A woman at work was harassed but won’t report it: Can HR do anything? Ask HR

Johnny C. Taylor Jr.
Special to USA TODAY
A human resources department has the right to investigate any alleged harassment even if a formal claim has not been filed.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., a human resources expert, is tackling your questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world's largest HR professional society.

The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor's answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a question? Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like me to answer? Submit it here.

Question: I manage a small team. One of my direct reports recently told me that another colleague harassed her, but she does not want to file a complaint. Can HR act anyways?

Johnny C. Taylor Jr.: Absolutely. HR can act on any alleged harassment claim, even if the person requests the complaint not to be made official. If HR has yet to be notified, you, as a manager, should own this responsibility and make it happen because there is no room for harassment – of any type, toward any person – at work.

Readers with HR experience will likely find the situation you describe quite familiar. Often, employees will mention an incident, say something like “it’s no big deal, really,” and then state they do not want to file a formal complaint.

But before we get into the thick of things, I want to emphasize the core of HR is human relations. Sure, there are benefits and payroll, but at the crux of it all, protecting the safety and well-being of all employees is the priority.

At the same time, however, HR professionals are responsible for safeguarding a company against liability and reputational risks. In other words, even if your employee doesn’t want it to be known, HR needs to know these things for the sake of their workforce’s well-being and the health of the business. Left unaddressed, bad behaviors have a corrosive effect over time. For evidence of this fact, consider the word so often used to describe such workplaces: “toxic.”

HR’s protective role means preventing a potentially hostile work environment from devolving into a toxic or outright dangerous one. HR has the responsibility to the organization and its employees to investigate all complaints – even if, and perhaps especially when, someone alleging harassment claims they don’t want to cause a fuss.

However, employees should know complaints needn’t be formal for HR to commence investigating. If ever an issue at work is brought to anyone’s attention – be it management, a co-worker, or HR – this, at a minimum, is considered filing an informal complaint. This is important to note because whether a complaint is formal or informal is, from the perspective of HR, irrelevant: Employers must take such communications seriously and thereafter act to protect workers, the workplace, and the organization.

Much like medical professionals and their Hippocratic oath, true HR professionals have somewhat of an unspoken code of their own that is concerned with the health of their professional ecosystem: The work itself, the workers doing it, and the workplace they inhabit. In other words, HR will handle these sensitive matters with the utmost care and confidentiality. That said, HR should ensure employees understand they can’t guarantee complete confidentiality and remind them others will only be notified on a need-to-know basis.

Of course, an employee with a complaint may, rightfully, have concerns regarding retaliation or awkwardness at work. Let me be clear: Employers are obliged to conduct a thorough, good-faith investigation. HR can reassure the person that retaliation is strictly forbidden, against company policy, and would be met with swift and severe action.

In other, and fewer, words: Yes, HR can – and should – act and get down to the bottom of what seems to be a very serious problem. I hope this helps and your difficulty soon dissolves from your resolve to do right by your employee.

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Q: I was fired for having jury duty. I complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Department of Labor, the North Carolina Labor Department and the district attorney for my county. They all claim it's not their job to enforce the law against firing people for jury duty. Is it legal for them to fire me for this? – Anonymous

Taylor: I’m sorry to hear you were fired for doing your civic duty. I’ll start with the facts: Jury duty is mandatory in the U.S., meaning, if summoned, you must serve.

In most states, it’s illegal to terminate or discipline an employee for missing work when the cause was jury duty. In fact, some states have laws that entitle employees to leave for precisely this purpose.   

It sounds like you took the steps to share your experience with the EEOC, which enforces federal laws which prohibit employers from firing an employee based on protected classes such as race, color, religion, and sex, as well as the U.S. Department of Labor, which administers and enforces federal labor laws. However, neither of these agencies have laws that pertain specifically to jury duty.

You mention you work in North Carolina, which actually has a regulation stating an employer may not discharge or penalize an employee for being called to jury duty, or serving as a jury member.

If you were unable to receive assistance from the North Carolina Department of Labor, you may consider contacting the judicial branch that provided your jury duty summons for additional information and share that with the HR team at your now-former organization. You may also consider finding an employment lawyer who can provide additional guidance and help you take appropriate next steps.

Whatever you decide to do, I hope it turns out well for you.