The 1 Question You Should NEVER Ask an HR Person

The 1 Question You Should NEVER Ask an HR Person

Guest Author: Vanessa Wiltshire

It’s 3 o’clock on Thursday afternoon, the day before Good Friday. You’ve just been out to grab an afternoon coffee when you notice something sitting on your desk. It’s a giant carob egg. It’s huge. On closer inspection, you see a little note that says this:


Confounded, you glance around. But the office is almost empty; most people have departed for the long weekend. A feeling of dis-ease sweeps over you. You wonder if the Head of Marketing put it there. Over the past 2 months his behaviour has been making you feel uncomfortable. At first, the mild flirtation seemed “harmless.” Sometimes you reciprocated because you were new to the business and it was flattering, but you made it quite clear you had a boyfriend. Now it’s escalated: calls out of hours, inappropriate messaging through your Facebook account.

Last week you were having lunch in the staff kitchen and you told him you were vegan…..

The pennies drop.

Heart pounding, you pick up the phone. In the same breath as saying hello, you ask one simple, small question

“Can I talk to you……..confidentially?”

The person you have contacted: your HR Manager

Whether you used the phrase “off the record,” it means the same thing. You want your dis-ease validated, maybe even put the situation on the “radar,” but you don’t want to rock the boat. Much less do anything “formal” about it.

Firstly, well done for having the courage to put your hand up and say something is not right.

But be warned, the thing is this:

And it's the same whether you think you are being ‘unfairly’ performance managed / bullied / harassed / victimised etc.

There is NEVER a confidential conversation with a person in HR.


Did you get that?


The scenario I’ve presented is actually a true story.

Whilst I told the employee that I sympathised with her, I advised that I couldn’t take any action unless she took action. I strongly encouraged her to consider this.

However there was one exception, I warned.

If the situation was determined "serious enough,” matters would be taken out of her hands. Period. The employee implored me to keep quiet. And because we were friends, I did for a time. (This is one big mistake I made and I'll probably write about it in another post). But unfortunately she was not the only person who had come to me “in confidence” about this person (whose real title was not the Head of Marketing, btw).

My hand was forced……and I escalated the issue to my line manager. The matter was then taken out of my hands and a formal investigation ensued.

Now I congratulate this woman for having the courage to put her hand up when things clearly were not OK. But what she failed to understand, as have many people throughout my career, is that that the company has a duty of care to its people. HR is the guardian of that.

Certain things, such as sexual harassment, are against the law.

The exact detail of the law is not necessary for this article. Suffice to say the business (and its leaders, individually) can get in to all sorts of trouble if it is found they failed to "take all reasonable steps" to protect the health, safety and well being of their staff. Although granted, a large percentage of incidents fall through the net (a subject for yet another discussion).

So what should you do?

Does this mean that you should never contact HR? Of course not. Just be aware of two things:

1. Very little can be done, unless you make a formal complaint 2. The exception to 1) is if HR perceives there is a genuine risk to your health or safety, OR if there is a risk the business could end up at Fair Work, in the Federal Court, or some sort of tribunal. Then you won't have a say in how things proceed.

Certainly I implore you to seek advice if you ever feel something is not right. The HR person is the right one to go to, that is what we are there for.

But if you are merely seeking to validate your feelings, or simply to “vent” (the most popular) the best advice I can give you is:

Contact your employee assistance program See a private psychologist Phone a friend Take an art therapy course

HR is not the devil

HR may oft be perceived as bad cop, but our hands are mostly tied. Unfortunately people fail to understand this. They think HR is there to protect and advocate for the employee, but this is not the case (yet something for ANOTHER post).

What HR is there to do

Ultimately, HR exists to maximise the performance and productivity of PEOPLE. And protect the INTERESTS OF THE COMPANY within an employee relations framework. This means escalating your “concern” if it perceived there is a genuine threat.

So please, the next time you go to phone HR, think carefully about what it is you are asking. And be prepared for the consequences.


This article originally appeared here on LinkedIn Pulse, used with the author's permission.

Liked this post? Then you may love “Confessions of a @twofacedHRlady

vanessa Author Vanessa Wiltshire is founder of The HR Talent Community (HRTC), a professional hub for forward-thinking HR professionals and leaders of people to learn, share, grow and connect. She is also a communications strategist, career coach, and keynotes regularly on the future of HR, technology, work, and social media. Her work has been profiled in the AFR, BRW, Sydney Morning Herald, Smart Company and on local ABC radio.

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Linkedin: Vanessa Wiltshire Twitter: @twofacedHRlady



“I totally agree with your article. From my experience when a person says they want to discuss a workplace issue in confidence then translated this means " I have a problem that I want you to solve but I don't want to be personally involved or implicated"

At this stage the HR Manager is now compromised - to do nothing is to ignore a potentially serious risk in the organization, to investigate without a substantive complaint is tantamount to victimization.

The biggest challenge we all face in life is to stand up to be counted.

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