Tag Archives: conflict

Clearing the Air After A Workplace Investigation: Part 1

Investigations are a necessary and often beneficial part of the modern workplace.  However, they can also be disruptive and leave bad feelings that may linger for a long time.  After seeing the negative effects of investigations for more than 15 years, I have come up with a few ideas on how to reduce and potentially eliminate those effects. 

 First, it is important to understand the impact an investigation can have on the employees involved in it – regardless of whether the complaint was found to be meritorious or not.  

  • The complainant fears retaliation, ostracism, or just plain being disliked.  He or she may be upset or angry if the investigation did not substantiate the complaint or the response to the complaint is seen as inadequate in some other way. 
  • The respondent may feel embarrassed, betrayed, or unjustly accused by the complainant.  He or she may also fear being disliked or ostracized. If the respondent is the complainant’s supervisor or manager, he or she will have concerns about how to manage the complainant’s performance and behaviors without bringing on charges of retaliation. 
  • The witnesses also fear they may be retaliated against or disliked.  They may feel guilty for informing on a colleague or for not disclosing key information.  They may be angry at having to take sides or just at the workplace drama in general.

So what can be done to address all this?  First, there’s some low hanging fruit:

  • Inform the parties of the outcome. Certain decisions may be confidential, e.g., discipline, but it’s important to inform the complainant(s), those accused, and relevant managers/supervisors of the outcome of the investigation. Sounds obvious, but surprisingly often it doesn’t happen. 
  • Inform the witnesses the investigation is completed. Thank them for their cooperation, remind them it’s confidential, renew assurances of no retaliation, and urge them to come forward if additional incidents occur. Don’t just leave them hanging. 
  • Take the recommended steps. If discipline is warranted, do it. Investiga­tions may highlight the need for training, coaching, conflict resolution and the like. If such actions are needed, do them. Strike while the iron is hot.

More difficult is how to address the continuing and future interactions of the key parties: the complainant, respondent, and possibly their manager.  You can be sure that they feel acutely uncomfortable and tense around each other and wonder if things will ever be “normal” again.  Left to their own devices, they may figure out how to comfortably interact again, but it will take a long time.  And they may never figure it out.  In such cases, it is not uncommon for one or both of the parties to leave their jobs and possibly sue.

In this situation, it is well-worth the time and resources to employ a “normalization” process to help the parties’ relationship get back on track.  In my next post I will discuss this further.  ~Amy Stephson

“She’s Mean to Me!”

I recently taught a class to supervisors on improving employee behaviors and performance through coaching. Part of the class consisted of practice coaching sessions. I was a little surprised at the topic the class suggested for these sessions: coaching  employees who complain that others are mean to them, criticize them, or exclude them from the team.

I shouldn’t have been. Everyone who does HR related work recognizes that American workplaces are not that different from American high schools (junior highs?) in the way many employees interact with each other. There are cliques, popular and unpopular kids, teacher’s pets (or perceived favorites), and so on. These kinds of problems hurt productivity and drive management crazy. They also can lead to bullying and harassment complaints.

So what’s a supervisor or manager to do? First, you want to determine if it’s potentially a harassment complaint, i.e., the co-workers’ behaviors are allegedly motivated the complainant’s race, gender, religion, etc. Do not hesitate to just ask, “Why do you think X is doing that to you? Do you think it’s because of your [protected class status]? What makes you think that?” If it seems like it may be a harassment complaint, follow your policy and procedures.

Second, if you think there is actual bullying going on, you may need to step in and also investigate.  Coaching the target may or may not be an appropriate response. 

If you’re pretty sure it’s not a harassment complaint or real bullying, you can then move into coaching mode. Working with an employee on this type of issue can be very challenging, but it helps to keep a few basic supervisory goals and methods in mind:

  • First, to the extent possible, you want to help the employee solve the problem himself. You can provide coaching in the background, but it’s better to not intervene unless you decide after further discussion and thought that you need to either talk to the other person, facilitate a conversation between the two (or three, four, or more) parties, or both.
  • Second, you want to help the employee see how she may be contributing to the problem. It almost always takes two, and it’s not “blaming the victim” to explore the conversational “dance” that goes on between the complainant and the others and see where she may be affecting the outcome.
  • Third, you want to help the employee see beyond his interpretation of the other person’s behaviors and explore other possibilities. Did the other person really glare at the employee or was she having a attack of heartburn? “It may not be about you at all” is a helpful concept to explore.
  • Finally, you want to work with the employee to come up with an action plan, even if it’s just baby steps,  to build on what you discussed in the first meeting. You also want to schedule another meeting: at least three meetings total is a good goal.

In future columns, I’ll discuss a more specific coaching framework for this type of complaint as well as some of the challenges.  Coaching may seem too time consuming, but when it works, it’s an investment that is well worth the effort.  ~Amy Stephson

Recognizing and Addressing “Emotion” Words

When investigating, mediating, or otherwise attempting to resolve a workplace conflict, it’s helpful – indeed critical – to recognize “emotion” words.  What are emotion words?  Words that contain more heat than light and that therefore call for further exploration of what’s going on. Another word for them: hyperbole.

Two classic emotion words are “always” and “never.”  When an employee says that something “always” (or its cousin, “constantly”) happens, it’s time to ask for specifics, i.e., how many times has the event occurred or comment been made?  Despite having conducted thousands of investigative interviews, I remain surprised at how often the answer is “two or three times,” “three or four times,” and the like.  Similarly, with “never,” it’s helpful to probe a little further to see if it’s really never, or just “not recently.”

Another example is “yelled” as in, “He yelled at me.”  The dictionary meaning of “yell” is to say something very loudly.  Yet many people will say they were “yelled at” to describe any negative or critical comment directed toward them.  Therefore, when you hear that someone was yelling, it’s always wise to ask the person to demonstrate exactly how loud it was. They themselves will often then recognize that it wasn’t loud, just upsetting, intense, or rude.

One more: duration of time.  People will often say that something lasted for “an hour,” or “at least 20 minutes,” or some other fairly long period of time, when they’re describing a negative event (such as being yelled at).  In these situations, I often count out seconds (one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, etc.) and then ask again. The resulting number is usually very much smaller.

So does this tendency to exaggerate mean that the person is not credible? Not necessarily. It just means that many people express the emotional content of an event through hyperbole and emotional words.  And while it’s essential to separate out the emotion from the facts, it’s important to nonetheless recognize the emotion behind the words and take this into account as you figure out what to do with the crazy situation before you.

What are some other emotion words you’ve encountered in the workplace?  ~Amy Stephson

Why Is Poor Performance Management Universal?

My colleague Daphne’s last post was about supervisors and managers who don’t keep up on their performance management, give good reviews for poor performance, and then wonder why they can’t fire the employee.  An interesting question is why managers behave this way.  It’s often not for lack of being told what they should do.

I have several ideas based on my experience in a wide range of workplaces. Perhaps if the causes for this behavior are understood, the behavior can be changed :

  • It’s tedious and unpleasant to have to stay on top of an employee’s poor performance.
  • Many managers and supervisors don’t like conflict.
  • Performance management is time consuming and many supervisors don’t have the time.
  • Employees whose problems are actively managed often complain about it to HR, upper management, or their union. If the supervisor and subordinate are in different protected classes, a hostile work environment allegation is sure to be part of the complaint.  Retaliation is often alleged as well.
  • Upper management does little to reward supervisors for effectively handling poor performers. Perhaps if the importance of performance management was recognized in the supervisor’s own performance ratings or pay, it would be done more often.
  • Raises may be tied to performance reviews. Who wants to deny a raise to the needy single parent or longtime beloved but incompetent employee?
  • Managers and supervisors often don’t even see performance management as a key part of their job. Why? Because upper managment doesn’t emphasize or reward it, except when there’s a problem.

I came up with all these reasons in about 15 minutes and I’m sure there are more. No wonder this is a problem. Can you think of other reasons?  ~Amy Stephson

I’m Sorry: Effective Workplace Apologies

My last post reflected on the importance of “hello” in the workplace. This time, in keeping with our social skills and conflict theme, I am going to discuss apologies and how they fit into good people management.

I am not talking about apologies in the face of potential lawsuits — though this is an interesting topic. See, for example, a 2006 article from HR Magazine that talks at length about “sorry” as a strategy to help avoid or limit liability in workplace disputes.

Rather, I’m talking about apologies as a means of easing or ending conflict between employees.  Recently, I mediated part of a dispute between an executive and a manager in which the executive gave a heartfelt and effective apology for his actions. I didn’t know the theory of apologies at the time, but knew instinctively that he had done it right.

My research showed a fairly consistent definition of what constitutes a good apology.

Subsequently, I did a little online research into what constitutes an effective apology and found a lot of interesting material.  I even found a blog about apologies that evaluates the public apologies we read in the news on a regular basis.

My research showed a fairly consistent definition of what constitutes a good apology: (1) accurate expression of the offense; (2) recognition by the offender of responsibility; (3) acknowledgement of the offended party’s pain or embarrassment; (4) judgment that the offending act was wrong; (5) a statement of regret; and (6) statement of the offender’s future intentions.  I got these elements from a handout by the Columbia University Ombuds Office that appears to be used by many other organizations as well.

So what would this look like? (1) “Yesterday, I said ….” (2) “I did not think before I spoke” (3) “It’s understandable that you were upset” (4) “It was insensitive of me to say that” (5) “I am very sorry” and (6) “In the future, I will ….”  The apology can be made orally or in writing depending on the situation and needs of the parties.

And what shouldn’t the offender say? We’ve all heard these: “I’m sorry, but you ….” or “I’m sorry if you were hurt by what I said.”  Or the right words are said, but in a resentful tone.  Apologies that are insincere or blame the victim can be worse than no apology at all.

Have any of you had good or bad experiences in using apologies to resolve workplace conflict?      ~AS