The meteoric rise of inappropriate workplace behavior in the spotlight has created a watershed moment. That said, I hope workers, especially 20-somethings, don't mistakenly assume complaining to HR will now always end with positive outcomes. Here's why:
There are 3 versions of the truth...
I was taught very early in my career as an HR professional that for every employee complaint, there are three sides to the story - the accuser, the accused, and the truth. It's rarely black and white. That's because we're dealing with human resources. Humans are highly subjective in their perception and interpretation of events. What is normal to one person is offensive to another, etc.
Deciding which one has the right view on the situation is the challenge.
This gets further complicated by the fact that HR works for the employer, not the employee. Yes, HR is technically in place to support the needs of employees, but their bigger purpose is to keep employees happy and motivated so they remain good producers and keep strong loyalty to the company. Therefore, when an employee comes to HR with a negative claim or issue, HR's first thought is, "How do I minimize the impact of this on the entire organization?" This is why HR often fails to respond in the manner or degree to which the employee believes necessary. Especially, for 20-somethings, who were raised by parents that taught them everyone is equal and should feel justified in sharing when they feel they've been wronged. For them, the response by HR can often seem highly insensitive and lacking. When in reality, HR is trying to look at it from all sides.
Don't assume HR is your career coach.
As someone who spent years in corporate HR and recruiting, I can't tell you how many times I saw an employee mistakenly assume HR was where you went for career coaching. Issues with your boss or coworkers? You might think HR is the place to talk through them. But, you would be wrong. The moment you bring a grievance or concern to HR, it's documented on your employment record. You're marked as having an issue. And, that means you're someone who has the immediate potential to disrupt the workplace harmony HR is trying to keep in check. In short, going to HR should only happen when you are A) prepared to present your case properly, and B) understand and accept the potential ramifications of your actions.
Step 1: Prepare for questioning.
If you feel you've been wronged at work, before you march down to HR to file a complaint, or draft a detailed letter documenting the situation, it's best to talk to someone outside the company who has an extensive background in HR. Why? He or she can ask you all the questions you'll get asked by your HR department and help you make sure you're answering them correctly. Think of it like a court case. There's a reason lawyers "prep" plaintiffs before they take the stand. Saying the wrong thing can discount your credibility and get your claim ignored. Or, even worse, turned around to make it look like you're the troublemaker.
Step 2: Minimize your fear by preparing for the worst-case scenario.
One of the reasons many people don't file claims is out of fear. The #MeToo movement has shown us how powerless individuals can feel in situations when their jobs and livelihoods are at stake. A good way to handle this is to put yourself in a position where you aren't concerned your current job is your only option. Having your references in check, your resume tuned-up, your network mobilized, and a bucket list of other employers you'd like to work for will give you the confidence you need to say, "If they don't fix things, I'm moving on." It's also good in the event they decide the best course of action is to not have you work at the company any more.
As they say, "you can forgive, but never forget."
I have to be honest, if you've got a grievance that is so bad you feel you must go on the record with HR, then it's likely you aren't going to want to work there long-term. It may be better for you personally and professionally to move on and find a new employer where you aren't constantly reminded of a bad situation. While there are plenty of cases of companies taking swift, appropriate action and employees going on to have successful careers, there are just as many claims that end up with the employee moving on so they can start fresh someplace else.
A final thought...
In situations where things have gotten ugly at work, you need to understand HR's role in solving the problem. Don't assume their focus on employee happiness includes having your back in difficult career situations. Instead, seek help from the outside and get proper coaching on how to engage and involve HR effectively. You don't want to make any communication mistakes that can inadvertently hurt your career.