Please Don’t Tell Anyone Who Told You This But

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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14 thoughts on “Please Don’t Tell Anyone Who Told You This But

  1. We recently received anonymous feedback via email from an employee. I like the way our CEO handled it. Over several days he posted the email and management’s response on his public blog.

    We want our employees to bring concerns to management, escalating appropriately. It isn’t easy to build the trust necessary for this type of environment, but we are working on it.

  2. Depends on the seriousness of the concern. I always tell the employee who approaches me with that opener to tell me what the concern is about first. If it’s something serious, then I give the caveat that we cannot guarantee confidentiality due to the seriousness of the problem, but we will try to protect the employee’s anonymity as best we can until required to reveal more. If an employee is just embarassed and unsure of how to approach a manager/employee about something annoying (e.g., employee smells), then that’s a different picture.

  3. I agree with the advice. There are many instances where you can keep situations confidential but there are others where you simply cannot. Always be honest about what you can and cannot do. I never tell an employee I will keep something confidential if I can’t. I’ve always found honesty is the best policy. If nothing else, the employees know they can take you at your word.

  4. The violations of EEO laws taking place in organizations today are numerous. Few organizations are spending the time and effort to provide the training you suggest.

  5. I take the approach with the tattler that it’s going to obvious who made the complaint if I take any action, and that there’s nothing I can do to keep people from figuring that out.

    Ergo – If you want to make the complaint and have me do something about it, get ready to the the credit for having surfaced the problem.

    As for annonymous letters – you have to consider the source to determine the credibility. Since these letters have no source, they have no credibility. I’ll investigate very quietly.If I find anything, I’ll be very careful to use some other source rather than acknowledging that my info came from an annonymous letter.

  6. Hi,

    I agree that there are at times when you cannot keep things confidential. But the biggest and strong factor that I believe is TRUST. If a person has full faith in you, he will totally rely on you and that if you disclose anything, he understands that it is for his own goodwill.

    Try managing and understanding human emotions, and the way ahead is not that DIFFICULT.


  7. I just started blog and had a recent run in with HR! Although she was not evil… in fact she was great! If you get a chance come stop by and check it out. I blog about my transition from college life to the professional life and my many stumbles along the way!

  8. Great topic. When I’ve had to talk to a manager about an issue one of his/her employees raised with me, and I’m concerned that the manager will retaliate against the employee in some way (even subtly), I’ll usually address it head-on. For instance: “I want to add that I imagine this may make you feel a strain in the relationship with the employee. However, it is vitally important that employees feel they can raise issues like this without harming their position here, so I’d like you to be fastidious about not making her feel in any way awkward or as if this has caused tension or harmed your relationship.” Usually calling them on it before they have a chance to do it will short-circuit the impulse.

  9. << For the less serious problems, I would let the "person who brings it to your attention"(..), decide if which they want more--the problem dealt with or anonymity. >>

    As always, brilliant advice, HR Lady!
    It goes well with your strategy of getting people to act like grown-ups: be clear that one option may preclude the other, and let the interested party decide what option has better cost/benefit for him/her.

    Signed, A reader who already got and used specific advice from you with excellent results.

  10. seriously though… this question was submitted to you by an HR director with 4 direct reports? how does one become an HR director without knowing how to handle situations like this?

    but yes, spot on response, evil hr lady.

  11. jessica lee… I was asking myself the same question. It’s a valid question, however most (if not all) HR professionals learned how to deal with this situation fairly early on in their careers, don’t you think?

    EHRL, as always, a great response!

  12. In my defense, I do handle the situations. And from EHRL’s response I’m doing the right thing, but I was just wondering if there were other ideas out there. I don’t claim to know everything just because I’m a HR Director (aka Warden). I was really just looking for other ideas and better suggestions. Thanks for the help all!

  13. I like that you included the suggestion that the “Tattler” bring it up to the offender. Obviously this tactic doesn’t work (or is inaporpriate) in some situations. But in supervisory roles, I have often been asked to step in and solve problems that should be handled by the tattler growing up and confronting the person directly. The problem is, they don’t want to confront – they want someone else to do it for them.

  14. I have had persistent, ongoing complaints from one employee about another (now I’m talking “she’s wearing that same hairstyle AGAIN for the 4th day in a row” all the way to “she took an extra 2 minutes for her break, forcing me to go late for mine”) and it is complaints like this that cause the majority of the drama. I first take the ‘are you tattling’ approach, and then the ‘this has affected how your job today how?’ approach, then to give suggestions on how they can deal with the issue or ignore it (some things are not worth pulling the other employee aside to say “hey, did you ever consider a perm”… but some things like excessively extending break times on an ongoing basis are typically dealt with with a conversation right away).

    But if the complaints are consistent and repetitive from the same person I will sometimes suggest that, if they see this as such an issue and they are personally having a tough time that ‘Beth’ doesn’t want to change her hairstyle, I can mediate a conversation between the two of them so they can see each others point of view. This really is effective in stopping the ‘tattling’ for the piddly little issues because it makes the ‘complainer’ really consider if their complaint is worth it or not.

    On the other hand, if it is a situation that really is effecting the ‘complainers’ work, like they have to go for break late every other day due to the other person being late from his/her break and it throws them off schedule, a mediation always works great in getting the other person to notice that his/her actions really do have an effect on everyone around them. It even works better than me having to pull them aside to say “hey, I understand that you have been taking long breaks, if this is true, stop it – or else!” AND it pushes the ‘complainer’ speaking up themselves. Because if we can all be grown ups and work together and get along, things work much smoother, don’t they?

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