Sword or Shield? Increasing Concerns Regarding the Misuse of Critical Workplace Policies


On a weekly basis, I facilitate workshops with staff and leaders on what it takes to have – and maintain – a safe and respectful workplace.

Increasingly, I observe someone in the room hesitantly ask a question that is on others’ minds: what about those who threaten to file – or repeatedly file – unfounded complaints to threaten and control those around them? What if they are the ones misusing policies in a manner that causes psychological harm or unsafe work environments? Then what?

Often, others nod in agreement, thankful that someone was brave enough to ask the question on everyone’s mind; others look down at the floor, not wanting to be seen as “anti-respect” but at the same time, wanting to hear my answer.

It’s important to note that those asking this question are not typically viewed as the “agitators” or “aggressors” in their workplace. They are not troublemakers trying to undermine human rights, diversity and inclusion or psychological safety. They are simply people who are genuinely concerned – based on their own experience and observations – that important workplace policies are, at times, not being used to genuinely create a safe and respectful workplace; and in some circumstances, are being used to actively undermine respect, the very purpose for which they were created.

This concern reflects an important aspect of human rights, harassment, safety and respectful workplace policies. These policies should be used as a “shield” to protect against truly unsafe practices, improper behavior, disrespectful communication and discrimination in the workplace. They should not be used as a “sword” or weapon to control or intimidate others in order to get one’s way, avoid accountability, or intimidate others out of doing the right thing.

In my practice, I see these policies being increasingly used as swords not shields. Specifically:

  1. There are people who label every action, communication, decision, change or outcome with which they disagree as disrespectful or discriminatory. If they dislike a particular outcome, decision or consequence, they characterize it as a violation of workplace policies and immediately file a formal complaint.
  2. These complaints are fully investigated and then dismissed because there is no objective evidence to substantiate the damaging allegations, declarations, characterizations and opinions upon which they have been based.
  3. Those who made the (now dismissed) complaint become angry (or angrier) at the outcome of the investigation (or arbitration). They often reject the findings/conclusion and file a complaint against those involved in the review, including HR professionals, union representatives and decision-makers. Their escalation often includes disrespectful attacks against everyone involved in the process, including threats of physical, psychological and/or reputational harm.
  4. Those who are “successful” in the formal investigation, given the dismissed complaint, are given little support and left with no recourse to remedy their damaged health and reputation.
  5. Given these circumstances, those who supervise or work with these individuals avoid doing or saying anything to them, with which they may disagree, for fear that they will be the next one subjected to a stressful and costly complaint.
  6. Entire teams walk on eggshells waiting for and wondering about what’s next to come. They fear reporting safety concerns or concerning behavior on the part of “prolific complainers” because they know that this will result in an accusation of bullying against them and all that comes with this.
  7. This scenario is in stark contrast to the preponderance of claims that are filed by individuals who genuinely and truly believe that an action or series of actions has resulted in a workplace in which they no longer feel safe, respected or included. This is the group for whom safety and respectful workplace policies have been created; yet they seem to be the forgotten ones in all that is presently unfolding.

In my view, if leaders, HR professionals and workplace investigators do not do a better job of inquiring into whether complaints of harassment and concerns of disrespect are being brought forward in a reasonable and good faith manner – and then taking action when they are not, we risk contributing to a culture of psychological harm rather than mitigating and remedying it.

Where to Start? Here is a Framework to Consider:

  1. Optimally, staff and leaders should be given training on the proper interpretation and use of respectful workplace policies. They need to understand that, for a complaint to be “substantiated”, there must be credible evidence to support the alleged facts regarding an incident; and the incident itself must be viewed – in law – as unreasonable. Facts and legal standards govern whether a violation has occurred, not feelings, polls and opinions.
  2. All concerns and complaints that come forward must be objectively reviewed. No leader or HR professional should prematurely “dismiss” a complaint based on their intuition, past history with those involved or otherwise. First investigate, then determine next steps.
  3. If the respondent raises concern – in good faith – about the allegations against them, including concerns of malice and dishonesty, they have a right to expect that their concerns will be reviewed in the same manner and to the same extent as those who have filed the complaints.
  4. If allegations brought forward by the complainant (or respondent) are dismissed following an objective review, and it appears that they may have been raised improperly, hastily or in a bad faith or retaliatory manner, then a separate review should be conducted regarding their actions.
  5. If concerns of misuse, malice or retaliation are substantiated in whole or part, then the organization should consider the following:
  1. In all but the most egregious cases, the person should be given training on what it means to file or respond to concerns in good faith and why this is so important (along with additional reminders and reinforcements on the objective definitions of disrespect, harassment, discrimination and retaliation);
  2. If the person continues to file or respond to complaints in a manner that is viewed as questionable at best (and malicious at worst), then they should be held formally accountable for doing so in a clear and measured manner. This is no different than other acts of misconduct that result in progressive discipline; and
  3. In very serious cases of malice and misuse, the person may need to be formally disciplined immediately, to mitigate risking a second or third occurrence.
  1. If a complaint appears to have been filed or defended in good faith, then no adverse action should be taken against those involved. Most individuals in the workplace – regardless of position – are not “experts” on respectful workplace policies: if they genuinely believe they are being mistreated or unfairly portrayed, they have a right to voice their concerns and have those concerns reviewed in a neutral and objective manner.
  2. Being wrongfully threatened with complaints – or being wrongfully named as a respondent in complaints – causes significant fear and anxiety. This reality has allowed the wrong individuals to maintain control over their work environments by using critical policies as a “sword” in their toolbox of dysfunction.
  3. Until we begin to name, address and remedy this situation, we are undermining a system of laws, policies and procedures that have been put in place to protect disempowered individuals who continue to suffer from widespread discrimination, harassment and bullying. The policies were designed to assist them. It is up to us to ensure that they do so.

Are you struggling with the fallout of unfounded complaints? Contact Marli for specialized services in investigations, environment scans, mediation, and arbitration. With Marli’s professional support, you can safeguard your team’s psychological safety and maintain a culture of respect.

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