HR Hero Line

Get involved or steer clear? What’s HR to do when complaints roll in?

Ahh, the human resources department. The place where compassionate, friendly people solve problems in the workplace. A place filled with intelligent professionals uniquely qualified to turn conflict into comfort.

Or maybe that’s not what the HR department should be at all. Maybe HR should empower others to handle certain workplace issues on their own rather than getting pulled into every dispute. Cynthia Schuler, director of human resources at the Sterne Kessler Goldstein Fox law firm in Washington, D.C., falls into this camp. 

Schuler advises HR to strike a balance. It’s good to be a trusted adviser and coach, but the HR department needs to guard against “the perception of being the complaint department or dumping ground for everyone and anyone in the organization.”

Schuler presented a webinar for Business & Legal Resources in June titled “Complaint Department No More: How to Keep HR from Being the Lightning Rod for Employee Gripes.” In the program, she outlined when HR should be involved and when it shouldn’t and how HR can keep from getting roped in to problems that should be handled in other ways.

When to get involved
Even though HR should help managers and employees resolve conflict on their own, there are times when HR needs to take the lead, Schuler says. For example, HR should handle problems involving legal issues because HR has the expertise to deal with harassment, discrimination, wage and hour, and other legal topics.

Managers should be able to handle tardiness, dress code violations, unscheduled absences, and other such workplace problems on their own, but they need to know their limits. Although they don’t need thorough knowledge of the laws affecting the workplace, Schuler says they need a basic understanding so they know when to go to HR.

For example, Schuler says managers should be taught to listen for key words and phrases such as “I’m taking medication because I’m so stressed because of my supervisor.” That’s definitely an HR issue because it may involve a disability covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or a need for time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

An employee claiming back and neck pain from the way a workstation is set up is or an employee mentioning depression that’s affecting performance are other examples of phrases that signal a need for HR, since those complaints may involve workers’ compensation, leave under the FMLA, and an ADA-covered disability.

Also, someone complaining that a coworker is “making it difficult for me to work on the team” may be a sign of unlawful workplace harassment. Such complaints should be seen as “alarm bells for managers to bring issues to HR,” Schuler says.

Schuler suggests holding training sessions at least annually to run down the basics of the major laws governing the workplace – the ADA, FMLA, COBRA, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, state civil rights laws, the Equal Pay Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, workers’ compensation, and wage and hour laws.

“Empowering your managers to take charge gives them accountability and gives them the undivided support to be more proficient and effective in managing their employees,” Schuler says.

HR also needs to get involved when a manager reports to HR that he or she has spoken to an employee on an issue without success and the progressive discipline policy needs to go into effect. Also, if the manager suspects the employee needs to be fired, Schuler says HR needs to enter the picture in order to guide the manager on the next steps. It’s ideal if the manager has been trained to supply a written chronology of the issue, complete with dates of conversations.

How to hold down HR involvement
In addition to training managers on the laws they should be familiar with, HR can supply them with coaching skills that will help them handle conflict and complaints. Schuler says there’s a difference between coaching and managing.

Managing is telling or directing people, and coaching involves giving people the tools they need to develop themselves. A coach guides students to make good decisions. A manager who knows how to coach his team won’t need to bring in HR so often.

Besides training managers how to recognize legal issues and how to coach their teams, HR should be empowered to inform managers that they’ll be evaluated on their ability to handle problems affecting their departments, Schuler says.

Schuler also suggests training managers on ways to build the solid relationships necessary for dealing with conflict. Areas to cover include:

  • The importance of consistent treatment. A manager can’t allow one worker to work from home or take advantage of another benefit and then deny the same to someone else in the same job.
  • Benefits of offering continual feedback as a way to keep employees engaged and striving for improvement.
  • The importance of managing firmly and fairly. Managers who ask for feedback, share information, and use an open-door policy will have stronger relationships with their employees.