Should you call human resources or handle the issue yourself? Experts weigh in.

By Kathleen M. Harris
Updated August 07, 2019
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When a group of people with different personalities, backgrounds, ambitions, and personal problems are working in close proximity day in and day out, there’s bound to be conflict. It could be as small as an awkward coworker interaction or as all-consuming as a generally toxic work environment. Whatever the issue, you might be wondering who to turn to for answers or guidance. Should you deal with it yourself? Does your boss have your back? Would asking human resources be an overreaction? Here, experts and insiders share what to do and who to trust when the trickiest work situations happen to you.

1
You have medical or personal issues that might affect your work.

If you need short-term help, like a few extra days off or a brief reduction in workload, talk to your manager. Explain you’re having a tough time and need a short personal leave, says Bucky Keady, a former corporate senior vice president of talent acquisition and management.

Go to HR if you have a potentially serious medical condition or disability since the human resources staff is more familiar with employment law. "HR personnel are legally required to keep medical and disability info confidential and are better trained to handle these types of issues than a manager," says attorney Melissa Fleischer, president and founder of HR Learning Center in Rye, New York. "If an employee needs an accommodation, such as a shorter workday or intermittent leave, HR may relay certain info to a manager but won’t disclose why the employee needs an accommodation."

2
You don’t get along with your boss or a coworker.

It’s best to go straight to the source and try to work it out, says Sarah Sheehan, cofounder of Bravely, an online platform that offers HR coaching. Ask the person to meet, then initiate an honest conversation in which you share your feelings, not accusations (“I feel frustrated because whenever I bring up an idea, you say it won’t work”). “It’s hard and awkward, but you’ll make progress,” says Jenni Maier, editor in chief of the online career platform The Muse.

If nothing changes or the situation gets worse, go to HR (if the person is your boss) or your boss (if the person is a coworker). "Taking this step first will make you look much better," says Maier.

3
You’re contemplating quitting or retiring.

Thinking of quitting your current position? Ideally you have a transparent relationship with your boss and can openly discuss your career path, frustrations, and desire for new challenges, says Keady. However, keep your specific career plans quiet until you’ve made a firm decision.

In this case: "HR is not your friend," says Kevin Mintzer, a New York City–based employment attorney. "If you give notice of your intent to quit or retire before you’re actually ready to do it, the company may decide your time is up now and replace you, which in most cases is perfectly legal." If you need help determining whether to leave and understanding the impact on your benefits, talk to an independent source, like a career coach or employment lawyer (find one through the National Employment Lawyers Association).

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4
You’re being sexually harassed.

If you’re dealing with unwelcome sexual advances or other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual or discriminatory nature, document everything relevant that's happened for your records and immediately tell your boss, another supervisor, the legal department, or HR—whoever you’re most comfortable discussing the situation with.

Depending on state laws, managers and supervisors may be personally liable if they’ve been made aware of harassment and do not report it, says Jennifer Gefsky, a partner in the Employment, Labor & Workforce Management practice at Epstein Becker Green, a national law firm. Often a fear of retaliation prevents people from reporting sexual harassment, but retaliation is unlawful too. "You have a right as an employee to be in a harassment-free environment," says Gefsky. "The Supreme Court tells us that."

5
There’s a conflict between two people on your team.

As a manager, you're responsible for defusing tension when conflicts arise. If the disagreement doesn't involve harassment, illness, disability, or discrimination, try to mitigate the problem yourself. Otherwise someone in HR can coach you on how to take care of the situation.

6
Two people on your team are dating.

If you catch wind of this, meet with the couple and make sure they’re aware of company policy (refresh yourself on it too), says human resources expert Suzanne Lucas, founder of the blog Evil HR Lady. Discuss a plan for how to handle the relationship so it doesn’t cross company lines. Lucas advises saying something like, "I understand you two are dating, but at work you need to remain professional." Email your HR rep to alert them of your conversation so you aren’t held responsible if there’s a bad breakup.

What if one person in the couple reports to the other? "This is a much bigger issue, and most companies forbid this kind of relationship to avoid the appearance of favoritism," Keady says. Explain the situation to HR and get assistance with the next steps. Often HR will help you transfer one person to another department or give your team members a time frame for one or both of them to find another position on their own.

7
What if there's no HR department?

Startups, nonprofits, and small organizations don’t always have a human resources staff. But this doesn’t mean you’re not legally protected; you may just have to do some legwork. These resources will help.

Search Online

Legal sites like nolo.com and career sites like themuse.com cover workplace topics and employee rights.

Go Through Your HR Benefit Site

Startups often use services like TriNet or Zenefits to manage payroll, benefits, and other policies. Begin with their resources or representatives.

If Necessary, Get a Lawyer

Find good representation through the National Employment Lawyers Association, the American Bar Association, or personal referrals.

Listen to Podcasts for Answers

“Those about workplace issues are great sources,” says Keady. Try HR Happy Hour, Safe for Work, and The Employment Law & HR Podcast.

Ask Around

“A company with fewer than 100 employees may not have an HR person, but usually someone on staff, like a CFO or CEO, knows policies,” Gefsky says.

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