Whether you're fresh to the workforce or have decades of experience, knowing when to turn to your human resources department or rep for help isn't always clear. For one, HR isn't standardized across companies, and many small businesses lack even a single HR representative. That can mean confusion when switching jobs or industries; maybe when you worked for a global media company, you had a formal guidebook with instructions about what constitutes HR involvement. Now that you work for a startup with a random manager covering down on HR duties, you're not sure whether you should talk to your supervisor or "HR."
To help answer this question, I spoke to Dan Sprock, a six-year HR veteran and Fairygodboss's former director of People and Culture. Below, you'll find advice about when it's best to get HR involved.
You should talk to someone from HR immediately if you experience any of the following.
When an illegal act occurs in the workplace, HR is obligated to take action. If you notice illegal activities, such as a colleague who's stealing, HR is where you should document your observation. If you're subject to an illegal act yourself, again, report it up.
When I asked Sprock this question, which comes up often enough in anonymous career chats such as when an employee witnesses their supervisor drunk driving, he said "while it's a horribly unfortunate situation, I wouldn't go to HR about it." HR doesn't have any power outside of the workplace; so, unless the illegal activity occurs at a work event, inside the workplace or at a work-related function, HR can't help.
Sprock advises turning to HR if you feel unsafe in regards to your personal space, physical safety or emotional distress. This could mean alerting HR staff to an unhealthy office condition, like mold on the walls or ventilation, for example.
Another safety instance could be physical intimidation, such as your teammate threatening to punch you if you take their favorite parking space again; if you're concerned about bodily harm, that's absolutely an instance to turn to HR to not only get your concern documented, but also to elevate the situation to the appropriate level of concern.
Discrimination concerns should be brought to HR's attention. Examples of discrimination include being removed from a project because your boss finds out you’re pregnant, to getting unfair treatment because of your religion. New York state's Human Rights Law "makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee or job seeker because of his or her age, creed, race, color, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status, disability, military status, domestic violence victim status, criminal or arrest record, or predisposing genetic characteristics."
Sprock explained employee mediation is one of his job functions. "When clashes of personalities spill over to performance or a team dynamic, I help with conflict resolution. It's not a one-size fits all approach." Using HR for interpersonal dynamic issues is more common with smaller companies, but that doesn't mean a corporate HR team couldn't help in these cases. As Sprock pointed out, in large companies HR is often seen as it's own separate department, rather than a small team with high visibility. When there's less of a personal connection, employees don't realize conflict resolution is a typical HR offering.
For FMLA, short-term disability or another type of legal leave accommodation, talk to HR to get everything set up and documented. In many companies, you'd also arrange parental leave through this department.
When a coworker behaves in a way that falls under sexual harassment or assault definitions, tell HR. In some workplaces, you might want to give your direct manager a heads up about what's going on first; it's not necessary (and ignore that advice if your boss is who you're reporting to HR) but if you trust your manager and have a good working relationship, it's information they would want to know.
This could be stealing from the company, performing illegal acts in the workplace (like doing drugs in the office) or any number of things. Keep in mind this applies to in-office behavior; while you may be privy to a coworker's illegal behavior outside of work, that isn't something a HR manager can usually do much about until it carries over into the office.
While the first two points cover major issues, this third point relates more to interpersonal conflict. If you're unable to perform your job because of an uncooperative coworker and you're unable to solve the issue at your level or your supervisor's level, it's appropriate to elevate the issue.
The examples listed above don't cover every instance where you should lean on HR resources. In general, if something connected to your work, workplace or colleagues makes you feel unsafe or unsure, and you don't feel comfortable speaking to your direct supervisor, talk to HR.
Unfortunately, you're not guaranteed a trustworthy HR department. Many companies employ people who work for the bottom line of the organization, and won't help you resolve matters that may impact the profit of the business. For example, let's say you work for the top salesperson in the company; when you report them for sexual harassment, the company refuses to act because they bring in so much revenue. If that's the case where you work — which you can usually find out from the company culture — your best option may be to work with a trusted manager, or, in the worst cases, quit.
As for retaliation, it's unfortunately common. What you talk to HR about isn't confidential; remember, they work for the company, not the employees; and, in many cases HR is obligated to take action. "Be prepared to have what you're saying on the record," advised Sprock. That means if you're afraid of retaliation from a coworker, you'll want to consider your options as well as highlight that concern when or if you talk to HR.
All that said, you should use the resource if you can. Remember, as Sprock said, " a good HR person is there to protect both the employees and the company."
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
Nina Semczuk served as the Head of SEO Content at Fairygodboss, a writer/editor for SmartAsset, and an editorial fellow for The Muse. Today, she is a freelance writer, editor, and SEO consultant. Follow her work here.