Fortune recently published an article entitled “HR Is Not Your Friend.  Here’s Why” which (this probably won’t surprise you) wasn’t entirely positive towards the Human Resources department.  In the wake of some really awful sexual harassment conduct coming to light recently, HR departments are taking their fair share of lumps, some well-deserved and some less so. This author is more than happy to pile on, offering some of the “insights” common in HR criticisms historically – the corporation pays their checks, they’ve turned into a risk mitigation function, and they’re more focused on hiring than retention.

As the article progresses, however, some excellent points are made about what’s wrong with the way complaints are handled.  Here are three problems exposed by the article, and how you can design your investigations process to address them.

Your Discrimination Resolution Efforts Should At Least Pass the ‘Smell Test’

The largest jury award in a discrimination case was a $175 million award against Novartis.  There were 5,600 women represented in the class-action, but the company had only three investigators and no centralized system to track discrimination complaints.  It was clear that they weren’t putting a reasonable effort into dealing with discrimination problems.

Ideally, your company will have a best-in-class system for handling employee discrimination, retaliation, harassment and fraud complaints.  But at the very least, you want to make sure you company isn’t in the bottom quartile.  Gather some benchmarking data for equivalently-sized companies to ensure that you are investing the proper amount of time and money into building an effective process for handling these complaints, and that you’re executing on that process.

The Legal Bar for Harassment Complaints Is Lower Than the “Socially Acceptable” Bar

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 31,411 harassment complaints and found reasonable cause in 970 of them.  The director of field programs at EEOC admitted that the bar for employees when bringing harassment claims “is very high”.

It’s much lower in the media, where allegations from multiple employees can quickly turn into a story that will destroy a company’s reputation for years.  And while a fine can be paid out of company reserves, reputational damage is paid out of future profits, reducing the company’s stock price and long-term value.  Don’t set your bar for harassment claims at the legal standard – set it at the standard that will safeguard your company’s reputation from being ravaged by accurate media coverage.

Confidentiality Isn’t Always Helpful

One of the most important jobs of an HR professional is to keep employee information confidential. In addition to stiff legal penalties for a breach of confidentiality, it’s also the most basic of requirements to earn an employee’s trust.  If you can’t keep their discipline file confidential, you can’t be trusted with anything.

Unfortunately, many people who report discrimination complaints feel betrayed if they don’t see some remediating action taken by the company.  In many cases, they’ll never see this action, because it was handled confidentially.  If the issue doesn’t rise to the level of termination, they’ll likely never know it took place unless the accused addresses it directly with the accuser.

That’s why it’s so important to explain your complaint process to anyone who reports this type of information to the HR department.  Make sure that the accuser understands that they may not see remediation even if the claim is substantiated, but there’s a legal requirement to keep disciplinary actions confidential.  If they don’t understand this justification, they may end up feeling betrayed.  If this happens, none of the further actions they take (or actions they decide to no longer take) as a result will be beneficial to the company.

This is one of those instances where what may feel like overcommunication is necessary. Explain the complaint investigation process to the employee when they make the complaint. Repeat it while giving them a status report while the investigation is being conducted. Follow back up with them when the investigation is complete. Even is something doesn’t go their way, many employees will still feel like they were heard and taken seriously if you continuously communicate with them, especially if you set their expectations for what you can and can’t tell them.

To learn how CMTS:HR can help your team handle employee complaints more effectively, contact us at 855-636-5361 or at