Harassment, abuse, scandals, shootings, bribery – the list of ills occurring in the workplace is long and disturbing. The code of silence or unwillingness to deal with warning signs about these ills is just as, if not more, troubling. Sometimes, HR pros get an inkling about these ills. Sometimes, we worry about why someone would bring this information to us. The “why” is interesting – is it to protect their job, get back at someone, they’re just a complainer, or because they have a strange curiosity about other employees? Hear me out, the “why” isn’t important.
To me, the most important thing coming from an employee’s concern is the actual concern. Not the why. The concern is something we have to do something about. We may need to launch an investigation, meet with employees about their behavior, or work with IT to understand employee technology use. The concern takes center stage even if it is seemingly trivia. Here are a few examples that highlight this point.
Bob is a father-figure. Everyone looks up to him and seeks out his advice, whether it is professional or personal. Bob has had a particularly close relationship with Seth. Seth is having a hard time right now. His wife has divorced him, he is living in a small studio apartment in a not-great neighborhood, and his performance is suffering. Bob tells you that Seth has talked about buying guns in one of their weekly breakfasts before they get to work. Bob tells you that he will try to continue to work with Seth, but he thought you might want to know as well. Do you care about Bob’s motivation in telling you or that Seth could be a danger to himself or others?
Nancy is an unhappy employee. She doesn’t like her chair. She doesn’t like her work hours. She complains to other staff about the carpet, the toilet paper, and Jose’s breath. She’s all drama, all day. She comes to you because her boss, Susanna, hugged and kissed one of her direct reports in the parking lot after work on Thursday. You know Susanna well. She’s a good boss and has been through several supervisory training sessions on managing and appropriate conduct. Are you concerned about the hug and kiss or are you going to chalk Nancy’s concern up to Nancy just being Nancy?
“Maria doesn’t stay in her lane.” Vincent, Maria’s manager, wrote this in Maria’s last performance review and has approached you with the idea of putting Maria on a PIP as she still has no learned this lesson. Maria has been known to bother other departments asking too many questions, and interrupting their work. She comes to you to tell you she thinks there’s some shady password-sharing in the marketing department – a department she does not work in. You know that if Vincent found out that Maria was “tattling” on the marketing department, he’d be pissed. That said, password-sharing is a definite no-no at your company. Are you more concerned about password sharing or Maria’s interference in marketing?
Ryan and Jim have been working together for years. They have always seemed to be friends, but something has soured in their relationship. Ryan tells you about Jim misrepresenting his expense reports essentially stealing money from the company over a period of months. It’s possible that Ryan wanted to “get back at Jim” for some slight, but are you more concerned about Jim’s expense reports being false?
In each of these scenarios, the evaluation of the reporting person’s motivation is essentially a meaningless exercise. While in Maria’s case, you may have to have yet another chat with Maria about staying in her lane, you will also thank her (and all the individuals here) for bringing the concern forward. Too much scrutiny of their motivation could bring the organization to the cusp of retaliation – something no one wants. Isn’t the most important thing that you learned of it? You learned of it and can do something about it? (Quick FYI, you should take some action, and start with an investigation.)
Just this past August, the Minnesota Supreme Court dealt with this very issue. In the case, Friedlander v. Edwards Lifesciences, LLC, an employee made a report of what he believes was unlawful conduct, but he made the report to people who already knew about it. The employer argued because they already knew about it, the employee should not be afforded whistleblower protection, and this was a valid defense in judicial precedent before this decision. The court cited an amendment to the Whistleblower Act and disagreed, holding an employee will be afforded protection unless he knowingly made a false report or he made is recklessly. This should be the standard for all HR pros. Try it, and let me know how it goes.