At work, it’s a fact of life that coworkers don’t always get along. While employees may believe that Human Resources (HR) is there to referee and help resolve interpersonal conflicts, that isn’t necessarily the case.
In many states, run-of-the-mill workplace bullying may not be illegal. A manager or coworker may dislike you for no apparent reason and may be on a mission to make you miserable until they can eliminate you from the company altogether, deserved or not. The news gets worse: when the bullying is not illegal, a complaint to HR about the problem may not be protected from retaliation. Most states are “at-will” states, which means an employee can be terminated for any reason or no reason at all, including for general complaints about being bullied.
Regardless of state law, federal law protects against workplace harassment if it targets a protected characteristic like race, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or pregnancy. Likewise, federal law makes it illegal to retaliate against an employee for complaints about bullying where the bullying is based on a protected characteristic.
As the risk management arm of the employer, Human Resources (HR) typically handles employee complaints. One of the primary functions of HR is to help limit risk to the employer. HR usually gets involved if employees are behaving in a way that might jeopardize the company. Ideally, HR is also familiar with the laws that govern employers and should make sure the employer abides by the law in its treatment of employees.
When employee complaints are not related to a protected issue, the law may not compel HR to take any action. At best, HR may seem unresponsive or uninterested. At worst, HR may eliminate the problem by terminating one or both employees.
Conversely, where employees report to HR with allegations that the root cause of the bullying is a protected characteristic, HR should investigate and take corrective action to avoid hosting a hostile work environment. (Contrary to popular belief, a hostile work environment in the legal sense is one in which the employee is bullied or mistreated because of a characteristic that federal law seeks to protect.)
If you are being bullied at work and suspect that the reason for the harassment is related to a protected characteristic, you should report your concerns to HR in writing and keep a copy of your complaint for yourself in a place outside of work (e-mail is ideal). If your employer responds to your complaint by retaliating against you, you should contact an employment attorney such as the Employment attorney immediately. If you’re unsure whether your situation is legally protected, proceed with caution: consult an employment attorney for guidance before approaching HR.