Your HR Lightsaber
Go into HR like…
Simone brings you expertise from certified professionals who have helped people navigate workplace discrimination, harassment, or culture problems. We want you to be armed with resources to understand your rights — and to move on, should you choose that path.
What happens when you report something to HR? A former Chief People Officer walks us through the options you have with HR… and what to do when those options are exhausted.
As you’re reading, if you have any questions (anonymous or otherwise) — or want to connect with Peter — feel free to drop us a line at Ask Simone.
Peter Phelan has spent 20 years leading HR teams at companies like MediaMath and Shutterstock. He’s here to talk about the role of HR in companies, and what to do in situations when HR most likely will not act in your best interest.
Simone: So Peter, as you are well aware, there are tons of stories of people going to HR, following the company’s HR process and believing HR will support them, but instead are railroaded or “flagged” as a risk. Especially when it comes to gender issues, unjust power dynamics, or sexual misconduct.
Can you break it down for us? What is the primary role of HR? What are the conversations you can have with them that might actually be helpful?
Peter: I’ve certainly heard horror stories. I’m now a consultant, but during my 20 years in corporate HR, I like to think that I was skilled at being a neutral honest broker.
As an HR professional, I think that if you’re always willing to get fired for doing the right legal/ethical thing, you’ll generally stay on the right side of legal/ethical dilemmas. It’s when an HR professional is too reliant on the job, or the company, that there’s a greater risk of ethical compromise.
So, if you’re going to HR, and you think that they might be loyal-to-a-fault to the company, maybe: (1) talk to a different member of the HR team, (2) be sure you’ve exhausted all written guidance resources, e.g. the employee handbook, on what the appropriate steps might be before ringing a bell that can’t be un-rung, or (3) first broach your difficult situation in terms of hypotheticals vs. specifics. And (4) never forget who pays HR’s salary and benefits.
…they (the employee) should be concerned if an investigation or disciplinary action is promised and the company doesn’t come back with a report of the findings/closure.
Simone: Those are helpful rules to live by — in any situation. Speaking of that, we’d all love to be skipping into work everyday, receiving heaps of praise, and having friendly and respectful interactions with our bosses and colleagues. Unfortunately, that’s not often the case.
When things go awry —we have a prolonged dispute with a colleague, or we’re consistently talked over in meetings, or our manager straight-up kisses us after a dinner — should we go straight to HR? What are their potential responses? How do we know what an “internal investigation” might look like?
Peter: With the extreme harassment example you mentioned — or anything else that could become a lawsuit — one thing that’s going to compel an above the board from the company is that they’ll be painfully aware their response will be judged in both the court of law and public opinion.
If the company has good counsel, they’ll be told to take swift decisive action (e.g. firing the harasser) to show that it was the harasser who was the problem as opposed to the company condoning such behavior.
The complainant is entitled to know what the end result is — and that they should fear no retaliation. If that doesn’t happen, and there is blowback, the next investigation would likely be for retaliation.
Simone: On that note, should an employee be concerned if they follow the company code of conduct for reporting incidents and the HR department doesn’t take action? What happens if a woman experiences blowback for reporting an incident or for talking to HR about a challenging situation?
Peter: I would say that they should be concerned if an investigation or disciplinary action is promised and the company doesn’t come back with a report of the findings/closure.
The complainant is entitled to know what the end result is — and that they should fear no retaliation. If there is blowback, the next investigation would likely be for retaliation. The good news is that this is the last thing most companies want.
It’s easier to change your employer than to change an employer.
Simone: So when someone starts to sense that they are encountering toxicity at work, should they make the decision to leave? Is it possible to mediate problems with HR or within a department, or is it best to just go?
Peter: It depends. A hint of toxicity might be tolerable (or much better — resolvable!) if a dream job has everything else going for it. I’m a strong believer in most people wanting to do the right thing, and that most errors are errors of omission versus commission, so I’d err on the side of giving people the benefit of the doubt and attempting to resolve/mediate a tension point — with or without HR’s help.
Simone: Yes, we think most women and others want to resolve the conflict or toxicity before any other action. In fact, we know a lot of women have been there, and do that work. Unfortunately success has been rare.
Peter: Right, as soon as there’s strong evidence that the benefit of the doubt no longer is warranted, I’d begin to plan an exit strategy. It’s easier to change your employer than to change an employer.
Simone: Ok, so there is always talk about language and phraseology when we talk about legal advice, but is this also true in HR? When a female employee senses HR believes they need to protect the company at her expense, is there specific language she should use in conversations with that department? What does that accomplish, especially if she is planning her exit strategy?
Peter: Quoting a company’s own handbook policy back to them will typically put a complainant in a position of strength!
Simone: Interesting, can you elaborate on that a little bit more? Have you seen scenarios where this has given an employee with a legitimate claim a stronger negotiating position?
Peter: Often a company’s defense can be that the issue wasn’t on their radar — or maybe they weren’t sure if the behavior resulting in claim/complaint is a real “policy violation” versus, say, just a case of mild incivility. However, if an a complainant can show how the issue fits squarely into a category about which the company has explicitly gone on the record to say such behavior is a policy violation, it’s hard to ignore the complaint.
Simone: Right, so the details of her situation are important in planning how to speak and interface with HR. Could you identify some terms or phrases that would help an employee who is experiencing backlash for reporting culture problems, like gender discrimination or sexual harassment?
Peter: A wise lawyer once told me that all companies really care about are the “3 Rs” of Relationships, Revenue, and Reputation. However, referencing those “company treasures” could be seen as threatening if a complainant were to start talking about how an objectionable behavior was putting the “3 Rs” at risk.
You can, however, use the power of precise language by calling the bad the backlash what it is — another R, Retaliation. Retaliation in response to a good faith complaint is illegal.
Make friends at other organizations, where you don’t work, especially HR friends if you can. They’ll be able to give you honest unbiased advice about difficult situations, free of any conflict of interest that might come from a need to protect their own employer.
Simone: Wow, yes, I mean I think women are really accustomed to handling retaliation, sadly. But in the context of a work environment, when reporting discrimination or sexual harassment, it’s good to know it’s actually illegal.
To wrap up, what is the most important advice you have for women who may be facing these kinds of challenges at work?
Peter: Make friends at other organizations, where you don’t work, especially HR friends if you can. They’ll be able to give you honest unbiased advice about difficult situations, free of any conflict of interest that might come from a need to protect their own employer. I always recommend doing as much intel as you can in advance of taking any action — you are much more likely to get what you want.
Simone: Great! So to sum up, your tips for a successful negotiation with HR are:
Do a lot of intel outside your workplace, ask others, especially HR professionals, how they would handle your situation, before you speak with your HR department.
Review and follow all written guidance resources in your workplace, e.g. the employee handbook, on what appropriate steps to take in your situation.
Broach your situation in terms of hypotheticals vs. specifics, and gauge HR’s reaction.
Try to talk to an HR team member who shows fairness, empathy and ethics.
If the company retaliates against you lodging a complaint, make a note and contact an employment lawyer, because that’s illegal.
Finally, never forget who pays the HR team’s paychecks.
Hey, thanks for reading! If you have any questions (anonymous or otherwise) — or want to connect with Peter — feel free to drop us a line at Ask Simone.
Ariella + Mary (aka Simone)