I was recently thinking again about the big reasons that workplace investigations happen. Let me tell you a story.
Several employees in a large work unit (one Caucasian woman, one African-American women and a Caucasian man who says he’s gay) go to Human Resources with complaints against Frank, their supervisor. They say he discriminates against anyone who is not white, straight and male. They say he doesn’t communicate with them and regularly leaves them out of decision-making. They also say he has a bad temper and frequently raises his voice. They’ve tried to talk to him about their concerns, but say that if you get on his wrong side, he’ll make your life miserable by giving you the worst assignments and preventing you from working overtime (at overtime pay rates). He makes fun of his employees by giving them nicknames (Henry has become Prince Harry, Susan is SusieQ), and regularly made sarcastic comments about them and put them down in front of others.
Frank has been with this employer for over twenty years, and no one has ever filed a complaint against him before. Everyone figures that’s just Frank. Management has heard he has a temper and knows he can be sarcastic – buy he’s always been nice to them, funny to be around and willing to do whatever’s asked of him. Clearly, he’s smart. He finishes his tasks in a timely manner, and has been a great asset. Also, he is a widely acknowledged expert in his field, speaks at national conferences and has written for professional journals.
On the other side, there has been more turnover on his staff than on others, and when the statistics are examined it does appear that women and people of color leave his unit at greater rates than white men. But again, no one had ever complained.
Of course, since this complaint came to management and Human Resources, it had to be followed up. But – why is this investigation really happening? It’s really happening because, even though no one had formally complained before, management knew there were potential problems in Frank’s area – and ignored them. They ignored the turnover. They ignored the rumors. They ignored the bad temper and raised voice, even when they heard these. They ignored Frank, the bully.
What might management have done earlier? Instead of waiting for a formal complaint, they could have informally explored what was going on, looked at the turnover data, talked with Frank – and coached him to change style so that a technically good and knowledgeable employee could grow in areas where he needed help without waiting for the situation to blow up – and potentially losing that valuable employee as well as others.
The lesson? Address issues when they come to you in whatever way (including following up on rumors) – even if no one has complained. It may be more trouble now, but will save you a lot of heartache in the long run. It won’t be easy – and requires a very gentle but persistent approach. But it is definitely the better way to go.
Have you worked with “Frank”, as his supervisor, colleague or subordinate? What happened – and did it happen before it blew up? ~Daphne Schneider