It happens in every workplace. The same serious and unlawful misbehavior we see in our communities sometimes find its way to the job. People are the greatest asset of an employer but can be the “crabgrass in the lawn of business,” as my friend says.
What should happen when harassment, discrimination, abusive treatment and other serious misbehaviors rear their ugly heads?
Managers, please view a complaint as an opportunity to make a situation better AND the long-term relationship with the victim stronger. Psychologists in workplace studies say that an emotional crisis is a key point where your response can make the employee’s attitude much better OR much worse. Some even say that the best predictor of whether a problem will end in a lawsuit is how fairly you process the problem, not the problem itself.
Good managers do several things. They embrace the complaint, rather than avoid it, and focus on finding the right solution. Neither of you caused the problem, so let the chips fall where they may and avoid prejudgment. You will create a much better investigation and solution if you remain neutral on the outcome. If you cannot be objective, ask for help.
Follow through with good listening, appropriate pushback to the victim for the whole story, and appropriate speed and discretion. Take any quick steps needed to prevent repeat behavior while you work. Ideally, keep the victim informed of your progress. Get help from HR or a mentor. Follow your company’s complaint process, at a minimum. Precedent can be important to consider, but avoid a foolish consistency as the saying goes.
Employees making complaints have an equally important role. Follow the complaint policy if there is one, but skip to another manager you trust if needed. Your manager wants to hear how you feel, but must have facts to investigate. Focus on the facts. Who can help support your story? Bring the problem to a trusted manager sooner rather than later.
Be honest about any part you may have played in the problem or steps you have already taken, good and bad. Have some discretion and give this time to work. What is your manager going to hear when he or she investigates? For example, be prepared to hear some things about your performance you may not like (but need to hear) if work quality is an issue.
An important question that employees and managers often fail to ask is: “What is the ideal outcome here?” I am often surprised at how reasonable employees can be even in serious situations. They know employers cannot guarantee perfect behavior by all. But they have the right to expect help when they seek it.
Solutions to early-stage problems handled properly by all can be simple and effective, preserving relationships and protecting careers. Problems that are buried like a bone in the backyard will only get worse with age.
Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 NC employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.