As someone who has worked as an HR professional for some years, I can say that it’s not unusual for an employee to approach me wanting to talk about being bullied, harassed or discriminated against in some way.
Sometimes the employee wants to lodge an official complaint. That outcome involves a considerable amount of work and requires a strict application of professional process and the exercise of good sense, but at least there is a process to follow and it’s “straightforward”.
I say that because there are other occasions on which the person just wants to let someone know or have an opportunity to vent, but doesn’t want to go as far as lodging a formal complaint.
Those occasions place an HR practitioner in a difficult position, especially if the employee appears distressed or otherwise “not themselves”. From the individual’s perspective, the opportunity to unburden may be a great relief but from where the HR manager sits, the information that has been communicated is in a zone that’s akin to a no-man’s land. A complaint has been received but the complainant does not want to call it a complaint.
So what do you do as an HR professional if you can’t convince the person to formalise the complaint? How do you sleep at night when you are concerned not only about the welfare of the individual but the detrimental effect the behaviours reported might be having at the team level? Do these reported behaviours reflect the wider culture of the organisation?
These considerations prompt the question as to whether the duty of care overrides the duty of confidentiality. How do you deal with the issue of employee trust if you decide to take the issue further without the consent of the complainant? Do you write a file note but keep it to yourself?
There are no simple answers to these questions and they probably can’t readily become the subject of legislation. The need for exercising discretion and judgement by the HR professional is paramount, as is the imperative to keep in touch with the complainant and monitor any movements on the issue so it doesn’t take on a new life that runs out of control.
One thing that might help is to ensure the organisation effectively communicates and provides ongoing training on issues related to inclusion that touch on the organisation’s policies and procedures about bullying, harassment and discrimination.
If that happens everyone at least starts on the same page.
Just how prevalent these issues are no doubt varies from workplace to workplace, and those with a strong inclusive culture may report fewer cases. However, human nature is human nature and it’s our role as HR practitioners to know how to handle people so that we are supporting the employees as well as the organisation.
But we are now in an era where human behaviour and the law are combining to produce circumstances that result in HR managers being exposed to legal action being taken against them as individuals in the performance of their duties. Mindful of that, I’m sure grey areas such as the one I’ve described contribute to plenty of sleepless nights.
I would be interested in hearing about the experiences of others on this delicate question.
Hayley Breen is a senior development and research consultant at the Australian Human Resources Institute.