“The pessimist is disappointed by the direction of the wind.
The optimist is certain it will change.
The realist adjusts the sails.”
ACTUAL CASE HISTORY: This really happened to me on the first day of my second job as an associate attorney:
I was wearing a new suit and a favorite tie that day, but because it was warm and my shirt collar was a bit tight, I undid my top shirt button and pushed my tie up to keep my collar near-closed.
A meeting had been called by the firm’s senior partner to introduce me and two other new attorneys to the legal staff. There were perhaps thirty attorneys sitting in a large conference room. I had been interviewed by the senior partner six weeks earlier, and he had been quite gracious, warm and engaging. He told me something like “Alan, you are clearly the person we want and need for this job.”
When the senior partner arrived, he sat at the head of the large, shiny, wooden conference room table, and began the meeting. Each of the three of us who were on our first day were asked to come forward to be introduced. When I was called, I stood up, walked to the head of the conference room table, stood next to the senior partner, and smiled.
Without saying a word the senior partner moved closes to me, grabbed my neck with his right hand, buttoned my collar with one hand – scraping it deeply as he did – and said, “We button our top buttons here.” As he did so, one of his finger nails scratched my neck quite deeply. He then went on to introduce me. The rest of the day I worked with several small blood stains on my collar and tie. I decided then and there, on that first day, to seek another job at another firm, which I secured about a month later.
Should I have gone to HR to complain? I didn’t do so, thinking only to myself, “Just find a new job and get the heck out of here,” which is what I did within six weeks or so. Though it was many years ago, and standards of conduct have changed, even then it was an unusual departure from commonly recognized standards of acceptable workplace conduct. At least I think so.
LESSON TO LEARN: So many people come to me after an “unusual event” or “bad treatment” at work with the question, “Should I report this to Human Resources?” It is always a hard call to make. Why? Because there are always so many significant “pro’s and con’s” in doing so, or not doing so.
In a perfect world, any kind of misconduct should be reported to those whose job it is to deal with such issues. But, we don’t live in a perfect world. No matter what anyone tells you, what you say to your Human Resources representative will be shared with others, quite possibly the person whose misconduct you are reporting, or his/her managers, or even friends. Though retaliation in the workplace is almost always prohibited by company policies, and often by the law, retaliation in one form or another is so common that you can almost count on it rearing its ugly head in one form or another.
Pro’s: On the one hand, if you report misconduct to Human Resources, there is a good chance the misconduct will be halted, at least in the short term. Chances are pretty good that, at the least, a warning will be given to the person in question, formal or informal. Doing so also gives you certain legal rights, and future credibility if needed in the future. No one can ever say “If it was such a problem, why didn’t you report it?”
Reporting misconduct to Human Resources gives HR the legal obligation to at least look into the report. And, if the misconduct is repeated or gets worse, your employer will have legal liability to you, which they would not have if you failed to make a report. I can’t tell you how many times I have told clients: “It would have been helpful if you had objected to this, or even reported it, in an email.”
Con’s: On the other hand, if you report an incident to Human Resources, the fact that you did so will undoubtedly become known to the person whose conduct you reported or complained of, because Human Resources must communicate with them as part of its investigation. Never, ever, ever think that you can say to Human Resources, “I am reporting this to you, but I want you to keep it confidential.” That is like telling the police the name of a person who you know committed a robbery, and asking them to promise not to speak with that person.
Additionally, reporting an event of misconduct can pour cold water on an otherwise productive relation, either with the person who engaged in misconduct, and perhaps, too, his or her friends. And, too, if someone makes a lot of complaints to Human Resources, their complaints start to lose credibility after a while. Those viewed to be “constant complainers” generally don’t go far or last long.
Why’s and Why Not’s: It is sad, but undeniable: filing a report, complaint or objection with Human Resources can be a risky thing to do. Should it be? Never. But it can be, that is for sure. And doing so when not truly needed may diminish your ability to do so in another circumstance when it is truly needed. Would you believe a complaint from an employee if he or she made a new complaint, about a new person, each and every day, for a year? Of course not. Judicious use of your ability to go to HR is a must.
One thing must be borne in mind: Human Resources representatives are NOT to be presumed to be “on your side.” Their very job description is clear that they are always “on management’s side,” which might or might not be, depending on the facts and circumstances, “on your side,” too. Human Resources representatives are surely not your “friend,” or your mom, or your lawyer, or any kind of “company police officer.” Their job is not to bring about fairness or to protect employees but, as it says in their title, to “manage human resources.”
So, there are “pro’s and “con’s” in both reporting and not reporting an incident to HR.
The truly best answer to the question “Should I report this to HR?” is “Maybe, depending on the outcome of a careful and thoughtful consideration and weighing of the “pro’s and con’s” with a strong emphasis on the word “careful.”
In reading this newsletter, please bear in mind that nothing at all in this newsletter is meant to suggest that you should not take steps that are needed to protect yourself, or that you should ignore any company requirements that you look the other way when you observe impropriety. Rather, we seek to help you make the best decision regarding whether or not to report, object or complain.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Here are eleven considerations to weigh before deciding your own course of action if an incident of misconduct or impropriety takes place either toward you, or in some way involving you, at work:
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