When HR fails, who can employees trust?

Dear Joan:

Your recent article about HR involvement definitely hit a nerve with my own personal experience. I’ve been working for a company now as an HR assistant for over five months. Believe it or not, my boss and her behavior fit your article to the tee.

When I first started working here, I didn’t let her verbal abuse bother me much, but over time it did. I started noticing that I was upset all the time when I got home. Then I reached a decision to confront my HR manager about her inappropriate use of language to me at work. It was done face to face, behind closed doors in a professional way. I let her know that her foul language made me uncomfortable when she used it to describe internal and external employees and customers. She then responded by saying okay—why did you wait so long to tell me. My response was because I was afraid it would jeopardize my job and my 90-day probation.  After our meeting she agreed that she would raise the bar and not say any more bad words to describe how she felt about certain individuals.

The sad part is, in the long run I don’t think it has helped my current situation. Because immediately after I told her how I felt, she went and told everyone else in the office. Now, my boss completely ignores me, doesn’t talk to me, and says hello to everyone else in the office except me.

On the few weekly occasions we do have to interact, it’s very short, brief and no eye contact is involved at all. I still try to be nice to her, try to improve our working relationship in any way possible, but there’s no use any more. I’ve been shut out completely. Where I sit in the office it doesn’t help my situation either because I sit right by the fax machine, printer and six tall four-door filing cabinets that hold all past and present employees. So everyone who I work with walks into my office daily. I’m the fifth person to have been hired for the position I currently hold. And this is within a one and one-half year span. It’s hard to rise about the ugly pettiness at work. The best thing about my day is going home to see my beautiful two daughters, husband and dog.


HR managers are supposed to be the people with solid employee relations skills, to whom managers and employees come for good support and advice. Sadly, I have witnessed some horrific situations, where some abuse their position, betray confidences and punish people who cross them.

Your manager appears to be one of those managers. Now, perhaps you set her off because your delivery was not smooth, but regardless of your delivery, she should have responded with more maturity.

The scenario you describe congers up an image of a thin-skinned and judgmental person, who is furious that you would dare to confront her. The fact that she told everyone about your conversation seems to indicate that she was attempting to convey, “Can you believe what she said to me? How dare she tell me I’m using foul language!” In a situation such as this, telling everyone usually is a symptom of defensiveness and an attempt to get people to sooth her by siding with her against you. Of course they would sympathize with her, since she is their boss, and they don’t want to antagonize her even further by agreeing with you. So, even if you have sympathizers, they don’t dare show themselves, or risk her wrath.

Her public contempt for you may be another way she is trying to punish you and cow the other people in her department. Her behavior clearly says, “See what happens to people who dare to criticize me?”

Her pettiness signals a fragile ego that won’t easily recover, as far as you’re concerned. As I see it, you can do one of two things: either ignore her and see her for who she is, while looking for another job, or, go and visit her again. If you do talk to her again, you could say something like this: “I’ve noticed that since our conversation you seem angry with me. You don’t speak to me or look at me unless you have to. If I’ve offended you in some way, I apologize but I felt I had to let you know how I felt, since it was affecting me negatively at work.” 

Frankly, I don’t think you have much to lose, since she is already pouting and punishing you. There is a chance you could clear the air with her, but if not, you will know if looking for another job is your best move.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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