You can't assume that your confidence will be kept, and chances are only your boss's boss has the real power to solve your problem
I have been a human-resources person for 25 years, and I love the field, in the same abstract way that I love my country and the thought of peace on Earth. But I also see how things actually work in real-life companies, and that's why I advise employees to think twice (or three or four times) before they spill their guts to their local HR representatives. The fact is, sharing your woes with an HR person can be a self-destructive move.
For one thing, HR people aren't typically trained in employee counseling and their advice may not be so great. But that's the least of your potential worries when you lay out your troubles with an HR type. Human-resources people typically follow a confidentiality guideline known as the "Need to Know" standard. Here's how it works: When an employee comes to HR with a problem and asks that the conversation stay in confidence, the HR person can say, "Oh, absolutely. I will only share our conversation with others on a 'Need to Know' basis."
Well, what the heck kind of standard is that? I have asked HR people about this slippery standard for years, but I have never met one who can produce a written definition of it. I don't think such a thing exists. It's funny, too, because HR people document every other imaginable standard and protocol, from the number of pay-per-view movies an employee is allowed to watch during his business-travel hotel stays to the exact relatives whose death could entitle an employee for bereavement leave (grandmother, yes; step-grandmother, no). HR people are documentation and policy fiends. But the Need to Know protocol stands alone, undefined. And the risk is all yours.
Let's say the head of HR makes the casual comment in the next HR meeting, "Gee, people in Accounting sure seem worked up about that new controller." Then your friendly HR person may chime in with, "Yes, Susan and Carlo have both been to see me about him." Next thing you know, the HR chief mentions those two names to the chief financial officer, who charges into the controller's office and asks, "What have you done to upset Susan and Carlo?" If the controller is the "Let's improve our relationship—how have I offended you?" type, then everything might be O.K., but if he's more of a "If you're not on my team, you're fired" type, too bad for Susan and Carlo.
Time after time, I have talked to HR people who have heard shocking things in supposedly confidential conversations with employees, and either because of powerlessness or fear, they did nothing about it, or handled it badly.
One time, I worked with an HR manager who had heard from a Shipping Dept. coordinator about falsification of payroll records. The Shipping manager knew about the falsified records and was allowing certain employees to claim hours they hadn't really worked. It was his way of rewarding people. He just happened to choose an illegal and unethical way to show his gratitude. The shipping coordinator was afraid of being fired if her manager found out that she had reported the payroll theft to HR.
Stick to the Chain
The HR manager came to me in alarm because she didn't know how to report the payroll abuse to someone high enough in the organization to prevent the young department coordinator—the one who reported the problem—from getting fired in retaliation. I didn't work in the organization, but I advised her to bring the problem straight to the CEO or CFO, who should be above the political fray. Alas, she didn't feel comfortable doing that, so she met with the Vice-President of Manufacturing, who also oversaw Shipping & Receiving.
The errant manager was fired and replaced by his No. 2, who, a month later, fired the coordinator for her "disloyalty" in turning off the don't-work-get-paid-anyway faucet. Did HR protect her or her job? Heck, no.
The truth is that in nine out of 10 cases, you're better off addressing a problem via your own functional chain of command. It's terrifying, I grant you, to go over your boss's head, but doing so has two advantages over running to the HR people. The first is that the line manager in your function will appreciate your keeping the issue in the family, as it were.
The second is that, whether or not you approve of the resolution, your boss's boss has the power to fix the problem. The HR people can wring their hands and tell you they're sorry for your trouble, but very often that's as far as it goes. And by ratting out your boss to HR—however badly he or she deserves it—you can get a bad reputation in your own business unit.
My brother worked at a large telecommunications company where a couple of the managers were amazingly incompetent, costing the company customers and sales. My brother and a few of his colleagues met with their local HR rep, who at least gets points for honesty. The HR person said, "There is nothing I can do. Maybe you would like to take advantage of the company's Employee Assistance Program, which can provide some free counseling sessions to help you with your stress over this." They were talking about a critical business issue and were being handed tissues!
Let me say that there are exceptions to every rule. You may work among the most pro-active and talented HR people on the planet, and if you do, you may find your HR colleagues willing and ready to resolve any issues you've got. Hats off to companies who actually empower their HR folks that way. But sadly, they are few and far between.
Next time you think, "I should just go tell HR about X," think twice. We all need a sympathetic ear and a chance to vent our frustrations, for sure. But perhaps your spouse, friends, or bar buddies can perform that function for you—and save you the risk of possibly getting fired, slimed, or written up as Not a Team Player.