Right now, today, at this very moment, there is an incident happening that will require (or if not require end up) in a formal Harassment Investigation. Some of those will land on my desk. This is a fact. I would prefer to help the leaders out there with the skill of early resolution! Yes, my company does that too! Check out our available workshops.
For those that do end up in an investigation: some will go external. Some of those will make it to my desk and I am not worried about those. They will be done well, guaranteed.
I worry for those that land on desks unfamiliar with the work, and those thinking of interviewing and investigation work as a game, as a movie or TV like confession. I worry for the organizations who incur unnecessary risks and exposure due to a lack of experience or trained resources. To do our part, Hill Advisory has committed to donating a seat in our upcoming courses to HR Students or Non-profit organizations, who may otherwise not ever have access to this area of specialized training.
I invite you all to attend our Harassment Investigation courses, coming to a city near you in 2016 and beyond. If you don’t learn more than you believed you could and gain a totally new perspective on formal Harassment complaint and if you do not leave with more tools than you previously had and if you don’t have some fun along the way, I’ll offer you a full refund! Hope to see you in 2016.
How “common” conflict behaviour end up at Human Rights and in costly investigation processes
In my work in the harassment investigation area, I am in the position to review countless cases where so called “normal” conflict behaviour leads down a path to unstable workplaces and costly investigative processes, both internal and external. In thinking about the issue I have become passionate regarding training Leaders to deal with conflict in an appropriate, flexible and nuanced way to help avoid some of the issues like the one below. In retrospect, it is easy to see where this relationship went off the rails. The costs (direct and indirect) are manifold and unnecessary.
Mr. Kent and Ms. Lee worked in an industrial environment and Mr. Kent was her supervisor. The facts presented at Arbitration were that they had some previous conflict where Ms. Lee had made “shooing” motions to Mr. Kent when he attempted to give her directions on a few occasions. On the day of the latest incident, Ms. Lee required some work direction and Mr. Kent arrived to provide it. Mr. Kent repeated his instructions three times and Ms. Lee became frustrated and said “Adios” and made the “shooing motion” once again. Mr. Kent left but returned shortly thereafter as he had determined not to put up with this behaviour any longer. What followed was a yelling match in the workplace and a complaint of harassment filed by Ms. Lee. When informed of the complaint Mr. Kent complained that Ms. Lee had harassed him.
An internal investigation occurred, Ms. Lee and Mr. Kent were interviewed. Union representatives and management representatives were present. Eight witnesses were identified and interviewed. It was concluded that the situation was not harassment but a workplace incident where both Mr. Kent and Ms. Lee behaved inappropriately. The conclusion advised discipline for both parties. Ms. Lee received a verbal warning and Mr. Kent received a written warning.
At the Arbitration, Ms. Lee testified that Mr. Kent came up to her running, was yelling, and was waving his hands in her face. Mr. Kent later explained that he was French and that French people talk with their hands. Both testified that they were yelling at each other. Mr. Kent said that Ms. Lee started yelling first.
There were other issues present in this case, including that Ms. Lee had been disciplined for previous issues. Ms. Lee also alleged that Mr. Kent had a history of treating her and others poorly and that this incident formed a pattern of behaviour (although she had not reported any of the previous incidents to management or the union).
One of the elements considered by the Arbitrator, was the element of intention, as has been considered in many cases. The Arbitrator once again noted that the test is not “did a person intend” to harass someone but rather “would a reasonable person know, or ought they to have known” the comment was unwelcome.
Similarly, the Arbitrator stated that Harassment is not proven simply because an employee takes offense at something that was said or done. There must be evidence that, from an objective standpoint, the alleged harasser knew or ought to have known that the comment was unwelcome.
Ultimately, the grievances were dismissed and the discipline was upheld.
Some of the questions I have when reading this decision are:
1. At this point I find myself wondering: If Mr. Kent had an issue with this behaviour and if he resolved to deal with it the next time, why not deal with it before it happened again and when everyone was calm and there was not an immediate issue?
2. How much did this cost the organization and the people directly affected? How much would it have cost to deal with the issue proactively, in a more appropriate way?
3. How will this employment relationship be repaired?
When a transfer is more than a change in organization, but a catalyst for conflict
The pattern is so familiar, I am not even surprised to see it anymore; two employees are in conflict and the employer decides to transfer one of them instead of dealing with the issue directly. The result? One problem becomes two and a message is sent. Everyone learns they don’t need to get along, don’t need to be civil, don’t need to take a hand in conflict resolution and don’t need to be responsible for their own actions. Is this the intended message? Of course not, however it is the very real impact. In investigating hundreds of cases of harassment and conflict in the workplace over the last 14 years, this I can assure you.
This past week brought a new angle to the dynamic for me and I’d like to share it with you. I spent 10 days interviewing multiple Respondents and Witnesses to a conflict in the workplace. The details of the case are not important here. The realization that I came to near the end of the interviews was this: transferring a “leader”, one of those managers or supervisors that gets things done, resolves conflicts and cares and replacing them with a sub-par leader can be a recipe for disaster just as much as transferring a “problem”.
I first met a cast of management I assessed to have varying levels of managerial skill. I assess that skill as it relates to my area of interest, the ability to effectively motivate people and the ability to resolve conflict in the workplace. A narrow view perhaps, but an important set of tasks I think. In the interviews, I was disappointed to learn the managers and leaders of this particular part of the organization, an organization that I greatly admire for their top-down message of accountability and caring, seemed not to care and attempted to segment the accountability inherent in their positions to abdicate responsibility. I heard messages like, “I did not go check with that person because I did not think it was a problem” and “I am the manager, if I say that something goes in a certain place, that is a management directive”.
Near the end of my time I met another manager, one that impressed me a great deal. She used to be in the affected department, and used to be between the Complainant and the multiple Respondents in the organizational structure. She provided multiple examples of times she intervened in brewing conflict in a real and effective way – a human way. Guess what? The complaint came in after she left the department and had been gone for a couple of years. Although she continued to intervene in a department that was no longer hers, and although the Complainant continued to seek her out even though she was no longer his manager, the incidents began piling up and a complaint was filed. Would it have been filed if she remained? We will never know – I consider it unlikely.
The conclusion for me was powerful; be as careful transferring great managers as you are of managers that require more work. The wrong move can lead to more conflict than you desire. Oh, and let’s reward these top performers, work hard at finding them in the organization, work hard at smoothing off their rough edges, work hard at rewarding their example, in short, work as hard for them as they are working for you.