Helping Employees Feel Secure Enough to Tell the Truth

Roughly half of 1,000 American workers surveyed by Element Global don’t report issues to HR for fear of retaliation.

When I left my first full-time job as a young woman, it was after two-and-a-half years of tolerating a borderline-abusive supervisor. I had long fantasized about what I would tell Human Resources during my exit interview. But when the time came, I didn’t say anything at all.

The HR representative had to prod me to agree that, at the very least, there had been communication failures on the part of the supervisor and our shared boss. I suspected that my soon-to-be former supervisor and boss had conferred with HR about how to handle a star employee, whom the supervisor didn’t like, but also didn’t have solid reason to terminate. However, every time I tried speaking to my supervisor and boss about it, they denied there was a problem, and refused to speak with me about it.

The HR representative finally gave up, and advised me of the value of speaking up to HR in the future when I experienced problems I couldn’t resolve on my own with a supervisor or boss. “The squeaky mouse gets the cheese,” she pointed out.

Being a squeaky mouse is one of my favorite things, but one of my least favorite things is not being able to use a former boss as a reference and worrying that the former boss will find a way to badmouth me to potential future employers, even if I don’t list her as a reference. In other words, I didn’t want to be the squeaky mouse experiencing retaliation for speaking out to HR.

It turns out I’m not the only one. Elements Global surveyed 1,000 American workers to find out more about their fears. Key findings included:

  • 2-in-3 workers aren’t reporting issues to HR because they don’t think action will be taken.
  • Roughly half (49 percent) don’t report issues to HR for fear of retaliation.
  • 76 percent of workers using computers say they fear their boss monitors their communication.
  • 3-in-4 remote workers are concerned their employer monitors when and how much they work.

How do you provide a sense of security for your employees to go to HR without worrying they will face consequences for doing so? You could do regular surveys in which you ask questions about the employees’ relationships with supervisors and bosses, but most will not answer honestly for the same reason I didn’t answer honestly during the exit interview.

Another idea, which is much harder and more time-consuming, is to have HR representatives—maybe working in concert with Learning professionals—operate like excellent high school guidance counselors or social workers. That would require mandatory, annual one-on-one meetings between each employee and Human Resources, maybe with a Learning professional liaison. The HR representatives would be trained to recognize signs that all is not well without employees having to spell it out for them.

Importantly, HR and Learning professionals would be trained to be equal advocates for managers/bosses AND employees. That means, in my case, that the HR representative would have been obligated—whether the manager/boss liked it or not—to inform me that I had been a subject of a meeting between her and my supervisor and boss. She also would have been obligated to sit down with me one-on-one, in private, to tell me what had been said to her by my supervisor and boss, and then to ask me for my side of the story. That didn’t happen, I’m guessing, because the company had trained her to prioritize the needs of managers/bosses over those of employees. My supervisor and boss also may have informally asked her as a favor to be discreet and not to approach me about the situation. A better-trained HR representative would have replied flatly, “I understand your discomfort bringing the employee into the conversation, but I am obligated to do so. I need for her to be aware of your concerns and complaints, and to hear her perspective.”

Instead, the HR representative made a point of being as friendly and sweet as she could be whenever she saw me, but never said a thing to me about the issues brought to her by my supervisor and boss. Instead of addressing that issue, she established a chatty rapport with me (out of guilt? Or hoping I would be encouraged to come forward on my own?), offering me solutions to challenges with my curly hair. She had long, impressive curly hair, which I had complimented. I had asked about the products she used to get her hair that way, and she happily shared her hair care regimen with me. As nice as this friendly repartee was, were there more important things for us to discuss?

Have you considered the typical corporate inability to get honest information from employees? What do you do to make employees feel they can safely share information with HR about supervisors and bosses? Are there improvements you are planning to make, so employees feel more protected when sharing information?