This content was created by Girlboss in partnership with AllVoices.
That colleague says something to belittle you. Your boss gives you another huge project, even when they know you’re already drowning. Or your boss is the picture-perfect definition of a micromanager. Or another year has gone by and you’re still stuck with your same role with the same title but your peers are moving up all around you. Maybe this is the first time it’s happened. Maybe it’s the hundredth. Either way—and whatever it is—you know it’s time to take this to human resources. But how do you actually do that?
Here’s your step-by-step guide about how and when to go to HR.
Step #1: Determine if this is actually an issue for HR
As far as knowing when to go to HR, this one’s an easy answer: “All problems that impact an employee’s ability to do their best work are an HR problem,” says Claire Schmidt, Chief Executive Officer of AllVoices, a platform that enables employees to anonymously (crucial!) interact directly with their company’s leaders, whether that’s asking a question, making a complaint, or even acting as a whistleblower. “There is a social contract between employee and employer around active listening,” she explains, meaning that if it’s bothering you, your company is obligated to listen, whatever the issue.
That said, “HR professionals certainly encourage and urge employees to try and figure out issues on their own first and not just use HR as a ‘hammer’ or ‘easy button,’” says Leigh Elena Henderson, a former human resources leader at Fortune 500 companies who is now a consultant and content creator dishing out workplace home truths via her popular TikTok, @HRManifesto. “Your colleagues will appreciate you trying to take the effort to handle things 1-1 before escalating upwards and involving others in interpersonal affairs.”
The exception to this, she notes, is any situation involving violence or sexual activity or an emergency of any kind. “More often than not, I’ve been called before the police and have had to urge the folks onsite or in the area of the issue to hang up and call 911,” she says. “If there’s a life threatening incident and someone is in immediate danger or is having a health crisis, please call 911 and focus on an emergency response! I believe human life and safety comes first and we can care about PR later.”
Step #2: Gather the evidence
While you’re not the one on trial here, it can be helpful to gather any information that might support your complaint, and make it easier for HR to take action on it. “Provide as much detail as you can and if possible, supporting written information,” says Schmidt. “If you have screenshots of the bad behavior or any other kinds of documents that support your story–especially in a virtual work environment–it can be very helpful to provide that information to the team.” If you’re struggling with workload, for example, this could mean keeping a calendar log of the hours you’re putting in. If it’s a series of microaggressions, keep notes of when it’s happening, the specific words or actions etc, who else may have been in the room etc. That said: “Documentation is always helpful, but it’s absolutely not necessary or recommended to do your own recon,” says Henderson.
Step #3: Make your report
Ideally, your company has a documented process for making a formal report t to human resource or partners with a service like AllVoices that can include a “whistleblower” hotline for you to voice your concern anonymously if that’s your preference. If there’s less structure, make the report in a way that works for you, whether that’s an email, phone call or booking a meeting. “Whenever you take a new position, I always recommend getting to know your HR contact,” says Henderson. “We’re always available ad hoc, but strive to be proactive so that you and HR can get a face to the name. If something were to arise – positive or negative – in your work experience, HR being familiar with you and your proactive self will help way more than it hurts.”
Step #4: Let HR (hopefully) do their thing
“In a perfect world, all feedback and reporting would first be personally acknowledged by HR,” says Schmidt, adding that in this ideal scenario you will be thanked for coming forward, and they’ll begin doing their own due diligence – asking questions, speaking with any witnesses, evaluating the evidence – that makes sure you “feel safe, respected, and heard.” Then (ideally!) there’s some concrete action that happens, whether that’s changing a policy, providing team training or termination of a “bad actor” if necessary.
Alas, we live in a less-than-perfect world, and you may find that human resources drops the ball, say by dismissing or minimizing your concern. If this happens, Schmidt encourages you to speak with your manager (if you’re comfortable) or even reaching out to another person in human resources. “Let them know what resolution looks like to you and explain that your needs haven’t been met,” she says. “You can see if your company has any other resources they can provide you with as well, such as coaching.”
One other important point: You also don’t have to save going to HR for huge issues. In fact, says Henderson, your HR contact “always appreciates being brought in early before a larger problem transpires. I’ve never seen any HR department keep tabs on things like this, unless they’re doing a formal investigation, so don’t worry – nothing will show on your ‘permanent record!’”
Step #5: Protect yourself
One of the reasons you might be hesitant about going to HR may have nothing to do with ignorance about the process, and everything to do with a very real worry that reporting something may backfire on you, especially if it’s something interpersonal. “It’s reasonable to fear that, says Schmidt, pointing to a survey by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that showed 75 percent of people who reported harassment “experienced some kind of retaliation” for speaking up. “This is why we created AllVoices, to provide a third option to employees, who previously felt like their only choice was between staying silent or experiencing some form of retaliation,” she says, adding: “Ultimately it’s only the employees’ responsibility to speak up if you feel comfortable and safe doing so.”
That said, Henderson urges us not to let unfounded suspicion about human resources get in the way. “Like any and every profession, the bad performers can give the entire field a bad rap, ” she says, nodding to the common perception that human resources exists to serve the company, and will always act in the interests of the people who sign their paychecks. “The HR professionals I’ve worked with are always on call and responsive to employee concerns. They listen and they want to wholeheartedly make the employment experience a positive and safe one for all,” says Henderson. “I can also say that we are not taught in school to ‘always side with the company!’ There’s absolutely no chapter on this, I assure you.”