Go to Human Resources.at your own risk

QUESTION:  My boss has been cheating on her expenses for a very long time. As her assistant, I see the meal claims go through alleging she had lunches with clients. I don’t attend these lunches but as her assistant, you would think that once in a while there would be a message or something confirming a lunch appointment. It’s not my job to approve these expenses or fill out the claim forms. It bothers me that she is bilking the system. Should I go to human resources and spill?
 
ANSWER:  I am going to answer the practical/legal question, not the moral one. Proceed at your own risk.
 
Don’t go to human resources assuming that your meeting will be kept confidential. I have seen too many clients who have started that meeting by asking if their reporting of a breach of the code of conduct will be kept confidential, be assured that it will, and end up out of work within a few months with no explanation.
 
Many people have the mistaken impression that the Human Resources department is some sort of quasi union, whose primary goal is to promote fairness and justice within the organization.
 
Often, to be fair, they do try. But, remember that ultimately the vice president of the human resources’ job, like that of the vice president of operations, is to maximize company profits. They belong to the same team. They go to the same management meetings.
 
Unfortunately, there are very few organizations that treat human resources as an equal member of that management team. They are seen as a support and a tool by other managers. They are not perceived as a profit centre and therefore not accorded significant authority.
 
If you have a human rights issue or an occupational health and safety issue, and have become desperate enough for you to risk reprisal, you should certainly go to HR. When there is legislation and significant liability potentially involved, HR does generally have some power and influence. If they know what they are doing, they will investigate that kind of complaint and force management to take appropriate corrective action to avoid having to write somebody a big cheque.
 
In other areas, however, even if they want to, they seldom are given the authority to right a wrong.
 
It’s not that I think the HR representative will rush to your boss and tell her your identity and allegations, although sometimes they do.  But, once those allegations are raised, there’s a good chance your boss will guess that you were the whistle blower. Unless the behavior was so egregious and the evidence is so strong that she is terminated or demoted, your days will likely be numbered.
 
Even where the evidence is water-tight, if your boss is otherwise a good producer who is seen as making the company money, all she might get is a warning letter. Maybe her boss stretches the truth on expense claims. Suddenly, although your last performance appraisal was great, there are problems with your performance. You are getting weekly memos pointing out every little mistake you make. When the boss goes to HR in two months to have them draft the termination letter, of course it will have nothing to do with your previous visit to HR. It will be all about your decline in performance and attitude. You will have a severance package, but not a job. The latter is usually preferable.
 
Some will say that my advice to you is cynical and to be fair the people who complained and got appropriate results and protection don’t show up in my office to talk to me. My complaint is not about human resources professionals, but the lack of authority they are given within most companies. They may recommend the appropriate disciplinary action for your boss and try to adequately protect you from repercussions, but it will be the management your boss reports to that actually decides.
 
While your HR department may have the vision and foresight to recommend that the corporate code of conduct be maintained and protected at all costs, there may not be anyone listening.
 
As published in the Hamilton Spectator, October 15, 2012
 
Ed Canning
Ed Canning
P: 905.572.5809
ecanning@rossmcbride.com