“Why” Isn’t Always Important

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.

Babysitting Bob

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?

Negative Nancy

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?

Meddlesome Maria

“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?

Revengy Ryan

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.

Photo by Ken Treloar on Unsplash

Listening to Harassment

In the past week, we’ve learned about Harvey Weinstein.  Much like Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, and others, the conduct perpetrated by Mr. Weinstein is horrific and devastating.  Questions like “how did this go on for so long” or “why didn’t the women speak up” are natural, but these miss the fundamental point – this happened.  The conduct was ignored or even facilitated by others for so long.

What if you were HR at the Weinstein Company?  What if a brave woman came to you and explained what had happened?  What would you do?  After listening to many, many stories of sexual harassment, here’s my advice to the HR pro when someone walks into your office with a story of harassment:

  1. Listen. Seriously.  Yes, you’re going to have to take notes, but the first goal is to listen.  Take the time to give the person in your office your undivided attention as she or he gets the story out the way they planned to tell you.  A lot of the person’s brain has been totally consumed with how to tell you.
  2. Give the person space. Telling someone about harassment is hard.  Really, really hard.  Shame and lack of self-confidence are so undermined by harassment that finding the courage to tell you, even if they know you well, takes significant effort.  Let the person get the story out how she or he wants to get it out.  Try not to interrupt.
  3. Have tissues. Yes, it is cliché, but trust me, having a box of tissues nearby never hurt anyone, and often, it is a simple offer of tissues that will provide comfort even though you cannot agree with the person.
  4. Explain your role. After you’ve heard the story the way the person wanted to tell you, explain you will have to start an investigation.  During the investigation, you won’t be able to “take sides,” but you will do your best to gather the necessary facts, listen to people with information, and be as thorough as possible.  Tell the person you may hire an outside investigator.
  5. Go through the facts. Explain that because you need information, you will have to ask a bunch of questions even though it might be painful.  (You can empathize that it is painful.  That’s okay.) Then go through the story again.  Ask questions.  Ask for dates, times, and who else she or he thinks you should talk to.  You won’t be able to keep things 100% confidential because you need to investigate – tell the person this.
  6. Take notes. Once you’ve been through your role, you should start taking notes. Please take thorough notes.  If this gets to litigation or a New Yorker story, your notes are going to be placed in front of you on numerous occasions.  Make sure you understand them and can explain them.
  7. Thank. Please thank the person for bringing this information to you.  Thank them for spending the time to do it and the emotional energy.

These are just tips on how to hear about it.  There are so many other things you will need to do after you’ve listened.  Talking to your manager, taking timely and appropriate action, taking a look at your harassment training, and many other things may be what you will do.

As HR folk, we have obligations – not only to our organizations and the people we work with – we have an obligation to our profession.  The New York Times investigation included assessments of the Weinstein Company HR department as weak and ineffective.   We can change that.  We do good for organizations when we speak up, investigate, and facilitate effective actions that prevent and stop this behavior.  We can do it.

Photo by Zhen Hu on Unsplash