“He’s a Bully – Fire Him!” – The Importance of Objectivity in Assessing Workplace Conflict


A common pitfall in managing workplace conflict is reacting to employee’s claims rather than responding to the overall situation. In an attempt to address matters quickly, supervisors/managers “act” on the basis of one employee’s perception of workplace dynamics without taking the necessary time to review the various other factors that might be at play.

Picture your local hospital’s “emergency room”. Imagine a patient coming in, very emotional and telling the physician he feels as if he is having a heart attack. After all, he must be having a heart attack – he is having chest pain! Now imagine the physician – on the basis of this feedback alone –diagnosing the patient with cardiac arrest and treating the patient with CPR or IV medications.

This wouldn’t happen in the world of medicine and it shouldn’t happen in the management of the workplace. No action should be taken until a through, objective review of an individual’s concerns has taken place.

In medicine, a commonly-used framework for reviewing patient complaints is the “SOAP” framework. Most physicians make it their “standard practice” to follow this process and I would highly recommend that supervisors/managers do the same:

S – Subjective Complaints. In this initial phase of a workplace review, the investigator reviews the employee’s subjective concerns/perceptions regarding the workplace dynamics or incident in question. This also includes an understanding of the subjective impact of these dynamics on the employee.

O- Objective Findings. In this phase, the investigator interviews the employee who has come forward with concerns, interviews other witnesses, conducts a physical review of the work site where applicable, and reviews all potentially relevant documents, including relevant medical evidence regarding an employee’s “subjective” complaints, emails/notes, and any other information that might shed light on what happened or what is happening.

A- Assessment. In this phase, the employer considers the “objective findings” of the investigation in light of the relevant workplace policy (e.g. Code/Standards of Conduct, Harassment Policy, collective agreement, employee manual) or legislation (e.g. Workers Compensation Act, Human Rights Code, Employment Standards Act). In doing so, the employer then determines whether there is or has been, in fact, harassment/bullying/workplace misconduct. The employer also determines whether the employee has been objectively impacted and in what way.

P- Plan. In the final step of the framework, a “plan” is developed to address and remedy the “workplace issues” as determined through the objective investigation. As we will explore in future blog entries, a “plan” is often developed for more than one employee (it seems to take more than two to tango in some situations) and usually includes more than one remedy. For example, an employee may be disciplined for unacceptable behaviour towards another co-worker but also might be offered “counseling” in order to reduce the chance of his/her behaviour recurring.

I cannot over-emphasize the importance of conducting an objective review into workplace concerns, complaints and dynamics. All too often, employers are faced with criticism and associated financial penalties (by courts, arbitrators and human rights tribunals) as a result of their faulty investigative processes or the inaccurate findings/conclusions made as a result.

Just remember – you can easily clean up your workplace investigations by using SOAP (I couldn’t resist).

Assessing Workplace Conflict


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