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‘My Boss Is Awful. Is It Worth Going to HR?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I’ve always been told by colleagues at various employers that if you have difficulties with your supervisor, you shouldn’t bother going to HR. People have told me that it’s HR’s job to protect the organization and your manager, even if he or she is a bully or violating policies and laws. I’ve been told that if you go to HR with a problem with your manager, it will be your word against your manager’s word and HR will take the side of your manager every time. Is this true?

I have a manager who has been abusive for a long time. I sought help, including help from HR, to no avail. The HR rep I spoke with told me to work it out with my boss and that I had to change my approach with my boss. Even though I have plenty of evidence of bullying in the form of hostile emails from my manager, the HR rep would not comment on my boss’s behavior at all or, from what I can tell, address the problems with him directly. As a result of having this conversation, now I’m pretty much persona non grata with my boss.

In the end, is it all on the employee to get problems like this fixed via a lawsuit if things are really that bad? Is HR pretty much expected by top-level management to take the company’s side and act as a sort of attorney defending them? 

People have a lot of confusion around this topic, and in part it’s because the way HR operates can differ significantly from company to company.

What’s true at every employer is that HR works for the company. They’re there to serve the company’s interests. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll always take the side of a bad manager over a good employee — at least not at companies with decent HR departments.

At a minimum, having HR serve the company’s interests means ensuring the company follows the law — which means looking out for things like illegal harassment or discrimination, coordinating medical and religious accommodations, and ensuring the company follows laws related to payroll and medical leave. But at good companies, HR serving the company’s interests also means things like coaching leaders to manage their teams more effectively and being thoughtful about employee morale. And of course, there’s a lot of variation across organizations; some HR departments do all of this and do it well and others less so.

It’s also important to realize that HR only has as much power as the company gives them. HR can flag problems and make suggestions, but it’s often up to individual managers to decide what to do with that input. When something’s a legal requirement, HR has more power to insist — but even then, bad companies may overrule them. Ultimately, HR takes direction from senior leadership just like every other department does.

Moreover, HR is staffed by humans, which means that you’ll find all the problems there that you find in other departments, sometimes including a tendency to do what they think leaders above them want them to do rather than what their own business sense and moral compass dictate.

Plus, know that HR isn’t required to keep what you tell them confidential. You can ask for confidentiality, but if they judge that what you’ve said needs to be shared in order to address a problem, their job obligates them to do that. That might seem unfair, but imagine if you told a safety director about a serious security flaw in their system; they’d be negligent if they didn’t act on that info, even if you asked them not to tell anyone.

So, what does this mean for employees who are considering going to HR? It depends on the issue and on what you’ve seen of how your HR team operates.

If you’re being sexually harassed or harassed on the basis of your race, sex, religion, disability, national origin, age (if you’re 40 or over), or other protected class, or if you’re being discriminated against on the basis of those things, you should go to HR (and maybe a lawyer). Those are legal issues, and they’re squarely in HR’s purview. It also makes sense to go to HR when you have questions about any rights guaranteed to you by law (like if you need to take leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act or request an accommodation under the Americans with Disability Act).

It gets more complicated when the issue isn’t a legal one. (Workplace bullying isn’t illegal in the U.S. as long as it’s not tied to a protected class like sex or race.) When something is upsetting but not illegal — like a boss who’s simply a jerk — whether or not to involve HR usually depends on how egregious the situation is. In many cases, HR won’t intervene but instead will give you suggestions of approaches you can try on your own … often starting with, “Have you talked to your boss directly about this?” That can still be helpful! But it might not be what you were hoping for by involving them.

If what you report is concerning enough and you have skilled HR people, they might talk with your boss about the situation and coach him or her on effective ways to proceed. It’s in the company’s best interests to have managers who don’t alienate employees and drive them away, so a good HR person will speak up if they see that happening.

In most cases they won’t have the authority to just stop the problem on their own. They can coach and counsel a bad manager, they can suggest training, they can loop in the bad manager’s boss, and the good ones can make sure you’re protected from retaliation for talking to them in the first place. But unless laws are being broken, they often won’t have the power to do much beyond that. That’s not the same as taking your boss’s side; it’s just a recognition of the limits of HR’s role and authority.

That means that going to HR about a bad boss can be a risky move and depends heavily on how good your HR team is. Some are great and will do all they can to intervene when they hear of a bullying boss while simultaneously protecting you. Others are not so great and might not intervene at all or might intervene in ways that make the situation worse (as yours seems to have done). So you really, really need to know how your HR team operates.

To find that out, try talking to others to see what their experience has been. You can even ask an HR rep outright how they handle situations like yours before you go into detail. But if you’re not sure, I’d proceed with caution before going to HR about a jerky boss. HR people might disagree with that, but the reality is that it can be risky and there’s a not-insignificant chance that it will get back to your boss.

In your case, it sounds like HR didn’t help you at all, shared the conversation with your boss, and then stood by doing nothing while your boss retaliated against you for talking to them. That’s a sign of especially bad HR — and while it’s something you need to watch out for at other companies too, it’s not a universal (or acceptable) way of operating.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘My Boss Is Awful. Is It Worth Going to HR?’