What to do when you have a problem at work, and human resources won't help you

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What do you do when human resources turns its back on you?

That’s exactly what former Uber engineer Susan J. Fowler alleges happened to her. She wrote in a blog post that during a year working at Uber, she was sexually harassed and experienced gender bias. Her post prompted the tech company to launch an internal investigation.

In the post, Fowler claimed that Uber’s HR department was part of the problem. She wrote that it covered up for “high performers” and failed to take action against instances of gender bias in the office.

So what do you do when you’re having a problem at work, and it feels like the people designated to help you at the office won’t?

First, follow company procedures and file a complaint with HR. “Always give the employer an opportunity to fix the problem, first,” Expert Human Resources president Vanessa G. Nelson told Business Insider.

Executive coach and Learning Engine president Dr. N. Elizabeth Fried said that HR will likely attempt to establish a “pattern of behaviour” and proceed from there. Make sure to consult your employee handbook’s policies and maintain a paper trail throughout the entire process.

However, it’s a whole other ballgame when HR ignores or mishandles your complaint. If you feel completely left behind by HR, here’s what to do next.

Start searching for another job

Harassment and discrimination in the workplace indicate a certain level of dysfunction on the part of the company. If the situation has progressed to the point where you’ve found that HR won’t even handle sensitive complaints, then it’s probably time to move on.

“Regardless of the brand, if these are the conditions an employee is subjected to, it’s probably time to find a new place to work,” John Hudson, a Chicago-based HR business partner with Slalom, LLC., said in an email.

That’s easier said than done, in some cases, but you should at least start making arrangements to get out.

“Rather than spend your time and your precious career in an organisation that lets situations escalate, you should vote with your feet and go find a company that values you and is committed to a hostile-free work environment,” Raleigh, North Carolina-based human resources consultant Laurie Ruettimann told Business Insider.

Go outside your company for help

If HR has made it clear that they don’t have your back, it’s time to start looking for support elsewhere. Fried recommends alerting the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“The best course of action for an employee to take when HR dismisses their complaints, if they are that egregious, is to go to the EEOC and file a complaint,” she said. “No company wants the EEOC in their office.”

Nelson adds that, in extreme cases where you feel like your safety is threatened, you can also report to the US Department of Labour’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Fried recommends looking anti-discrimination laws in your state. She said that, in some cases, managers can actually be personally liable for punitive damages: “When managers know that it’s going ot come out of their pocket, they stop it.”

The EEOC mandates that employees cannot be retaliated against for “asserting their rights to be free from employment discrimination including harassment.” However, Nelson said it’s important to know that not all companies follow the rules regarding retaliation (it’s “the most frequently alleged basis of discrimination in the federal sector,” according to the EEOC’s website).

“If the employer is saying things like, ‘We can’t take action because we don’t want to mess with this employee’s reputation,’ that means that they’re not afraid of being unfair,” Nelson said. “They would probably not have a problem with retaliating.”

Remember: Your HR department makes mistakes just like anyone else

At the end of the day, it’s probably a good idea not to place blind trust in any HR department.

“People behave in really shady ways at all kinds of organisations throughout America and throughout the global employment landscape,” Ruettimann said. “What’s shocking to me is that we’re having the same conversation in 2017 that we were in 1977.”

Hudson said that abuses do occur, even when employees follow the rules and report discriminatory or harassing behaviour. “Unfortunately, in many organisations, ‘high performers’ are given a little more latitude in their leadership behaviours,” he said. “If they are bringing a lot of revenue into the company or leading a major innovative team, some organisations tend to look the other way. But, in the cases of discrimination or sexual harassment, these behaviours should never be tolerated, regardless of the person’s role in the organisation.”

Ruettimann said that, in the future, informal online networks will inform prospective employees about work culture and environments. She said that companies that tolerate harassers or promote discriminatory environments will be labelled.

“Whether it’s a formal registry online or an informal conversation at a women’s networking event, stuff like this is going to start to get out,” Laurie said. “Like a FICO score, you’re not really going to know the methodology of why someone’s labelled a workplace predator or not. Women talk and women connect on the internet. That’s the true power of the social web and the movement that we’re having right now.”

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