Know Before You Go (to HR)
How to set yourself up for effective interactions with human resources
Interacting with human resources can be a fraught experience, especially since—after you’re hired and onboarded—you don’t usually speak with HR because everything is going well. It’s typically the result of an unusual event at work, an inappropriate situation or interaction, or something that’s happened in your personal life that affects your ability to do your job.
Knowing what HR can and can’t help you with—and what your rights are—will help you navigate the process.
Talking about journalists’ mental health and work-related trauma is relatively new. It’s the result of a long-running effort, by a lot of people, to shed light on unhealthy workplaces and inappropriate workplace behavior. While there’s still much progress to be made, the door has at least started to open for conversations to address these situations at work. The SRCCON:WORK session that I co-facilitated was focused on basics for people beginning to explore their options.
Keep in mind, this isn’t legal advice, and if you’re really concerned about your circumstances and your capacity to navigate the HR system alone, it might be wise to consult with an employment attorney to make sure you know exactly what your rights are and what laws are applicable in your situation. It’s important to remember that multiple levels of laws and regulations are a factor—employment laws can vary state to state, and different regulations apply depending on the size of the business and how it’s structured.
Employment attorneys in your state should be able to answer questions about what your legal options are and can help you through the process.
Before visiting HR, it’s a good idea to decide what you need from them and know what you’re going to tell them. Be prepared with the details of what you need to share, and know your rights based on your situation.
Reviewing your company’s HR documentation will help you get a sense of which policies are in writing and have clear protocols and which areas may be more open-ended. This will help you know what to expect. State and federal regulations around employment can also help fill in the blanks.
Clear Priorities & Mandatory Processes
While you may be in alignment with your employer’s HR division about the steps that should happen in a given process, HR is ultimately responsible for the legal compliance of the company with all applicable employment rules and laws. Their first responsibility is to the company, not to achieving fairness for a given employee.
This priority for HR goes hand in hand with HR’s obligation to follow very specific processes mandated by employment law. This issue often comes up in investigations of employee misconduct in the workplace. (During the SRCCON:WORK session, questions about how companies handle sexual harassment were a big part of the conversation.) Even if an employee has been named in multiple accusations of inappropriate conduct, the company has to investigate each claim, or they could be held liable for wrongful termination. Furthermore, HR does not have to share any information during an investigation process—which can create an impression, rightly or wrongly, that nothing is happening.
When you approach HR, for any reason, you don’t have to speak with a manager or supervisor first. You can choose how much to disclose. Keep in mind that with the exception of medical issues, there’s no guarantee of confidentiality between you and HR when discussing things like conditions in the workplace. It may be possible that something you share with HR is something they have to act on, because of legal or policy reasons, which would involve revealing the details of what you’ve communicated.
The Family Medical Leave Act affects all employers with 50 or more employees. According to the FMLA, employers must provide an eligible employee with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for any of the following reasons:
- for the birth and care of the newborn child of an employee;
- for placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care;
- to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or
- to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.
Eligibility is based on the duration of employment and whether the company falls under the jurisdiction of the FMLA.
Resource: DOL Website on Family and Medical Leave
The Americans with Disabilities Act covers employers with 15 or more employees. The ADA protects you from discrimination when it comes to applying for jobs, hiring, firing and job training. Employers are not allowed to discriminate against qualified individuals with disabilities. It also means that potential employers cannot ask applicants about the existence or nature of a disability, only whether the applicant can perform specific job functions.
When it comes to medical records, employers are required to keep confidential any medical information they learn about an applicant or employee.
Resource: DOL Website on Americans with Disabilities Act
Resource: EEOC Website on Title 1 of the ADA
Pathways to Help
HR is your official point of contact for addressing issues in the workplace or seeking to make use of resources available to you. Like most things related to work and possible legal proceedings, it’s wise to keep a detailed record of your interactions with HR, information that is exchanged, communication, and any documentation. If the matter is related to interactions with another employee, keep careful records of the events and interactions you’re reporting. Those records will help support your efforts to successfully resolve the situation.
The important thing to remember is that you do have rights as an employee, and there are avenues for help if you need it.
Heather Bryant is a journalist, software developer, and the director of Project Facet, an open source infrastructure project that supports newsrooms in managing the logistics of creating, editing and distributing content, managing projects, and facilitating collaborative relationships.