Hostile Work Environment: Why Human Resources Doesn't Care About You
Do Not Turn to Your HR Department for Help With a Hostile Work Environment
In the course of the last year, I have counseled hundreds of employees over the phone and via email who were suffering at their jobs, dreading the act of going into work each day, and panicking that they may soon be fired.
Usually, a supervisor—often a new supervisor—had turned the employee's otherwise likable job into a series of run-ins, each one more humiliating and degrading than the last. As a last resort, many turned to Human Resources to alleviate their situation. However, these employees typically did not find any solace. In fact, turning to HR made many of their situations worse. In this article, I will offer some insight into how HR works, why they may not help you, and what you can do when HR sides with your boss.
Is HR On My Side?
Human Resources shouldn't be considered your enemy, but you shouldn't look at HR as an advocate. At the end of the day, they are part of the company, and they ultimately look out for the company's best interest.
Let's take a look at the history of Human Resources. These departments started out in the 1900s by investigating how to reduce turnover and how to maximize job performances by looking into desired compensation systems. The goal was to keep employees happy so businesses could keep unions out. HR developed a reputation for being advocates for employees.
Things changed by the 1980s. Union memberships started dropping, and new laws were being put in place regarding sexual harassment and discrimination. The purpose of HR was now focused on keeping companies out of trouble rather than helping employees.
Does this mean you can't trust HR? Certainly not. A company that doesn't take claims seriously will take critical damage to its reputation. It is still in your best interest to reach out to HR. Just don't place blind trust in them. HR may not want to take action against someone they consider to be more valuable than you. They may make a bad decision and not take your claim seriously. Mistakes can happen.
What to Do When HR Is Not on Your Side
Here are some steps you should take if you find your HR department to be unhelpful. Even if you are certain that HR won't help you, you should still file a complaint with them. This is simply to show that you have taken appropriate steps and document how HR has refused or failed to help.
- Follow any company protocols. Your company may a procedure in place on how to handle an issue with HR or how to take an issue beyond them. There may be an anonymous hotline you can call. Follow these procedures and keep records of all communication. You may need to show that you made efforts to solve an issue or show that HR did not help solve your issue.
- Report any illegal activity. If you are trying to report any behavior that is illegal, you may need to go to an outside government agency. Any complaints you have previously filed can be used as evidence. You should consult an employment lawyer to see if you have a case against your workplace. While there are no specific laws for workplace bullying, you do have a case if you are discriminated against based on something like your race, gender, or age.
- Find another job. If the behavior you are seeing at work is not illegal, such as your ideas not being considered or your workload being heavy, then you likely don't have a legal case against your employer. As a last resort, you may have to consider finding another place of employment. Keep in mind that if you are planning any type of lawsuit, it is better to be fired than to quit. Your company can claim that you left on your own and that you faced no real mistreatment.
Who Is Above Human Resources?
If your complaint falls on deaf ears with HR, you still have options available. You can contact a government agency, such as the EOCC or OSHA. The EOCC would be contacted in cases of unlawful discrimination, while OSHA would be contacted for dangerous workplaces. If there are more serious cases of illegal activity occurring, such as assault, you should contact an actual law enforcement agency.
Your company also may have measures in place for dealing with unhelpful HR, such as a hotline. You should investigate any of these measures first to see if they are valid options.
How to Handle Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Sexual harassment is, unfortunately, one of the more common types of workplace harassment. Here are some steps you should take if you are experiencing this. First, determine whether you are being sexually harassed. Sexual harassment has to meet the following criteria for you to bring up a case.
Criteria for Workplace Sexual Harassment
- You must be offended by actions or comments that are unwelcome. This basically means that you have no claim if you find the comments humorous and welcome. It also means you have no claim if there is a sexual relationship between two consenting parties.
- The comment or action has to be offensive to a reasonable person. A person on the outside has to see the offender as being inappropriate. They must take into account the normal relationship between the individuals as well as how the compliment was given. Things can seem different to different people, so what satisfies this criterion is not always cut and dried.
- The behavior needs to be serious or consistent. The behavior needs to create a hostile work environment. A boss telling you on one occasion that you have to sleep with them to keep your job is enough for a sexual harassment claim. Seeing sexual content on their computer once for a second or two is probably not going to meet this criterion. You may have a claim if they make less threatening comments over a longer period of time.
What to Do Once You Have Decided You Are Being Sexually Harassed
- Speak to your harasser. If possible, tell the offending party to stop. You may be able to stop the harassment here, as the person may not have been aware that their actions were inappropriate. At the very least, you will have made it clear that their actions are unwelcome. This will help in future investigations.
- Follow your company's procedures. Follow any steps your company has outlined for sexual harassment claims. You can typically find these in a handbook or website. They will often advise you to report to a manager or HR. You shouldn't wait too long before reporting an incident. Federal law states that you have 180 days from when an incident occurred to report it. State laws may extend this period.
- Write a formal complaint letter. Speaking to someone in person is good, but your complaint should also be in writing. The letter should include a timeline of all events, details on who said what, and whether or not the behavior is ongoing. You should also mention any concerns you have about the situations, such as if turning down your boss will affect you in getting a pay raise.
- Be prepared to take action. Your issue may be settled if your company if HR acts on your complaint. If they don't, you may need to take alternative actions. You can hire an attorney or file a complaint with the EEOC. You should certainly hire an attorney if you suffer any type of retaliation from your complaint.
What to Do Before Communicating with HR
Here are some measures you should take before filing a complaint as well as some things to do as you communicate with an HR rep.
- Know your rights and their limitations. Research your local state employment rights. If you feel you are facing any type of discrimination, look up what laws are in place. Keep in mind that if you work for a small company with less than 15 employees, your employer is exempt from federal discrimination laws. You should also look up your employer's policies. This will allow you to be more prepared when talking with HR. Keep in mind that your complaint has to mention actual harassment or discrimination. You don't have a claim if you feel your boss doesn't like you or if you don't like how they micromanage you. These are not illegal actions.
- Talk to your boss. If you feel safe and comfortable doing so, try having a discussion with your boss. They may not realize they have been unreasonable or offensive. You may be able to settle your issue there and then. At the very least, you can show HR that you tried to solve your problem.
- Record any incidents. Build a case by documenting any instances of discrimination, harassment, or bullying. Speak with a coworker to see if they are willing to be a witness. Ideally, you will want at least three incidents to show a pattern. However, if they do something dangerous, like assault, report them immediately.
- Follow complaint procedure. Make sure to follow any and all protocols for filing a complaint to the letter. You don't want your claim to be thrown out on procedural grounds.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.