Human Resources “in the Mirror”: Reflections and Resolutions

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The following post was published in HRMA’s HRVoice.org on January 19, 2015:

I recently developed a six step “Mirror Method” to effectively monitor, review and remedy dysfunctional workplace behaviour. I call it the “Mirror Method” because I passionately believe that the first step to successfully resolving any issue is to accurately reflect on the problem at hand.

Always Asking Questions

Before jumping to judgment and instituting quick fixes, it is important to take the time to ask the following:

• How am I/are we doing?
• What role am I/are we playing?
• How am I/are we contributing to a particular issue? and
• What can I/we do better?

The greater the reflection, the more successful the remedy.

As January is a time to reflect on the past and commit to making changes moving forward, why not do this with your team?

Reflecting on the Past: Thoughts to Consider

In the past year, workplaces have implemented changes to various policies and protocols to reflect new WorkSafe BC expectations to build and maintain respectful environments. HR departments have been pivotal in initiating, facilitating and implementing these changes.

As part of this initiative, I have conducted numerous workshops on how to create a respectful workplace and how to hold individuals accountable for disrespectful conduct. I also have conducted many workplace reviews to diagnose sources of disrespect, dysfunction, harassment and/or bullying.

Throughout this time, key questions have arisen regarding the role of human resources in addressing dysfunctional workplace behaviour:

Is HR Really Neutral? What does this Mean?

In some organizations, there is confusion about the mandate of the HR department when it comes to investigating and addressing workplace dysfunction. In some workplaces, employees are reluctant to report concerns about their supervisors to HR as the department is seen (rightly or wrongly) as an advocate for the management team. In other workplaces, managers perceive HR as supporting employees in their complaints against management.

The lack of definition/clarity regarding HR’s role becomes problematic in the context of workplace investigations since HR commonly investigates internal complaints of workplace disrespect, bullying and harassment. If, in exercising its day-to-day responsibilities, HR is (or is seen to be) an advocate for one “group” or the other (be it managers or employees), it may not be considered or perceived to be “neutral” in its evaluation of workplace dysfunction between the groups. This could affect the credibility of the investigation conducted by HR and reduce the likelihood of its findings being accepted by the parties; this in turn can result in additional delays and costs arising from appeals, grievances and other related proceedings.

Ultimately, if a court, WorkSafe BC or Human Rights Tribunal concludes that HR was not neutral in its investigation (given its broader role), the organization could be exposed to an adverse judgment and/or monetary damages.

Is HR’s Mandate Clearly Defined?

Moving forward, HR departments should clarify their mandate. Are they neutral? Are they management representatives/advocates? Are they a confidential resource for employees? There is no right answer as different HR departments play different roles with different responsibilities. The key is to be able to clearly define HR’s role in your organization and ensure this is communicated in a transparent manner to everyone outside the department.

Once HR’s role is defined, the next step is to determine whether—and in what circumstances—HR representatives can effectively act as neutral internal “investigators.” Perhaps, for example, HR representatives can investigate complaints arising in departments in which they have no day-to-day involvement. Perhaps, organizations create a separate division, within or independent of HR, to conduct internal investigations of this nature.

Proactive reflection and clear messaging on the role of HR generally, and in the context of conducting “neutral” workplace investigations, will help avoid claims of bias/conflict of interest against HR and protect the broader organization from claims of a faulty/unfair investigation.

What did HR Know, When did HR Know This and What Did HR Do About It?

The past year witnessed a flurry of activity surrounding workplace bullying/harassment complaints as a result of the legislative and policy changes within WorkSafe BC. In this context, a number of employees have alleged, both informally and through formal Respectful Workplace processes, that HR has been aware, informally or otherwise, of significant workplace issues involving employees and/or leaders and has not taken any (or sufficient) steps to look into these issues and help stop the behaviour.

Their perceptions, in this regard, may or may not be true. However, what is certain is that allegations of this nature are on the rise. HR representatives are increasingly being named as respondents in formal complaints on the basis that they knew or should have known about workplace dysfunction yet failed to adequately inquire into and address the issues (directly, or by assisting management in doing so).

HR does not have to conduct the inquiry directly, nor is it responsible for implementing remedies to hold staff/management accountable for their conduct/behaviour. It is, however, responsible for making good faith attempts to ensure that something gets done. If HR is aware of an ongoing problem and does not attempt to inquire into it, or fails to support management in its efforts to correct it, or fails to escalate an issue to senior leadership when management refuses to address it, HR may be independently exposed to scrutiny and criticism for its own inaction.

HR plays an indispensable role in the creation and maintenance of respectful workplaces. Clarifying its role and responsibilities in the context of “respectful workplace investigations” will ensure it continues to be an agent of positive change moving forward.

Have a reflective and respectful 2015.

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