You are facing a major problem at work. It might be a conflict with your boss or a co-worker. You may have witnessed something unethical or you may have a wimpy boss and cannot figure out what to do about it. Whom do you turn to?

On a recent message board, the question is whether someone was unhappy with how Human Resources had handled their complaint. As a veteran Human Resources executive, I will admit there are competent and less than competent HR partners – but let us be clear, this is not any different from any other profession.

How do you get the best out of your Human Resources Department? Here are some thought provokers, which should help you get on a better footing with your HR partner before you find yourself needing his or her assistance.

Figure out whom to get to know in HR

Who is the most influential person in the Human Resources department? We all know there are paper pushers and then there are people who make things happen.

Listen to management and other employees talk about who was able to get things done. It might not be the person at the top.

Approach them with some general questions first. The point is not to come to them with a controversial or major issue immediately. If you wait until something blows up, you will not be in a position to leverage a good working relationship.

As you get to know them better, schedule a lunch with them every couple of months to talk about advice on your career or to learn more about helping them to create a positive environment.

Once they realize you have an investment in making a positive contribution, when something negative arises, they will be in a better position to look at you more objectively.

Know the HR boundaries before you approach them

Going to Human Resources with a problem that is not in their area of expertise or way over their head to solve is setting you up for a disappointment.

For example, a benefits specialist is probably the wrong person to help you with an employee relations issue. The benefits person may be your friend, but they lack the power and know-how to get results.

If they are seasoned, they will refer you to someone who can help you. A less desirable solution is they offer to be an advocate for you and pass the information along to someone else in the department. Invariably, they will forget some of the situational facts (remember telephone tag?).

If you view HR as the cop, you will not get anything different

The role of Human Resources is playing both sides of the fence – fairly. They are responsible for advising the business leaders on state and federal laws and assisting in monitoring company policies.

You will find less senior HR people tend to follow the rules more closely – simply because they have not gained enough experience in how to work around or within the system.

As an HR professional becomes more seasoned, he or she begins to recognize and see the gray areas. The willingness of your HR partner to help you muddle through that gray area will depend on if they believe that you have good intentions.

Know who in HR keeps a confidence

Pay attention to who can keep their word. Avoid approaching people who are gossipers or loose lipped.

There are some things that management or Human Resources is obligated to act on, even if you do not want them to. Those things include sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment. They should convey this to you – there is no reason to be blindsided.

If you want HR to help you, it may become necessary for them to share information with other people in the organization. I have not found it effective to go management and say,

“Just trust me on this and do ____”.

They want to know the context of why you are asking them to do something differently. If you think about it, I will bet you would want the same consideration.

Let us suppose you expect your Human Resources partner to keep your situation confidential. Then accept personal responsibility that your situation may not change.

A better solution is to consider talking to a confidante, to reduce the chances of your secret getting out.

Be clear about your responsibility in the problem

Before coming into Human Resources, analyze the situation carefully to determine what your role is in creating the situation. If you play the blame game, you are setting up a “me vs. them” scenario; putting Human Resources in a position of choosing sides.

When you approach the situation with…This is what I have done…and this is what Bob is doing…it allows HR to play the mediator and work towards a win-win or collaborative solution.

Share the problem and potential solutions

Be ready to state clearly, what your problem is before you meet with someone.

Write it down, put it aside for a day and revisit your problem statement. Think about potential solutions and share them with Human Resources. Some of your solutions may be viable and others may not.

If you offer alternative or creative ways to solve the problem, it might spur Human Resources to explore the gray area, creating a win-win solution.

Have a strategy

Are you feeling stress with the situation? Avoid “dumping” all your problems on the first person who will listen – it is not a good strategy.

Consider if it is better to discuss your situation in smaller doses, with multiple meetings.

Slow the process down by requesting an initial meeting to introduce the topic broadly. Ask Human Resources for some advice on what you could do differently.

Take note of the advice and questions Human Resources has for you and leave the meeting. Think about their suggestions; try some of them out if they make sense. If they do not work, then return with what you have done and explain how it was not effective.

By doing this you building a partnership with Human Resources, and they will in turn be more responsive to working with you.

Human Resources does not have a magic wand

Sometimes people come to Human Resources expecting them “to fix” everything that is wrong. If the problem were easy to fix, you probably would have done it yourself.

The chances are it took some time for you to get into a sticky situation – realize solving the problem may take more time.

Be realistic on the results Human Resources can accomplish and the time line.

Do not expect perfection

Need I say more?