Make the most of your HR department?

Most of us at some point will have experienced a difficult person or situation at work. But while it's to be hoped that employees and employers will always treat each other in a professional manner, this is - sadly - not always the case.

In such circumstances, your company's human resources department is there to help sort out the problem. But what will it actually do - and what if it doesn't help?

What is an HR department?

The HR department is responsible for supporting a company's business plans and ensuring the right employment policies and procedures are in place.

Traditionally known as personnel, HR also looks after such things as employee pay, benefits and working conditions.

Who is it there to look after?

Patrick Egan, managing director of internal brand alignment company Endaba, says employees often distrust HR because it has to carry out tasks such as making redundancies, but adds: "As companies become more proactive, introducing policies such as flexible working, trust in HR is beginning to increase."

However, it pays to bear in mind who pays the department's salaries. An employment lawyer (who chose not to be named) told Moneywise: "It's not a black-and-white issue, but the fact is a company supports and funds HR to protect its own interests."

What if you have a grievance with a colleague or manager?

Fiona Newstead says when a problem arises with a colleague, some employees prefer to go to their line manager first. "It's all to do with the working relationships. Many people feel more comfortable having a quiet word with their line manager.

"But if the problem actually involves the line manager, then HR can step in and clarify your rights."

What should you do first?

The first thing to do is to talk to either your line manager or someone from your HR department.

All conversations with HR should be confidential. "The only time confidentiality might be broken is if something is illegal or seriously breaches health and safety rules, but we would always inform the employee of this," says Newstead.

"If someone is concerned about bullying, for example, HR can explain their rights and advise on the best steps to take. This might include using the company's grievance procedure and putting the complaint in writing."

What is a grievance procedure?

Grievance procedures are covered under the code of practice of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), an independent body. Every company should have a grievance procedure, which is often detailed in the company handbook. By invoking the grievance procedure, you formalise your complaint.

Can you go to court?

Once you've exhausted all internal avenues, you may be able to take your case to an employment tribunal, although it will depend on how long you've been employed by the company. For example, if the problem involves discrimination or bullying, and you've tried every avenue but received no help and feel forced to leave, this may be classed as 'constructive dismissal'.

What can you do if your HR department doesn't help?

Unfortunately, not everyone will find their HR department as helpful as they might have hoped. Louise Rayner, a solicitor in the employment team at Basingstoke-based Philips Solicitors, says when this happens the complaint can often turn into one about the HR department itself.

"If your HR department isn't helpful, the first step is to try to resolve the matter internally," says Rayner. "Make sure you're familiar with your company's grievance policies and use these to try to resolve your concerns.

"If the HR team still doesn't address your problem, then, depending on the nature of the grievance, it might be appropriate to seek legal advice to see if you have grounds to take your complaint to an employment tribunal."

Your Comments

I work for a large company where there used to be an H.R manager on site. Now it is ring a number, speak on the phone to a stranger. My line manager now deals with holidays and any wage enquiries which I think is wrong.Returns to work after sickness can be awkward as if you are off with anything family or stress related then why does your line manager suddenly become expert.?
My line manager has little time to do his job so dealing with this so called trivia just winds him up.
I welcome the return of a good understanding and qualified H.R manager... sadly in that respect the company is going backwards.

i work for a large renewable energy company whos HR dept are so scared of the main directors it unreal , at the moment there are redundacies being made , for the time being i am safe , my line manager is frightened of her own shadow and will only cover her own back , i am a manager but below her , she has not got a clue about the industry we are in and asks all the time if this will be ok or that will be ok , what sort of manager is that , everything is about figures but none of the upper managers or regional directors live in the real world on this company because of the unreal figures they are asking , the want my men to work 12 hour days but do not pay them enough & if that was not bad enough you have our own H&S dept breathing down our necks , so we have more produtivity & health & safety against each other , the company wants as many measures as poss but please dont get caught by the H& S guys & if you do it normally ends up with a disciplinary, back to the HR dept they are rubbish