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I had a previous role where I was having a problem with a disruptive, socially unaware colleague, and ended up asking HR about how best to handle it.

We had a solid talk and it was discussed that I wasn't the first to bring it up, and they were working on a program with the employee to try and resolve it (with their manager too).

An hour later, the manager came to me concerned that I'd gone to HR and not him, and wanted to know if they had done something to upset me! I was surprised. I just presumed if there are people problems, go to HR.

Is there a rule of thumb - aside from trying to handle it yourself first with the other person, at which point should you go to a manager vs HR?

(This is in a tech firm, if that makes a difference, and I was on a similar level / rank / position to the other employee.)

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Simple rule of thumb: always talk to your manager first. I know you didn't mean it in this case, but by going directly to HR, you're implicitly saying to your manager "I don't think you would help me here". Your manager is there to resolve problems, whether they be technical problems, people problems, equipment problems, or whatever else.

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    It's worth mentioning, that even if the "problem" co-worker has a different manager than you, your manager can go to bat for you by having a discussion with that co-worker's manager. Even if the issue is serious enough to get the "problem" co-worker fired, everyone else will appreciate having the chance to save face. – employee-X Dec 17 '20 at 23:19
  • I would not go to the manager first if the manager was "friends" with said employee. There is nothing wrong with going to HR to talk about an employee especially if you are not reporting them. – blankip Dec 18 '20 at 5:57
  • A minor quibble, but just to point out it was the other employee's mananger that was upset, not OP's manager. – Jon Bentley Dec 18 '20 at 10:19
  • @employee-X If the issue is serious enough to get the "problem" co-worker fired, then that could very well be one of those exceptions where you should go to HR first. – NotThatGuy Dec 20 '20 at 2:59
  • @NotThatGuy I guess that depends on whether you trust the devil you know (your manager), or the one you don't (HR representative) more. – employee-X Dec 22 '20 at 3:30
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Standard escalation is:

  • Your coworker
  • Your manager
  • HR (With manager's knowledge)

Yes, there are exceptions, but these are the standard.

HR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND

This isn't high school, and you aren't reporting a fellow student to the principal's office. HR is normally the LAST resort, not the first. Do not do this in the future, you will earn a reputation of being a disruption yourself.

What you did in going over your managers head was to make your manager look incompetent, especially since he was already aware of the disciplinary problem.

Your going to HR makes it look like the manager isn't handling the problem.

You made your manager look bad, very bad. Don't do it again and don't think HR is there to make you happy. They are there to make the company happy.

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    "HR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND". I reckon that a line of t-shirts with that printed on the front could earn good money. – DrMcCleod Dec 17 '20 at 21:10
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    @AndrewSavinykh "HR is not your friend" means "HR's job is not to help you." HR's job is to solve the company's problems, not yours. If you go to HR complaining about a coworker, the company's problem might be the coworker, or it might be you. You don't have control of which of those HR is going to solve. (Your manager is not exactly your friend either, but you probably at least have a better relationship with your manager than you do with HR.) – Glenn Willen Dec 18 '20 at 9:49
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    @AndrewSavinykh Many people think that if they have a problem, they can go to HR the same way they would go to the police, or to the office of the principal in a school, and that HR will stand up for them over the person they are complaining about, in short, be their friend. HR is there for the benefit of the company, not the individual employee, and HR will resolve matters in the best interests of the company, not you, even if you're in the right, So if you go to HR, you not only have to be right, you have to present things in terms of the company's interests – Old_Lamplighter Dec 18 '20 at 16:07
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    @AndrewSavinykh "HR is not your friend" is very, very different from "your boss is not your friend". My boss at least knows me, has some investment in me, and would have a problem if I left. We are (appropriately) not friends but have a friendly mutual interest in my continued employment and success in my role. HR (usually) does not. – Jared Smith Dec 18 '20 at 21:13
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    @JaredSmith Yep, and your manager has leeway, HR has to do things by the book – Old_Lamplighter Dec 18 '20 at 21:43
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Go to your manager, always.

Know this: Most of the times (if not always) if you go to HR with some problem / complaint etc., they'll get back to your manager first. If you're skipping your manager and going to the HR directly, your manager will not have a clue about that and will not be able to provide any input to HR when asked about. Eventually, you and your manager have to get to a discussion to discuss over that, as HR will almost never work independently without the input from your manager first.

So, skipping your manager is waste of time/effort, and in some cases, HR might actually advise you to talk to your manager first. When / If you manager redirects you to the HR (or refuses to listen / work upon the problem), that is the time you go to HR.

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    There are some cases where going to HR first is appropriate. One case is if it involves confidential information that your manager isn't aware of. Another is something serious that exposes the company to legal liability. – Acccumulation Dec 18 '20 at 2:22
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    @Acccumulation First case is acceptable, however one can argue, in second case, approaching your manager first is a good idea. – Sourav Ghosh Dec 18 '20 at 14:54
  • @Acccumulation It's also appropriate to go to HR first over your manager if your manager is the problem to begin with, and the problem is one that would make the company liable (e.g. sexual harassment or violation of other statutes on how to treat workers). – nick012000 Dec 19 '20 at 9:56
  • @SouravGhosh If there's something serious that exposes the company to legal liability, a good manager will probably just forward you to HR and a malicious manager will probably just try to sweep it under the rug. They probably won't be able to sort it out themselves unless it involves their direct reports or they're really high up in the company. Are there any other circumstances under which going to your manager first would be better? Also, especially for things like harassment or bullying, having it on the record with HR could help get the offender fired (although it's not without risk). – NotThatGuy Dec 20 '20 at 3:13
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I'm going to disagree slightly with the mostly very good answers here.

You should always go to your manager first, except in a few cases. Other than the obvious one (when the issue is with your manager):

  • Clear knowledge of an ethical breach that violates the law
  • A major incident of a physical or sexual nature (major meaning of the level you would consider going to the police next, or could potentially take legal action, even if you don't plan to)
  • Clear knowledge of a security breach

That's not an exhaustive list, but in cases like that - basically, cases where there is a time-sensitive, potentially legally damaging issue, it is correct to go to the appropriate department - in some companies, this would be HR for all three of these, in some companies only really the major physical/sexual incident would be.

In the case of an ethical or a security breach, most larger companies will have explicit instructions how to handle these - usually an ethics hotline for anonymously reporting ethical violations, and some sort of email address to report information security breaches.

In any other case, you should go to your manager. And if you do have an incident like the above, you should tell your manager as soon as possible afterwards, unless you are uncomfortable discussing it with them. If you're uncomfortable discussing the specific incident, you might simply let them know that you needed to talk to HR/etc. about an issue that you're not comfortable discussing further, but so that they know something is going on and aren't blindsided. The worst thing as a manager is to be blindsided by an issue on your team, even if it's not something you could've done something about.

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  • I always thought I could kill two birds with one stone and GO TO MY MANAGER AND INFORM THE HR TOGETHER (unless of course the manager is a part of the problem in some way) – mishan Dec 18 '20 at 10:05
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    In all 3 of these cases I would still, at a minimum, copy my Manager into the correspondence and preferably let them deal with it. The only reason to bypass your manager is either a) immediate danger to life or limb or b) they are part of the problem. – Alan Dev Dec 18 '20 at 11:01
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I disagree with the earlier answer in so far that it does depend on your manager and how they are and behave with the said coworker.
And likely also the country you are and its work culture. I am in the Netherlands.

In the 30 years I have been working in my current job I have had floor managers who would handle the problem and were good at it. I also have had floor managers who would mess it up and make said coworker mad at me. In those cases I would go higher up on the tree. (No HR here, quite a small company.)

Just like in some cases I could take it to the coworker, in others I could not.

And maybe I am a bit of that problem coworker for some of the others and I would appreciate it when they tell me what is wrong, whether they do it themselves, ask the floor manager or if neither seems to work for them, any other way. It has happened all different ways and got worked out. That is why I am still working while the floor managers have all had to move on for different reasons.

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    Ah you Nederlanders are really great with dealing with these issues (I am serious, I worked with a Dutch guy who became a very close friend but me being French we initially had all kind of surprising interaction when he was being so direct. I learned to love it because it simplifies things a lot) – WoJ Dec 19 '20 at 17:39
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Assuming you have a good relationship with your manager and would like to keep it that way. The only time to go to HR before your manager is if your manager is part of the problem, or they are unavailable and there is a great deal of urgency and some how HR is the most reasonable people to talk to.

There are a lot of problems with skipping the chain of command, when HR talks to your manager more than likely he is going to be surprised and unprepared and it will make him look like bad. In my experience when someone goes to HR there is an assumption that the person already went to their manager or is uncomfortable talking to them and so HR talks to the managers boss. Nothing good can come from surprising your chain of command with negative information.

Seriously going over your managers head will poison your relationship with them. They won't trust you in the future not knowing if you are going to take a random issue to HR or their boss.

I have only gone to HR once in 20 years and that was because I was told to do something that was clearly illegal to someone familiar with the industry and my manager was new. Even then I talked to him about it first in case I misunderstood his instructions and explained the legal problems with them. He was hard headed so I went to HR to prevent legal problems for myself and the company.

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I agree with all answers given so far, but, I want to add that - it depends of the level of communication you have with your coworker, the problem/issue and if your company has an alternative before scalate to your manager and/or HR.

In my previous job position, I was part of a system called "SG-SST" - I roughly translated as: Security and Health Management in the Workplace System.

One of the objectives is handle conflict issues between coworkers.

So, if your company has a similar system, I would go there first.

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