By Andrew Forrester
Responding to rule-breaking at work can be a headache, especially when your boss is the one crossing the line. Here are some tips for handling messy situations like these.
“The only waste of human resources is letting them go unused.”
Mark Victor Hansen, Motivational Speaker, Trainer, and Author
We’ve all sat through HR presentations about workplace dos and don’ts – those every-so-often sessions meant to remind us where the line is for appropriate behavior, how far we should stay away from that line, and what to do when someone else crosses it. And yet, according to a 2019 Gartner study, around 60% of workplace misconduct goes unreported. The primary reason for this, according to Gartner, is fear of retaliation, and that fear is only compounded when the rule-breaker in question is your supervisor.
Imagine that, in conversation with your boss, you’re shocked to hear them casually using discriminatory language against one or more of your colleagues. In that moment, you know: HR rules have been broken, and by the one person who should be an exemplar of good workplace behavior. The line has clearly been crossed; but what’s not so clear is what you should do about it. Here are some next steps to consider when moments like this occur.
WRITE IT ALL DOWN
Before you do anything else, take a moment to write out what took place. Describe the scene and record any conversation as closely as you can. If at all possible, be exact when it comes to recounting the specifics of the HR violation. This can help in two ways. First, it allows you to process what has just transpired. Did I really hear what I think I heard or see what I think I saw? Am I considering the context in which it happened? The tone or the person speaking? And so on. You are not making excuses for your boss, but rather considering the various responses that calling out this behavior might elicit. On the other hand, there is always the chance you misheard or misconstrued what took place, and writing it down or typing it out are good ways of checking yourself before you make any big decisions.
Second, keeping a record alleviates the stress of accurately recalling details and protects you from slipping into hearsay. In the event that this interaction grows into “a thing,” you don’t want to be relying on your memory however many days or weeks on down the line. Rather, if you have dates, times and witnesses ready at hand, your observations will be taken more seriously.
TALK TO YOUR BOSS (IF YOU CAN)
This might be the worst step for those of us who are conflict averse. (We can help with that, too, by the way.) Confronting someone is never fun, and confronting your supervisor can feel especially dangerous. Before you say anything, consider their potential response and any possible repercussions. How have they received feedback in the past? Have they shown themselves to be temperamental or retaliative? If speaking to them really is dangerous—if there’s a risk to your own career or, worse, your safety—don’t feel bad skipping this step.
But if your boss has demonstrated that they are humble enough to hear feedback and sensible enough to see reason, it behooves you to approach them face-to-face. Practice what you’ll say in advance; be conscious of your tone and wording; and most of all, give them space to respond. Maybe there’s no excuse for their behavior, but giving people the chance to speak for themselves and feel heard is a valuable professional skill, and really, it’s just the decent thing to do.
It is entirely possible that your supervisor will appreciate your directness, discretion and willingness to call them to a higher standard. You’re saving them the hassle of dealing with HR, and you’re doing your part to make your workplace into a safer, more equitable (and more legal!) place of business.
GO TO HR
If speaking to your boss isn’t an option, or if doing so has not led to a change in behavior, it’s time to talk to HR. It’s worth keeping the following things in mind:
- Your company has protocols and procedures: follow them! There’s no reason to let red tape interfere with your attempts to right a wrong.
- Whatever your company’s confidentially policies are, things may come back around to you. Be ready for this possibility, and make sure you’ve weighed the pros, cons and alternatives.
- There are free third-party services that allow you to make complaints to your HR department anonymously. No system is foolproof, but it might be worth adding an extra layer of distance between you and the situation at hand.
- You should have reasonable expectations. Your HR department probably does not have the power to fix things right away or exactly to your liking. In some cases, a slap on the wrist, a stern conversation or required attendance at certain training sessions are the best you can hope for.
- If nothing else, you’re creating a valuable paper trail. There’s no way to know whether yours is the first complaint or the fiftieth, and what if you’ve brought things to a tipping point that will finally lead to meaningful action? Sometimes, all you can do is do your part.
KNOW WHAT TO DO NEXT
In an ideal world, a conversation with your supervisor leads to significant change, or your HR department comes to the rescue and sets things right. Both are real possibilities, though it’s still helpful to have a plan in place for the likelihood that things don’t pan out that way. If the response is negative enough, you might consider what that says about your company’s overall culture and values and whether it’s time to look for a new job. If your boss’s behavior or reaction to being called out has negatively affected you, it might be time to research your rights in the workplace and whether or not you have legal options in this particular case.
Dealing with HR issues at work can feel like wading into something murky and messy, and there are no guarantees as to how everything will shake out. But even when the path forward isn’t crystal clear, knowing your options gives you the power to make the best decision possible.
Andrew Forrester is a writer whose work has appeared in Parents Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Andrew also teaches English and creative writing in Austin, Texas, and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Southern Methodist University.
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