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Fortunately, or unfortunately, harassment and discrimination investigations have become quite prevalent in the workplace in recent years. Notwithstanding the legislative mandate, it is a positive indication when organizations are responding to complaints of harassment and discrimination within their workplace. However, in my experience as a workplace investigator, I often see quite clearly that, before an organization decides to pursue an investigation, there are multiple opportunities to address some of the issues by using less adversarial means.
It is fairly unusual that the first time a problem manifests is when there is a formal complaint requiring an investigation. Many times, the formal complaint comes as a last resort because the complainant feels that their concerns are being ignored or not taken seriously, or the problem is seen and ignored for a long time because a complaint is not brought forward. In any case, the result is that the failure to address these concerns potentially leads to a very toxic and polarized work environment warranting an investigation or other difficulty measures. Even in cases where the organization does respond to the complaint, we see occasions where they are just “band-aid” solutions (like putting the subject group through training) and the problem reoccurs.
The difficulty that being reactive, rather than proactive, presents is that, by the time you get to an investigation, the damage is already done — relationships have been broken, tension among colleagues is at an all-time high, and an investigation, although it may need to be done, sometimes does nothing more than exacerbate that situation. The result is that the organization ends up losing valuable employees, suffers from a reduction in productivity and experiences a general decrease in staff morale.
The question is – is there a more proactive way to respond to concerns in the workplace? The answer is, “Yes.” There are tools available to an organization to appropriately and proactively restore the workplace prior to an investigation. That being said, the process of restoration is not a “one size fits all” type of process. In order to engage the appropriate interventions, you will need to understand the issues at hand, ensure the right people are at the table and that they have bought in to the process. Here are a few things to consider in order to restore a workplace before resorting to an investigation:
1. Start with the right mindset – Dealing with conflict is never easy — it is unsettling and uncomfortable. That is why sweeping the issue under the rug always seems more appealing. However, if you really want to restore the workplace and avoid getting to the stage of an investigation, the organization will need to develop a culture of tackling heavy issues head-on. This may mean engaging in difficult conversations with different individuals or different groups through a lens of understanding and repairing, rather than blaming.
2. Recognize that the issue may be bigger than you think – Even though you may see the issue manifest between two individuals, for example, it is possible that others have similar concerns or experiences. Similarly, what you might view to be the problem might just be an aspect of a much bigger problem. Therefore, you want to engage a process that allows you to identify the real issues and not merely respond to what appears on the surface to be the problem. No formal complaint does not mean that there is no complaint.
3. Strategically collect information – As mentioned above, you want to engage a process that identifies the true issues, however, at the same time, you want to be careful of the manner in which that information is collected. At this stage, you may not necessarily have a formal complaint; you may just have a sense of some of the issues that may exist. Information about the issues may be collected through various means such as, surveys, interviews, and focus groups. However, whatever the chosen method, ensure that the method of soliciting the information, for example the questions that are asked, is discreet where necessary, and allows for confidentiality. Yes, it is important to tackle the issues head-on, but there is a strategic way to do so in order to avoid further disruption in the workplace. This is a skill that the restoration team must have.
4. Select the right restoration team – Effectively managing conflict requires certain skills. These include: the ability to identify who needs to be at the table, the ability to develop trust with and between those at the table, the ability to create an environment for safe and open dialogue, the ability to remain unbiased, the ability to understand and assess issues in the different ways that they are communicated, and the ability to handle and respond to strongly felt ideas. It is important to select an individual or team who possess these skills and this is usually a decision made at the outset.
5. Understand that it is not a “one size fits all” process – The available tools to respond to conflict include one-on-one meetings, mediation, group meetings, training, coaching and/or facilitation. However, all are not necessarily appropriate for every situation. The appropriate interventions are usually determined based on the issues identified in the information collection phase. The beauty of these methods of intervention is that they can be tailored to suit the particular situation of an organization.
7. Recognize that restoration is an ongoing process – The fact is, a conflict very rarely emerges over night. Therefore, it is unlikely that a single process will remedy all issues in one go. Following the implementation of any interventions, it will be important to monitor the organization to see if there is improvement and if that improvement is sustained.
I appreciate that there are circumstances where an investigation and/or termination are the appropriate responses. However, in our experience, there are often opportunities to proactively respond to concerns in the workplace before they mushroom into an irreparable problem. If you are considering whether a workplace restoration process is necessary, consider what it may cost, financial and otherwise, if you do not engage in such a process.
This is part one of a two part series on “Restoring the workplace before and after a workplace investigation“. You can read part two here
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