4 Times You Should Talk to HR - and a Bunch of Times When You Shouldn't

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How often have you thought to yourself: "I'm upset about this situation at work. I wonder if I should talk to HR." Or maybe you've advised friends or relatives that they should consult human resources about a problem they're having at work.

As a workplace advice columnist, I spend a lot of time telling people that HR isn't the right place to take their concerns about their jobs or their bosses. Too often, people mistakenly think HR is a neutral referee that's there to mediate problems with co-workers or managers. In most cases, however, it's more effective to try to resolve problems with the person causing the conflict, and a good HR department will direct you to do that.HR isn't there to deliver awkward messages to co-workers on your behalf, such as "stop talking so loudly" or "pull your own weight." And, in most cases, HR isn't there to be your advocate when you feel your boss is being unfair.

But there are some (narrowly defined!) situations where it does make sense to talk to HR:

1. If you're being harassed. If you're being sexually harassed or harassed on the basis of your race, sex, religion, disability, national origin, age (if you're 40 or older) or other protected class, HR has a legal obligation to investigate and put a stop to it. HR is often better to approach in this situation than your boss, because HR staff tend to be aware that they need to handle this issues seriously and carefully and are generally trained in how to proceed (whereas your boss may or may not be). When you do this, make it clear that you are making a formal complaint of harassment so that there's no confusion on that front.

2. If you're being discriminated against on the basis of your race, sex, religion, disability or other protected class.Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of these traits, and companies are obligated to take action when a report of such discrimination is made in good faith. This is another case in which HR is more likely to more likely to understand what the law requires and know how to proceed correctly than your boss might be.

3. When you have questions about or issues with benefits or rights guaranteed to you by law. Questions about health insurance, your balance of accrued vacation time, taking leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act, getting an accommodation for a medical disability through the Americans with Disabilities Act and everything else related to benefits or legal protections are all in HR's purview.

4. When you encounter certain issues with your boss – in very limited circumstances. In general, HR isn't there to work out issues with your boss. If you feel that your boss is giving your co-worker better assignments than she gives you or nitpicking your work unfairly, that's not something that HR can generally resolve for you. But if your boss is being openly abusive, asking you to do something illegal or unsafe or otherwise doing something that your company would likely be horrified to know about – like dating a subordinate, or refusing to allow anyone to ever use paid time off or another benefit guaranteed by the company – then it usually makes sense to talk to HR.

But not if you just dislike your boss or her management style, or when you have trouble getting along with your manager or co-workers. Those issues, while legitimate problems, aren't ones that most HR departments will resolve for you. That said, in some companies, HR can give you useful advice on how you can navigate these situations yourself. But you really need to know your own HR department to assess whether it will be helpful to approach them for that kind of advice. Some HR employees are skilled at guiding people in those situations, while others may simply report the whole conversation to your boss, even without your permission. So you want to have a sense of how your particular HR department operates, as well as of the specific HR representative who you're approaching.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She's the author of "How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager," co-author of "Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results" and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.
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