Employees who have the benefit of a Human Resources (“HR”) department or administrator are not always given an explanation of what role that it plays in their work lives. It is generally understood that HR may be in charge of the hiring and recruitment process and perhaps in managing benefits and leaves. They can also play an inter-personal problem solving role to a certain extent, but there are important limitations to this.
As an employee, it’s typically advisable to approach HR if you wish to raise an allegation of workplace violence, harassment, or discrimination. From a legal standpoint, this counts as advising the employer of your concerns, which in turn places on them a positive obligation to take steps to address your concerns, provided that they are brought in good faith. There are some safeguards in place in the legislation to protect an employee against reprisal for raising these types of legitimate concerns.
That said, it is important to understand that HR does not play the role of your lawyer or advocate, but rather guards your employer’s interests. It is within this context that HR serves you. While your interests may be aligned to the extent that an employer does not wish to be in breach of legislation and wishes to retain good employees, it happens often that employer and employee see things very differently.
Aside from the categories above, if your concerns are with management itself, especially with respect to your performance or a personality clash, you may wish to temper your expectations about HR’s ability to “fix” the issue to your liking. Similarly, if you are experiencing interpersonal conflict with another employee, HR may be able to step in to smooth things over, but will attempt to resolve it in the way that best serves the organization.
A good rule is not to share anything with HR that you would not be comfortable with your boss knowing. While HR will try to respect confidentiality to the extent possible, understand that your communications in no way are protected from being disclosed in later court proceedings or from being shared with your boss in the same way that solicitor-client communications are.
If, having approached HR, you feel that your concerns have not been appropriately addressed, or if you do not feel comfortable approaching HR, it may be advisable to seek a legal opinion of your situation to determine whether to have counsel intervene on your behalf. If something is seriously bothering you at work and you cannot solve it alone, we in no way suggest ignoring the problem.
Recognize that an employer may be hesitant to outright admit liability arising from a workplace investigation, even if wrongdoing is found. Further, it is rare that an employer would offer up monetary compensation such as human rights general damages, even if a breach has occurred according to its investigation. Counsel may be able to assist in determining and recovering appropriate remedies.
Finally, there are many excellent human resources departments out there; naturally as counsel we hear more often about the poor ones. Use your own educated judgment to determine what role they can play in resolving your workplace challenges. If in doubt, we are happy to assist.