Make the most of your HR department?

Published by on 14 July 2011.
Last updated on 29 October 2013

HR meeting

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."

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