A few days ago, I read a post on the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) blog titled, “Why Should I Bother to Go to HR About Sexual Harassment?” It’s a good read and you might want to check it out. It’s also kinda related to today’s reader note. They’re trying to figure out if HR is a place they should go with their issue.
I was suspended 4 months ago after having worked for the company for over 20 years.
Last year, I took out a grievance because I was being bullied. The grievance wasn’t upheld, but on appeal parts of it were. Afterward, I had to work with one of the people who bullied me. Then, I was suspended for allegedly falsifying a document (which I did not do).
I have not been to a disciplinary hearing, and I recently found out that my job has been advertised. My union has advised me to write a letter to human resources because I am unlikely to get a fair hearing. I have evidence that the allegation was brought by close friends of the bully along with inconsistences in their statements.
Is writing a letter to HR the right thing to do?
Honestly, from the reader’s note, I feel like there are multiple sides to this story. And I’m sure that we don’t know enough to answer all the specifics in this situation. But the note touches on bullying, investigations, and retaliation. I think it would be good to discuss those matters because, unfortunately, these issues are prevalent in today’s workplaces.
To help us, I asked our friend Kate Bischoff to share her knowledge. Kate is an employment attorney and HR consultant at tHRive Law & Consulting LLC. She’s shared her experience with us before – one of my favorite articles is this one about “HR Failed to Investigate an Incident”.
Now, I know you realize this, but please remember that Kate’s comments should not be construed as legal advice or pertaining to any specific factual situations. If you have specific detailed questions, they should be addressed directly with your friendly neighborhood labor attorney. And thank you!
Kate, let’s start with the topic of workplace bullying. Why should organizations be concerned about workplace bullying?
[Bischoff] Bullying is destructive. Period. When employees are bullied, they are working in fear and intimidation, which reduces overall work quality, innovation and employee engagement. While it may not pose a litigation risk from a legal standpoint, bullying leaves no room for trust and trust is essential for a positive workplace.
After seeing the reader’s note, I can imagine someone saying to themselves, “If I’m being bullied, the last thing I should do is file a grievance.” Is there a proper way for employees to let the company know they’re being bullied?
[Bischoff] There is no proper way per se. Most employers should have a mechanism for their employees to report bad behavior, like bullying, harassment, or other suspicious behavior. This could be an ethics hotline, pulse-like engagement feedback on a daily or weekly-basis, or simply having HR walk around to build relationships with employees so employees feel comfortable talking with us. Employees should feel comfortable using these mechanisms.
Even if there is a ‘formal’ way to report this behavior, employees should also feel free to report it to ANY manager. Managers are the company for all intents and purposes, so telling a manager should trigger action by the company, provided that managers know what to do. And, there’s the rub. Managers who don’t know what to do – especially in a bullying or harassment situation – can cause the company even more harm by their inaction.
If an employee feels they are being retaliated against because they spoke up, is there something they can do?
[Bischoff] Kinda sorta. Employees who believe they are being retaliated against should notify the highest person in HR (VP, Director, CFO even) or go to the general counsel of the business and explain that they believe they are being retaliated against.
The newly informed individual has probably been outside the decisions viewed as retaliation and will want to investigate to determine if retaliation is occurring. If this person has been notified of the actions, they probably believe it is not retaliation and will not take steps to remedy it. But employees should try. Please try. Even if you tell them after you find another job, please tell someone.
If you are retaliated by losing your job, being demoted, or suffered some other adverse employment action, you should talk with your state’s civil or human rights agency or contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). While most of us management-side attorneys will hope you talk to someone in your company first, those agencies are always an option.
What should HR departments do to make sure that employees know the company will not tolerate retaliation?
[Bischoff] Listen, we in HR have a reputation of not helping employees when they complain. This reader letter embodies this reputation. Whether the reputation is deserved or not can be debated, but we’re stuck with it – for now. So, we need to fight the reputation.
Know your co-workers. Listen to them. Investigate. Protect employees after they complain. Don’t go along with a manager who is behaving in a retaliatory manner. Work to find workable solutions to prevent and prohibit bullying even if that means pushing bullies out of the workplace for good. If we all do this, our reputation will improve and employees will not be too scared to come to us. That said, HR has lots of other ways we can make sure retaliation isn’t tolerated.
- We must talk with managers about retaliation itself and the perception of retaliation.
- We should have policies in handbooks that explain that retaliation will not be tolerated.
- We also should check in with employees who have complained to make sure they don’t feel tolerated.
- We shouldn’t hang back until they come to us, we should go to them.
Last question, if an employee who is accused of misconduct has evidence that is relevant to the investigation, should they submit it in writing?
[Bischoff] ABSOLUTELY! I’m a lawyer. I hate trees. Paper is where it is at. It doesn’t have to be in hard-copy format, it can be emailed with the handy-dandy date and time stamp right on the email. (Contrary to last year’s news articles, it is really hard to destroy an email.) If you need to complain about behavior or give additional evidence outside of a formal investigative interview, then submitting something in writing is the way to go.
My thanks to Kate for sharing her experience and knowledge with us. And her ability to deal with a very serious subject in a casual way. I hope everyone appreciated the subtle hint of self-deprecating humor with the tree comment (smile). If you want to read more of Kate’s insights, be sure to check out her blog. It’s a must read.
Retaliation claims are more than a legal risk. Yes, it’s true – retaliation can cost companies thousands of dollars. But they can also ruin company culture. And when your culture is of distrust, well…you know…
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby after giving a presentation at KronosWorks 2016 in Orlando, FL17