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Who does Human Resources work for?

Richard B. Johnson

Co-Founder + Partner
September 28, 2022

Relationships between human resources staff (also simply called “HR”) and other employees can be tricky to navigate when serious workplace complaints are launched. This can be particularly complicated if an employee has known the HR person for years and that person has been supportive during times of illness, bereavement, promotions, etc. HR becomes a trusted confidante in many cases. They work in the same place for the same employer. There have likely been social event as well; going for lunch together or sharing celebrations, etc. A kind of friendship can develop.

But…you should understand that HR is there to act on behalf of the company, not the employees. The plain fact is that HR departments have a delegated responsibility in the company; no different from departments of finance, operations, or marketing. Any personal benefit that an employee may derive from human resources is somewhat incidental or may arise because HR has legal obligations to follow a particular course of action depending on the circumstances. Regardless, employees sometimes feel a bit broadsided when they become sharply aware of the fact that HR needs to act on behalf of the company when, for example, an internal complaint is launched.

The obligations of Human Resources 

The role of HR is to obtain and retain talent, oversee the personnel and staffing issues in the organization and deal with disciplinary issues. HR’s function necessarily involves administering the policies and procedures of the employer. For example, since 2013, all employers in BC are required to have a bullying and harassment policy in place. As such, HR is require to the standards and procedures detailed in BC’s Occupational Health & Safety regulations under the Workers Compensation Act. They are obligated to hear and record what employee bring forward about concerns in the workplace, document those concerns as needed, and investigate complaints as mandated by law.

As representatives of the employer, it would be entirely inappropriate for HR to provide personal advice to an employee about a complaint against the company beyond such things as information on the process and the company’s policy and procedures.

Reporting to Human Resources

Let’s suppose that John comes to HR and advises that he wants to make a complaint about his supervisor who is constantly calling him names. This is a straightforward issue where the alleged victim and perpetrator are clear. HR can proceed to get the details of the when, where and what of that complaint.

However, it’s a bit different when someone says that they witnessed something that somebody else might have experienced. This instances are more problematic. For example, what if Jane goes to HR and says, “I was in the lunchroom when I heard John and his boss talking in the hallway, at least I think it was John. And I think I heard John’s boss call him names. I don’t want to get involved, but I wanted to let you know.”

This situation involves a third party report, the need to assessing if anything happened, and the facts of the interaction, and charting a path to follow to investigate it all. HR will advise Jane that her statement could be needed in terms of a process that may need to be actioned. It is up to human resources to investigate and determine if Jane’s statement is accurate and if any policies or procedures have been breached in the workplace.

HR will want to speak with John about information came forward that someone may have called him names. Getting John’s perspective will let his employer know whether the name-calling can be verified or whether it was a case of mishearing a conversation. The situation may be a misunderstanding or may involve issues of bullying and harassment, a potentially unsafe work environment and, if so, it engages the employer’s obligation to act.

Let’s say Jane comes to HR and says, “I went went to fix the roof the other day and found out the ladder is broken.” Because this scenario involves a potential equipment failure that can jeopardize worker safety, human resources must ensure that the issue is investigated immediately, but the process is relatively clear-cut.

What if the executive is the problem or there is no HR department?

If someone brings forward a complaint where an alleged perpetrator is someone in ownership or on the executive management team, the investigative process becomes highly sensitive. This is when discretion on the part of the person receiving the complaint is particularly crucial. If handled correctly, the HR person would bypass the alleged perpetrator and report the complaint to someone higher up in the company, such as a president or board of directors. This scenario, and what to do if it arises, is often set out in the policy.

Also, smaller operations might have a single owner-manager, a handful of employees and no HR department. In that case, complaints and workplace conduct concerns become more challenging to resolve without seeking outside assistance.

In all complaint cases (and in this scenario specifically), the employee making the complaint should document the times, places and names of anyone pertinent to the complaint, as well as when and to whom the complaint was made and the response, if any, from the employer.

Fortunately, both the Human Rights Code and the Workers Compensation Act make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against someone for asserting their rights under the legislation.


HR is responsible to follow proper processes and procedures when addressing personnel issues. These processes and procedures will be dictated by the company policies and practices, the legal requirements on the employer in the jurisdiction, and any professional standards established by the regulatory body of which the HR professional is a member (such as the Chartered Professionals in Human Resources of British Columbia & Yukon).

In the context of a complaint, these obligations and responsibilities become clear.

When should you seek legal help?

If someone gets the feeling that they’re not being treated fairly by their employer, it’s usually time to get advice. Seek legal help when deciding if, when, and how, to make a complaint. You may want a legal advocate to help make those initial decisions and familiarize you with the law and the options for seeking a satisfactory resolution.

Likewise, those in HR functions should also consider getting legal advice even if just to chart a proper course of action to deal with a complaint or issue.

It doesn’t have to be cost-prohibitive to consult with a lawyer to get perspective on your rights and options, but it can be extremely useful to no matter how far they go in the process to pursue a resolution.


There are privacy and confidentiality laws in place to protect people from exposure to their personal information. However, in some cases, HR is obligated to act on a workplace concern even if the reporting employee says they don’t want to cause a problem.  To benefit from the protections offered by employment and human rights law, some sharing of personal information will likely be necessary for the company to follow up on a complaint. HR is expected to be discreet and abide by federal and provincial privacy laws as applicable. However, in order to respond to an issue, HR cannot always keep all information confidential.

Human resources has a difficult and constantly changing job to do in the workplace. While many dedicated and caring HR practitioners make our workplaces better, kinder and more professional places to work, they are set up for and on behalf of the company.

Employees ought not fear raising issues with HR, but should remember that the department is a component of the employer’s business that has to act if there have been issues that require a legal response. That said, HR is also responsible to ensure that the processes and procedures set out in the company policies are followed.


To discuss the role of HR in employee complaints, and best practices in more detail, contact us!