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Strange situation where in an email thread which included top management and CEO a non management person (a highly skilled employee) made a statement. The Head of HR basically accused that person of lying and cited 3 different bits of unsubstantiated evidence, all three of which I know not to be true. Then went on to question the persons competence in a couple of different ways.

The person accused would have no problem proving the accusations a lie. The problem here is the behaviour of the Head of HR, who didn't hesitate to fabricate evidence and jump to accusations based on such made-up evidence.

What's to be done in such a situation, it seems complaining to HR probably wouldn't get far.

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  • 61
    This is the sort of question where I'd normally expect an answer from user "Kilisi"... Apr 26, 2023 at 7:52
  • 44
    @PhilipKendall he'll probably chime in with his two cents later
    – Kilisi
    Apr 26, 2023 at 8:16
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    Why do you care about this issue? Do you want to help defend the accused person? Protect the business from the HR Person? Are you on good terms with any of those involved (especially the CEO)?
    – calofr
    Apr 26, 2023 at 8:22
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    "I know exactly where he was and what he was doing": unless you are that person or were with him at the time, you'd be surprised how people can claim something and do the other way around. When you say "The person accused would have no problem proving the accusations a lie, is it your POV or his saying?
    – OldPadawan
    Apr 26, 2023 at 13:26
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica I have no friends
    – Kilisi
    Apr 27, 2023 at 6:27

7 Answers 7

37

One of the vital duties of the HR department is to shield the corporation from accusations of creating a hostile workplace environment. Committing outright slander against an employee does not seem to fall within the bounds of that mandate. Far from shielding the corporation, the HR head is exposing it to legal jeopardy.

I don't know how deeply you want to get involved yourself, but somebody should point out this curious dereliction of duty to the CEO.

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    Concretely, you could say it makes you uncomfortable to notice the head of HR making such clearly accusatory, false statements, regardless of whether they affect you directly, and you find your expectations of professional workplace behaviour severely disappointed
    – bytepusher
    Apr 26, 2023 at 16:39
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    This is half of a perfect answer imo, if you were to add the reporting/complaint methodology for the victim and the other resolution (walking out straight to lawyers and media, then potentially retiring off the payout) I'd accept it.
    – Kilisi
    Apr 26, 2023 at 22:04
  • Unfortunately, according to American law, this is not the case. It is only the duty of HR to protect employees from a hostile conduct motivated by a protected characteristic, like race. Realistically, this means that HR need only protect themselves from accusations of a hostile work environment from racial minorities, women, etc. Welcome to America.
    – Test
    Apr 27, 2023 at 6:03
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    @Test: Note that there's no particular jurisdiction mentioned in the question; laws may be different in other places :)
    – psmears
    Apr 27, 2023 at 9:52
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    Hostile work environments are a liability everywhere, regardless whether covered by law or not. If you have high churn or problems hiring because of a hostile work environment this will hurt your company plenty, even without any legal action.
    – fgysin
    May 2, 2023 at 14:50
36

This is essentially a matter of who watches the watchers - and ultimately everyone answers to someone to some extent (excepting possibly a CEO/MD where they are also the sole owner of the business). So at this point the only sensible course is to go to the person directly responsible for managing the head of HR - whilst this person is not themselves an HR representative they are best placed to address any issues arising from them.

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    A CEO/MD answers to shareholders. Shareholders answer to their landlords. And the buck stops there. Apr 26, 2023 at 15:28
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    landlords report only to the invisible hand :) Apr 26, 2023 at 16:28
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    @user253751 In theory, they answer to the legal system, as directed by elected officials, who are themselves answerable to society. At least so it is in representative democracies. And thus, if you cannot obtain justice from management or shareholders, the legal system and news orgs are your next best bet.
    – Corrodias
    Apr 26, 2023 at 18:35
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    @user253751 the landlord is often another company, so it just continues on
    – Jimmy T.
    Apr 27, 2023 at 11:38
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    And you could just as easily say that they answer to the grocer, since if they can't pay for food they'll die.
    – Barmar
    Apr 27, 2023 at 15:54
12

At certain points, "triangulation" is a bad thing to be involved in. I have heard that at certain levels of management in certain companies, baseless accusations do get thrown around. The people so accused have to stand up for themselves and take actions in their own defense. I find the best strategy for me is to help the person so accused defend themselves. "I support the right of victims to shoot back." is a bumper sticker I saw.

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12

You note that the head of HR has "basically" accused the employee of lying, but "basically" accusing someone is rather different from "clearly", "certainly", or "actually" accusing them, and it leaves a lot of wiggle room in what this accusation could actually comprehend.

From my perspective, the best course of action in this circumstance will depend 1) upon just how "basically" or "actually" the accusation was, and 2) your own tolerance for risk and exposure. I'll outline what I think would be the most sensible responses for different kinds of situations below.

"Accusations" can take many different levels, from (1)"implying that someone was wrong (and therefore not truthful)" (ie; "it seems that the deliverable was not completed on time, as your communication implied/seemed to claim you had done"), to (2) "directly questioning someone's memory (or honesty)" (ie; "are you sure that you finished that as you have stated? I have reports that it remains incomplete"), all the way up to (3) "direct accusation" (ie; "Your claim that this work was finished is not true. It is not finished. Why have you made a false claim?")

If you have evidence that an accusation is unfounded, the type of response that will be merited obviously changes with the type of accusation. (1) and (2) maintain a friendly facade which at least appears to allow for "misunderstandings" and "clearing things up". If evidence contradicting the accusation is to be provided, then it should also maintain this friendly facade. ie; "Oh, actually I can confirm that this was finished on time! I have {this evidence}. Is it possible that there was a miscommunication, or one of the metrics wasn't updated? Let's check this out!" Even if the accusation was sinister at its core, these weak accusations have the benefit of letting the accuser disclaim them with equal ease, and just "clearing up the misunderstanding" may be all that can be done. For an employee with no skin-in-the-game (or even the accused themselves), other than this kind of "friendly" rebuttal, there isn't likely to be much more that can be done. And, after all, retaining that "friendly" professionalism will reflect better anyways.

Only a more serious accusation could even possibly occasion a more serious rebuttal, with more forceful insistence on the rectitude of your own evidence. And I have serious reservations that there will almost ever be a business case where an average employee will be justified in being so forceful. But in whichever case, your assurances had better be no more sure than your evidence is; don't over sell it or claim to know for sure things that you only believe. And don't become a partisan; as an average employee you are a witness, not a member either of the defence or the prosecution. (Unless you have a very high tolerance for risk, a very high moral code, or don't care especially about this job)

In this case you make it sound like the accusation might be (1) or (2) but certainly not (3), so keep that in mind.

The next question appears to be: how appropriate would it be for you to enter the fray, at all, regardless of the level of the accusation? Companies are, generally, not medieval king's courts, where the average person can come in a present a petition whenever they like. It will be better for your position, and lend more appearance of reliability and lack of bias, if you have some kind of "standing" to enter the fray. After all, there seems to be a natural distrust of people who barge in, uninvited, with a bone to pick.

In your case, you say that this exchange took place in an email chain, including the CEO, the head of HR, the accused employee, and (apparently) yourself. This would seem to give you a reasonable, low risk, and well justified opportunity to respond to the accusation, regardless of whether it was a light contradiction or a heavy, crucible-like accusation. After all, you are a member of the organization (ie; you have an interest in its workings, and in "doing what is right" for said organization). You're part of a communication, and you have information relevant. If for no other reason, it makes sense for you to provide it, even if you won't make the call yourself. After all, your hands don't make the decision what to touch or what not to, but they will still tell you that the stove top is really, really hot. (Luckily, unlike hands, employees are at least theoretically capable of abandoning organizations that would "put them to the flame").

If, however, you don't have "standing" at present, then I would recommend finding another way to present your information (if you feel it necessary).

The accusation is currently known to you, as a fact. It is not an office rumor; you saw the emails. Presumably, you were allowed to see those emails. Intended to, even. If not, then it should be treated as an office rumor until you learn of it through more proper channels; an easy way would be to ask someone who was directly involved about it (as "something you heard"). But whether it is a known fact, or a "rumor", if you aren't in a position to participate in the email chain (the "place where it happened"), then you would have to find an alternative approach.

First would be to approach one of the principals; either the accused employee, or the accusing HR head. If you could at least reasonably believe in their good-faith, and goodwill, then you could offer one or the other of them your information. "Hey, HR head, I saw that there was some information of X, but I have this information that says Y. Could there have been some mistake?" or "Hey, employee, it seemed that HR head thought that you had done X, but I have some information that supports Y. If you needed any help clearing it up, let me know!"

Of course, if the interaction is already contentious, or you don't trust one or the other of the parties, then this amounts to taking sides in a brawl. And that exposes you to risk. The alternative is to provide the information to a third party; someone influential (in this case like top management), who is also apparently disinterested in either of the parties' cases, and who (hopefully) you trust. ie; "Hey, mr CEO, I saw that there was some conflict between HR head and employee. I don't know for sure, but I think there might be a miscommunication somewhere, because I have information Y. I wanted to provide it to you, because I knew you would be able to judge it. I didn't want to get caught up in anything or contribute to any conflict."

These appear to be the ways in which one could put forth their information without appearing partisan or exposing themselves to undo risk. Of course, if the accusations get more serious, then participation will consequently entail more risk. And all risk is, obviously, dangerous. Which is why the final question is; how much are you willing to stick your neck out, and for what? Are you interested in protecting the employee? Are you interested in punishing the HR head? Are you interested in helping your company? Are you interested in morality, and seeing right done? Or, perhaps, are you just interested in keeping your head down, making your paycheck, and avoiding getting burnt by someone else's fire? Take your pick. But they all have risks; even trying to stay neutral.

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  • Seems like a bunch of questions rather than an answer. In terms of sticking my neck out, I'm bullet proof whatever I decide to do if anything. My interests are in favour of the company and a particular project being completed efficiently and sucessfully, which are pretty much the same thing as far as I'm concerned.
    – Kilisi
    Apr 27, 2023 at 4:28
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    It is an answer of the format "if x, then y"
    – user99478
    Apr 27, 2023 at 4:56
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    Some other possible third parties you could involve: Your own immediate line manager, the accused employee's line manager, the manager responsible for the project in question, etc. Those people might need to escalate further on your behalf, but to some extent, that's their entire job.
    – Kevin
    Apr 28, 2023 at 5:26
4

There are two broad ways to view a situation like this from the victims standpoint. Several good answers already on the first so I won't bother with it, and they never eventuated in this particular case anyway.

The first is to view it as a confrontation which needs to be won. The second is to view it as nonsense which needs to be addressed but is unimportant in the big picture and can potentially be turned to your advantage.

Unprofessional behaviour is not something a professional should get upset about when they can easily prove they're innocent. It's just nonsense. So inform your superior and others matter of factly that it's nonsense and ask them to make sure it never happens again, then get on with your tasks and let them play out whatever drama they want.

This make things a lot easier for them and you're controlling what happens. They'll remember you for the first without fully realising the second. It's almost ideal for them, no messy dramas and morale issues, nothing needs to go further than a private chat with the Head Of HR. Then if there is any sort of repetition they'll be all over it.

Even the Head of HR should regard themselves as having dodged a bullet, they just got caught out slandering an employee and lying.

You have had an interesting insight in to someones character, remember it until it can be used advantageously. You should never allow the actions of others to impact your morale.

Remember that there is no actual harm done to you, the Head of HR only bought their own honesty into question. You need to watch them, but you won't be the only one watching them.

From a third parties perspective much the same applies, you don't have to do anything except watch what happens. You will get a very interesting insight into both colleagues professionalism and reaction to pressure, additionally you will get some insights into both their immediate manager and the CEO's conflict resolution methodology or lack of it.

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  • If people keep telling lies about you in public and you have a private chat with the liers and clarify matters, the public still believes that you are at fault. Over a period of time, you'll be branded an incompetent and/or dishonest fool and get ignored/demoted/fired. Public confrontation is the right approach
    – androidguy
    May 1, 2023 at 5:30
  • @androidguy best to stop them the first time then.
    – Kilisi
    May 7, 2023 at 6:28
2

What's to be done in such a situation, it seems complaining to HR probably wouldn't get far.

Were you the accused party? Did the accused party come to you for guidance? Are you on this email thread and have any sort of "punching power"?

The accused party needs to express that there must be a misunderstanding, refute the claims via email so that things are in writing, and request an audience if further discussion is needed.

0

The (apocryphal?) Terry Pratchett quote applies here unless you happen to be an executive yourself, or are very close to the CEO:

Meddle not in the affairs of dragons for thou art crunchy and taste good with ketchup.

Translation: don’t insert yourself into the dealings of those considerably more powerful than yourself unless you’re willing to risk it turning into a career-limiting move.

You can privately advise and help your coworker behind the scenes but stay out of the fray unless someone asks for your input or unless you’re ready to potentially end your career at your company.

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  • The quote predates Pratchett, though he might have said/written it too. The actual authorship is lost in the history of fandom.
    – keshlam
    May 6, 2023 at 14:42

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