The Other Side of HR – part 2: Employee Relations

This month, The Buzz on HR is doing a series about the things I’ve learned on the other side of the HR equation, as an employee experiencing an event that happens to thousands of employees every day. Last week, I looked at Benefits. This week, it’s Employee Relations.

One of my favorite things to deal with in HR is Employee Relations. I enjoy investigating claims and I like helping managers and employees navigate through difficult issues. It is one of the places where I feel like I really get to make a positive difference in my workplace, either by getting rid of some booty-grabbing scumbag or mediating two employees through an impasse.

And I’ve been on the other side of these issues a time or two in my career. Once, I had a supervisor who made comments about my anatomy, I asked him to stop, he didn’t and I reported the issue. Another time, I was having serious problems with a subordinate employee and had to enlist help from my manager to get the situation back on track. It happens! And when it has happened to me, I dealt with it immediately, directly and appropriately.

However, when the issue wasn’t happening to me, but to someone else and I was just a witness, I wasn’t as clear and confident on what to do.

A few years ago, the Logistics Manager at the plant where I worked was making inappropriate racial and gender-biased comments to my work-friend, Carol. I overheard a few of the things while I was visiting her desk or in the cafeteria and she expressed to me privately that she was upset so I suggested she try to talk to him.

Carol confronted him and he gave her an insincere apology, but then he started reassigning her work to other people, stopped speaking to her and told the other people in the department not to talk to her either. She was afraid to report the problem to anyone higher than him because she didn’t want to risk losing her job. It was making things tense and uncomfortable for everyone in the department — and as an HR person, I knew it was on its way to becoming a violation of company policy and the law, if it hadn’t already crossed that line.

However, Carol was my friend and the Logistics Manager was someone I’d worked with for a long time without incident. I didn’t want to violate her confidence or take away her choices by reporting the issue on her behalf. I didn’t want to get the Logistics Manager in trouble and cause him to possibly lose his job.

I found myself giving myself the speech I gave to employees all the time who report issues and/or are witnesses to workplace incidents. I told myself it is not my fault this happened. I told myself telling what I observed didn’t make me a snitch. I told myself I was doing the right thing. And I told myself I shouldn’t be concerned about retaliation of any kind.

And I learned that my speech those people all that time was just a bunch of bull$#@!

After witnessing another incident, I reported the issue to my superiors on Carol’s behalf and without her knowledge. I absolutely felt like a snitch and I was concerned about retaliation. I felt guilty for reporting the issue without talking to Carol about it first because I’d taken her choice away on how to deal with what was happening to her. I felt guilty for sharing information that could cost a consistent-performing long-term employee his job. Most of all, I felt guilty for letting the problem linger so Carol had to be subjected to these insults and our company was expose to liability.

However, I also felt relief that I was no longer carrying this secret around. Trying to manage the situation on my own to avoid the confrontation wasn’t helping anyone. I thought I had the situation under control, when it was actually the total opposite. And as soon as I notified my bosses about it, I immediately felt like a weight was lifted from me and I knew I had done the right thing.

It turned out that there were other witnesses who were afraid to come forward and say what they’d seen happen to Carol — and to tell the story of similar types things that happened to them! The Logistics Manager decided to retire early somewhere in the midst of the investigation. I was actually disciplined for failing to report the issue sooner. That really sucked — but I deserved it and I know I will never make that mistake again.

People are always watching HR to see if we are going to walk our talk about how workplaces should run and how issues should be managed. I learned not to compromise the integrity of my job function by being afraid to confront the most difficult issues. Anything less was a disservice to me, my company and my profession.

I would encourage anyone in their workplace faced with the same issue to heed the same advice. Do not bear the unnecessary burden of keeping the secret of someone who doesn’t deserve your loyalty. And never allow your friends to talk themselves out of standing up for themselves and their rights. It will be difficult and it may make you unpopular, but I am now 100% sure that it is the right and best thing to do.

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