By: Michelle J. Douglass, Esq. | June 7, 2024

Human Resource (HR) departments are often seen as the first line of defense in addressing employee complaints about unfair work practices, such as gender discrimination, race discrimination, and sexual harassment. However, many HR departments struggle to effectively manage these issues due to inherent conflicts of interest and structural limitations. This article explores why HR departments often fail in this critical role and suggests alternative approaches to ensure fair and unbiased resolution of employee complaints.

The Conflict of Interest in HR

One of the primary reasons HR departments are ineffective in handling complaints of unfair work practices is the inherent conflict of interest. HR professionals are employed by the company, and their economic livelihood is tied to the employer. This relationship creates a significant bias, as HR personnel may prioritize protecting the company over addressing the legitimate concerns of employees. This conflict is exacerbated by the fact that HR often has regular communications and develops friendships with supervisors, rather than rank-and-file employees, further skewing their perspective and actions.

Legal Framework and Employer Liability

The legal framework surrounding employer liability for discrimination and harassment, as established in cases like Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, requires employees to utilize internal complaint mechanisms before filing a lawsuit. This requirement is intended to give employers the opportunity to address and remedy issues internally. However, this system can be flawed if the internal mechanisms are biased or ineffective. If employees do not trust the HR department to handle their complaints fairly, they may be reluctant to come forward, thereby undermining the entire process.

The Importance of Unbiased Investigations

Given the potential for bias within HR departments, it is crucial for employers to consider alternative methods for handling employee complaints. One effective approach is to refer complaints to an unbiased third party. This third party should not be a defense lawyer, as their primary allegiance is often to the employer, but rather a neutral HR professional or a plaintiff’s lawyer who is compensated for their time, not based on the outcome of the investigation. This ensures that the investigation is conducted fairly and without bias.

Benefits of Third-Party Investigations

Engaging a third-party investigator has several benefits:

  1. Impartiality: A third-party investigator is not influenced by internal politics or relationships within the company, ensuring a fair and unbiased investigation.
  1. Trust: Employees are more likely to trust the investigation process if they know it is being handled by an impartial party.
  1. Compliance: A thorough and unbiased investigation helps the company comply with legal requirements and reduces the risk of litigation.
  1. Employee Morale: Addressing complaints fairly and effectively can improve employee morale and productivity, as employees feel their concerns are taken seriously.

Creating a Culture of Trust and Fairness

For an organization to truly benefit from an unbiased complaint resolution process, it must foster a culture of trust and fairness. This involves:

  • Clear Communication: Employers should communicate their commitment to fair and unbiased investigations and make it clear that the goal is to resolve issues correctly and respectfully.
  • Training: Regular training for all employees, including HR personnel, on recognizing and addressing discrimination and harassment.
  • Transparency: Keeping the process transparent and ensuring that all parties understand the steps involved in the investigation and resolution of complaints.
  • Non-Punitive Approach: Addressing issues in a non-punitive manner, focusing on resolution and improvement rather than punishment, can lead to better outcomes for all parties involved.


While HR departments play a crucial role in managing employee relations, their effectiveness in handling complaints of unfair work practices is often compromised by inherent conflicts of interest. By engaging unbiased third-party investigators and fostering a culture of trust and fairness, employers can ensure that complaints are handled effectively, reducing the risk of litigation and improving overall employee satisfaction and productivity.

About the Author

Michelle Douglass

Michelle J. Douglass is a seasoned lawyer specializing in employment law and litigation with over 30 years of experience. She has represented both employees and employers, providing a balanced perspective on workplace issues. Michelle has given countless seminars, written extensively about employment and HR practices, and litigated thousands of employment disputes. Her extensive experience and dedication to fair workplace practices make her a trusted voice in the field of employment law.