who go to HR with their complaints as tattletales — even though HR is usually responsible for far more than handling disputes and complaints, although this may be part of their role.

Others find HR intimidating. As the “rule-setters” and enforcers, they do have a degree of power over people’s roles and careers. 

People also associate HR with corporate bureaucracy, saying that they’re not there to protect the interests of employees but the interests of the company, which are often not one and the same. This, too, leaves a bad taste in many employees’ mouths, and they may worry that approaching HR with a complaint will backfire and that the department won’t be looking out for them but management, instead.

For these and other reasons, some employees are reluctant to go to HR when issues arise. They may be intimidated or overwhelmed and possibly feel that it would be unproductive to file a complaint. However, this is still often the best course of action, depending, of course, on your situation, your company and the HR department. It’s true — there are ineffective HR departments. But that’s not always the case, and approaching them is usually a necessary step toward resolution.

How to file a complaint with HR

1. Read your company’s policy thoroughly.

Most companies, even small ones, have policies laid out in their employee handbooks about how to deal with problems in the workplace, including the issues described below. This policy will inform you about how to file a complaint with HR. Make sure you read up on the policy and understand the steps involved before you escalate the problem through the appropriate channels. 

The procedures will vary from company to company. If there is no specific HR department within your larger organization, there may be a point person to approach instead.

2. Follow the steps outlined in your employee handbook.

Do your best to follow the steps outlined in the handbook and policy. This will help you build your case for HR since you’ll be able to demonstrate that you followed protocol to the letter.

Of course, there are some situations in which you may not be able to follow these steps because doing so might endanger your further or make you feel uncomfortable. For example, if your boss is the source of the conflict, and the first step is to approach them, you’ll probably want to skip that step. Alter the protocol as needed to protect yourself.

3. Gather evidence.

As soon as possible, you should start gathering evidence to support your complaint. This will help bolster your argument when you present the problem to HR. Evidence might include:

• Detailed notes about the incident or incidents that occurred, including dates and times (it’s best to write these down directly following the incident, although this may not always be possible)

• Any witnesses who may have observed the event (ask for their testimonials)

• Any other tangible evidence, such as written communication between you and another employee

4. Write a formal complaint.

While you may need to approach HR in person, you should also deliver a formal, written complaint. This is important for creating a paper trail in case, for example, you need to take legal action later on.

Include the details of the problem and/or incident(s) that took place. Outline the evidence you have to support your claim. Be as specific as possible, including names, dates, times and other information you have available to you. Don’t forget to keep a copy of your complaint.

5. Maintain professionalism.

Throughout the process, maintain professionalism. Remember that the HR representative is not your friend — you have a working relationship with them, and they are there to help you sort out and hopefully resolve a professional issue.

Likewise, try to avoid posting about these issues on your social media accounts or discussing them with people who aren’t directly involved and don’t need to be part of it. While it’s natural to want to vent, if you’re bringing a complaint to HR, you need to treat it with the gravitas it demands. Spreading gossip or oversharing the issue will make you appear unprofessional, and HR may take your complaint less seriously. 

6. If you’re unsatisfied with the outcome, seek the help of an employment attorney.

If you’ve followed the proper channels and are unsatisfied with the actions HR and the company take, you do have other recourse available to you. For example, you may file some types of complaints, such as those regarding discrimination and harassment, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a government agency that will investigate your claim separately.

While you don’t need an employment attorney to file a complaint with the EEOC, you may wish to consult one. They can advise you on the best course of action for your particular situation and your likelihood of winning a lawsuit, should you choose to pursue one against your employer.

What happens after you file a complaint with HR

The exact procedures will vary from employer to employer, but generally speaking, after you file a complaint, HR will investigate the issue, which involves questioning those who are involved and examining your evidence, as well as taking additional steps as necessary. Bear in mind that it may be difficult to protect your anonymity in some cases. Sometimes, they will work in conjunction with their legal department to thoroughly look into the problem you have raised and determine how they should best proceed. 

Once they have thoroughly investigated the issue, HR will propose how to best resolve it according to what they have found. There may be a meeting with all parties involved, depending on the nature of the complaint.

Many HR departments are dedicated to protecting their employees and their company’s reputation and will handle the situation delicately, toward the ultimate goal of reaching a resolution that satisfies you. But some poorly-run HR departments won’t handle these issues appropriately, in which case you should look for outside help, as discussed above.

Be aware that retaliation against those who file complaints is against the law. You should not have to fear reporting an incident and should be protected. If you feel that you are being retaliated against, seek the help of an employment attorney immediately.

15 common HR complaints

HR departments receive many, many complaints regularly. Here are some of the most common ones they hear.

1. Harassment

People tend to think of sexual harassment when they hear the word harassment, but there are several types of this illegal behavior that may occur in the workplace. It can occur against any protected class, including race, age, disability, national origin, color, ethnicity, national origin and more. It can also manifest in many different ways, such as telling offensive jokes, belittling someone because of the aforementioned classes, intimidating an individual and so on.

2. Bullying

Bullying and harassment are similar, although bullying doesn’t necessarily take place against a protected class. Moreover, it is not illegal, although it is no more acceptable than harassment. Ultimately, it means making an individual feel unsafe in their workplace through targeted actions and behaviors against an individual or group of people. Employees should not have to deal with a hostile work environment.

3. Favoritism

Favoritism does occur in the workplace, usually when a manager shows preferential treatment toward one employee over another or others. While this can be relatively minor in some cases, in others, they may give them the best projects, overlook mistakes or even promote them for reasons aside from merit or seniority. If another employee who reports to that manager feels overlooked and believes their manager is favoring their colleague (again, not because that employee is a better worker), they might approach HR.

4. Unclear promotional practices

On a related note, if it is unclear how promotions are granted at a business, this is likely to upset or irritate those who wonder if they are being overlooked. While this can be resolved with clearer policies and better communication in some cases, in others, an employee could escalate the issue to HR, especially if the promotional practices seem unfair and unreasonable.

5. Coworker disputes

Some disputes among colleagues just can’t be resolved within the department. Perhaps you’re unable to work it out with your coworker and don’t want to or can’t approach your direct manager about the issue. Whether your colleague is unfairly criticizing you (when it’s not their place) or they’re not contributing to a team project as they should be, it may be time to involve HR. This outside perspective could help you reach the resolution you need.

6. Micromanaging bosses

Many of us have dealt with bosses who are constantly looking over our shoulders, perhaps even redoing work they don’t need to touch. In some cases, it may be too awkward or difficult to talk to your boss directly. Or, perhaps you’ve already tried to address it, and nothing has changed. In that case, you may want to involve HR for assistance in giving your more agency over your own work.

7. Understaffed departments

It might not be any one person’s fault — it could just be that you don’t have enough people on your team to adequately complete all the work you need to do. In this case, a manager or team leader might go to HR to discuss adding people to the team, so that team members don’t feel burdened or overworked.

8. Lack of resources

Similarly, perhaps departments have enough people to do the work but not enough resources to successfully get the job done. There could be a specific program or software that’s critical to improving the workload or something else that will give your team the support it needs. Or, maybe you alone need specific resources to help you in your work. This is one complaint that will require evidence, so make sure you 0present a clear case as to why these resources are critical.

9. Inadequate pay

It’s an unfortunate fact: many employees are underpaid in this country (and other parts of the world). While you may first approach your manager about being compensated fairly, it’s possible that they will tell you that their hands are tied or that you’ll need to talk to HR about it. Or, you may sidestep your boss completely and head straight to HR with your complaint.

10. Inadequate benefits

Maybe your salary is fine, but the benefits are lacking or unclear. Perhaps there’s not enough paid time off (PTO), or your company isn’t giving you enough parental leave to bond with your new child.

It’s also important to know that some benefits are granted by law, such as leave decreed by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). If your manager is denying you time off to which you’re legally entitled, you should head straight to HR to make them aware.

11. Poor communication

A lack of transparency within a team or the larger organization can make employees feel concerned and frustrated. Of course, there are some issues to which you may not be privy, and that’s only natural. But if you feel like you’re being left out of the conversation all too frequently to the point where it’s negatively impacting your work, you should address the issue.

12. Poorly-defined roles

There are times when a company may fail to adequately define roles and put boundaries in place, which can result in employees being expected to perform tasks that are well outside of their job descriptions. This may be especially true in newer, smaller startups where people are expected to wear a lot of hats, although it can also occur in larger, well-established corporations.

13. Not enough availability from higher-ups

True, your manager probably can’t be available to you 24/7. But if your team leaders aren’t giving you the facetime you need to ensure you’re doing your job well and completing your responsibilities to the best of your abilities, then HR should be made aware of this problem and provide assistance to help you resolve it together.

14. Unclear or constantly changing priorities

Priorities and goals can change — that’s only natural in the business world, as events arise and cause shifting demands. However, if this is becoming so routine that you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing at a given time on a given day, it can interfere with your ability to do your job. You may have no idea what you’re expected to be doing and how you’re supposed to be contributing.

15. Burnout

While burnout happens, HR should do what they can to prevent it from occurring as much as possible. They can do this by instituting programs that promote work-life balance and workplace satisfaction, such as delivering the benefits and PTO employees truly want.

They will also be tasked with addressing it after the fact, when employees feel so burned out that they go to HR feeling exhausted and defeated.

Every situation is unique, and it may not demand attention from HR. But if you feel unsafe in the workplace, your work is being adversely affected or something is interfering with your role, it may be time to bring the issue to their attention.


This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
 Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.

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