Please Don’t Tell Anyone Who Told You This But

by Evil HR Lady on June 23, 2008

I am also an Evil HR Lady. They even call me ‘The Warden’. I think they’re kidding but I wear it as a badge of honor nonetheless. I am the HR Director and I have 4 Evilettes who handle most of the basic HR functions while I handle more of the big picture and really, really drama filled stuff.

My question is; how do I handle those situations where an employee comes to tell me something that they want addressed but want to remain anonymous? Sometimes these things are so specific and there is really only one way I could know about it…..a ‘snitch’. Unless I catch the person doing it, it’s hard to bring it to their attention without being obvious. Sometimes I am able to ‘catch’ someone and sometimes not. Any thoughts?

Wow. I bow in the honor of an HR Lady called “The Warden.” That is awesome. Or really, really bad and you should be nicer. One of the two.

I’m really, really tempted to send you to my favorite day care provider to tell you how to handle it. (“Are you tattling? I don’t listen to tattlers, so go play.”)

That’s actually a great way to handle things that aren’t serious. (“John keeps coming in late.” “Are you tattling on John? I don’t listen to tattlers. Go work.”) That and, “well, have you asked Susan to stop clearing her throat 64 times an hour? No? Try that,” cover you for most of the situations that arise.

But the real problems come when it’s not something you can ignore. When it’s not that Susan is repeatedly clearing her throat, it’s that she’s stealing product, then you have to do something. Then there are the things such as sexual harassment that can open the company up to legal liabilities. You have to act.

So, how to do it without letting the target of the investigation know who brought it to your attention. Sometimes this is impossible and you just have to tell the person that while you would love to leave them out of it, it’s impossible to do so. If the complaint is that John’s supervisor is asking for “inappropriate” favors from him, you can’t exactly just wire tap the supervisor’s office and send John in there to run a sting operation. Nor can you just follow the supervisor around all day hoping he’ll forget you are there and say something inappropriate.

The reality is that people know that even if a “case” is decided in their favor, their working life could be made into a nightmare. (John’s supervisor is no longer sexually harassing him, but he receives worse assignments and subtle putdowns that turn the team against him.) Therefore, John doesn’t want to be associated with the problem, just make it stop.

You can’t. In some situations, you do just have to suck it up and deal with it, names and all. Of course, this is a huge catch 22 because if you can’t keep it confidential fewer people will come to you and if fewer people come to you it’s more likely that you’ll miss things that are going on. Then your employes could claim that the reason they didn’t come to HR with the problem was because you made it difficult to present a problem. Hoo-boy, then you’re in for more trouble.

So, some suggestions on things that aren’t going to blow up immediately. Mandatory training. I know, I know, unpleasant and difficult to just pull one bad egg into it. So, don’t. You should be having regular training on health and safety issues, harassment, etc, so if you have regularly scheduled training, either the employee in question has recently completed it or will be due for additional training. Then you can simply “follow up” on the training. This will give you an excuse to talk to the alleged offender without bringing up the situation.

If it’s something like stealing (probably not a legitimate training you could do on “why you shouldn’t steal from the employer”), that’s an immediately fireable offense, so less risk ruining the complainer’s life if it’s found to be true. Plus, it’s not like you can be sued for someone stealing something. (I’m sure now I’ll get a link where that happened.)

Part of the problem, which you know, is that people want HR to step in and solve all problems for them–rather than being growning up and solving it themselves. Still, as the Warden (I do love that) you’ve obviously gained some level of respect that the average employee and manager doesn’t have. Use that to your advantage when you are explaining to an employee that there is no way you can keep their name out of it. “If you have further problems, let me know and I WILL take care of it.” Who could not believe you?

For the less serious problems, I would let the “person who brings it to your attention” (I’ve been using “complainer” but that sounds too negative), decide if which they want more–the problem dealt with or anonymity. Of course, you can keep your eyes open and if you do see something deal with it, but not all workplace complaints need to be dealt with.

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