Just How Much Can You Trust HR?

Complaint-logging and confidentiality

Back Web Only Jun 17, 2015 By Coral Henning

I’ve noticed some of my coworkers becoming quite relaxed about their work schedules, and one coworker in particularly comes in very late on Fridays (though no one in management sees this behavior). I’d like to speak to HR and have the issue reported anonymously to management, as I would not want to alienate my coworkers and be known as a snitch. Can I ask my HR rep to keep the conversation confidential?

Human resource departments or representatives are a valuable component of employee well-being in any business, regardless of size. In addition to managing payroll, benefits, staffing and compliance with state and federal laws and regulations, HR departments frequently serve as the middleman between employer and employee on a variety of issues. Sometimes this includes employee discipline and workplace investigations. Your question is an interesting one because there’s been a trend in recent years of businesses promoting their open-door policies to build trust and increase transparency within the workplace. But policies are usually broadly crafted and can be subject to interpretation or employed on a case-by-case basis. To best answer your question, it will help to get an idea of how employers are generally advised to handle complaints of employee misconduct and how, specifically, your employer has taken steps to address these issues through policy and in practice.

First, you should review any and all documentation your employer has provided to you on its policies and procedures. If you received a personnel handbook upon hiring or know where one is kept, you should read it thoroughly. Pay special attention to any policies on the following: complaints, workplace misconduct and investigations, and retaliation and harassment. Also, try to recall how your employer has handled incidents of workplace misconduct in the past, as that may give you some guidance to what will happen if you do lodge a complaint. Was the response prompt and professional? Did the rumor mill intensify when such an incident occurred, despite efforts to keep investigations confidential?

When it comes to conducting a workplace investigation, it is in the employer’s best interest to keep the process as confidential as possible. Complaints can and frequently do split coworkers into camps of loyalty, disrupting work and sometimes causing more serious situations to occur. For example, if details about the misconduct are leaked, the employer could potentially be vulnerable to a defamation lawsuit. Alternatively, the workplace could become so polarized that the employer now must deal with allegations of harassment or retaliation between staff, both much more serious complaints than chronic lateness. Lodging an official complaint with your name attached will likely result in some paperwork and interviews, but note that these proceedings are usually restricted to need-to-know individuals within the company.

That being said, let’s address your question about whether you can ask your HR representative to keep your complaint confidential. You can certainly ask that your conversation and complaint be kept in confidence, but an HR representative’s first duty is to the company, not to the employee. This is not to say that the HR rep cannot be trusted; simply that they cannot guarantee absolute confidentiality, especially if your complaint were regarding more serious or potentially dangerous conduct that they would be obligated to report.

Another point to keep in mind: In many companies, HR departments or representatives are treated as management or an extension of management and thus, if a complaint is made to HR, the company is considered “on notice” of the incident. Being “on notice” is the trigger for taking action on a complaint; essentially, the clock starts ticking on an employer’s time to respond. If you do disclose your complaints to HR, bear in mind that it may be difficult to put the cat back in the bag.    

Reassuringly, there are steps an employer can take to safeguard an employee who has lodged a complaint. In addition to striving to maintain a confidential investigation, the company can have firm policies in place regarding harassment and retaliation. If you feel threatened by a particular coworker, it’s a good bet that management will want to be aware of the situation. The appropriate person(s) can then monitor the workplace carefully for any signs of retaliation against you.

Another option is to submit an anonymous complaint about your coworkers’ misconduct. A manager receiving an anonymous complaint will probably start an investigation by interviewing the person(s) who might be most likely to witness the behavior or place herself in the best position to witness the misconduct herself. You may be interviewed about the issue, but it’s likely your coworkers will also be called in for interviews. This may be enough to maintain civility within your office.

Your local county law library will have resources on the subject if you’d like to conduct further research. Also, if you do find yourself experiencing harassment or retaliation in the office after the complaint process with little recourse from management, you may want to consult an attorney who specializes in employment law matters.

Do you have a question for the County Law Librarian? Just email comstocks@saclaw.org


Dawntae Jackson (not verified)August 13, 2015 - 4:47am

The complaint about coming in late on Fridays is very interesting. Since it's one day he comes in really late, there may be an issue there. Perhaps he has FMLA to attend an appointment and he schedules them every Friday..

My question is does the person want to report it because they feel like them following the rules isn't acknowledged? Or is there a work issue that is effected by a person coming in late on Fridays? Are these people exempt?