What you should know before you talk to HR - HR person holding employee files and looking around with shifty eyes
Illustration by Vincent Kilbride

Everything You Should Know Before Talking to HR About a Problem at Work

Why do people say you should never trust Human Resources? If I complain about my boss, will HR tell them? What does this department actually... do?
Amateur Hour is an advice column for people who are new to the professional world and are figuring out how work even… works.

If you’re like a lot of people at work, you’re not entirely sure what HR does—and when you should or shouldn’t seek their help, and whether you can trust them when you do. Some people think HR is a sort of referee between employees and management (they’re not!) or between employees and other employees (they’re usually not that either). So what is HR all about, and when should you approach them? 


What does HR do, exactly?

Human Resources covers a huge range of things: benefits, compensation, personnel policy, legal compliance, investigations, hiring assistance, employee relations (which can be anything from identifying and addressing employee complaints to helping a manager address a performance problem), and much more. In larger organizations, these functions are generally separated within HR; you’ll typically find a group of HR staff who are dedicated to recruiting and hiring, another group dedicated to compensation analysis (like benchmarking salaries and making sure salaries are fair and in line with the market), another dedicated to training and development, and so on.

Employees often don’t see a lot of what HR does. HR might be most visible to you when you’re first hired since they’ll generally be involved in your hiring and onboarding... but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

Is it true that you shouldn't trust HR?

You often hear people say, “HR works for the company, not the employees.” That’s 100 percent true! But that doesn’t mean that HR is inherently untrustworthy or that you should expect them to be adversarial if you go to them with a problem. It just means that HR’s function is to serve the needs of the company. In many cases, serving the needs of the company also means serving the needs of employees—for example, with things like ensuring the company is offering competitive salaries, addressing bad management, and working to raise morale. But other times, what’s best for the employer won’t be what’s best for employees. When that happens, the employer’s interests are the ones that will govern because that’s who HR works for.

Good HR people do care about what’s fair and right... but keep in mind that their job is to assess issues through the lens of what makes sense for the company.


If I talk to HR, don’t they have to keep what I say confidential? 

No! HR employees aren’t doctors or priests, and you shouldn’t assume confidentiality when you’re talking to them. If they hear something that they judge needs to be shared, they’re professionally obligated to do that. In fact, with reports of harassment or discrimination, they’re legally obligated to act.

That doesn’t mean that you can never talk to HR in confidence. There might be things that they’ll agree no one else needs to hear about (like that you’re getting divorced or have a health issue), but you should work out the terms of that confidentiality before sharing anything you want kept private rather than just assuming it will be.

If I’m having problems with a co-worker, should I talk to HR?

A common misconception about HR is that they’re a sort of playground monitor for adults—but they’re not! In most cases of minor interpersonal conflicts with co-workers, you’ll generally be expected to try to solve the problem on your own through direct communication with your colleague, and then bring in your boss if the problem continues and you judge it serious enough to escalate. If you go to HR about that type of problem, they’re likely to simply coach you on how to fix it yourself. (And that can be helpful! Just don’t go in expecting them to intervene on your behalf.)

However, if you believe you’re experiencing (or witnessing) sexual harassment or discrimination, HR is the right place to go. They’re trained to handle those situations and have a legal obligation to investigate any good faith complaint of harassment or discrimination that’s based on race, sex, religion, disability, or other protected characteristics.


What if I’m having problems with my boss?

If the issue isn’t a legal one like harassment or discrimination, this can be a really tricky question. If the behavior is upsetting but not illegal (like a boss who micromanages you or is just a jerk), whether or not to talk to HR depends on how severe the situation is. If it’s not terribly egregious, HR usually won’t intervene, but will coach you on strategies you can try on your own.

But if the problem is a very serious one (like a boss who’s openly abusive or who tells you to do something unsafe or illegal), HR might talk with your boss about the situation and try to intervene. Note, though, that they generally won’t have the authority to resolve the problem on their own. They can escalate the situation to the manager’s own boss, coach a bad manager, and suggest training, but if no laws are being broken, they often won’t have the power to do more beyond that.

That means that going to HR about a bad boss can be risky. In many cases your boss will find out about it, and some HR people can end up intervening in ways that make the situation worse. Good ones will work to protect you from retaliation, but not all are skilled at doing that, and retaliation can sometimes be subtle (meaning it might be obvious to you, but hard to explain its significance to your HR person).

What if my company doesn’t have HR at all?

Smaller companies often won’t have an HR department. In those cases, you’re usually stuck talking to your boss about the kinds of issues you might otherwise bring to HR—which is not always ideal, especially if your boss is the problem. If the problem is a very serious one, in some cases it makes sense to go to your boss’s boss, but going over your manager’s head can be dicey. Your direct manager is likely to hear about the conversation at some point, and if their boss doesn’t handle the situation skillfully, that can make things worse. Because of that, before you go over your manager’s head, it’s smart to make sure the person you plan to talk to has both good judgment and a track record of handling employee complaints well.

There are some exceptions to this, though! If you’re being illegally harassed or discriminated against or if your manager is doing something illegal or seriously shady (like having an affair with a subordinate or pressuring employees to loan them money), those are things you should definitely escalate. (If your boss is at the top of the organization and there’s no one higher to talk to, your options are a lot more limited, although in the case of harassment or discrimination, you could speak to a lawyer or file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or your state labor department.)

Get more good advice from Alison Green at Ask a Manager or in her book. Do you have a pressing work-related question of your own? Submit it using this form.