Can’t We Have Consistency, Compliance AND Compassion?

An article posted yesterday in the SHRM HR Daily Newsletter, took a stand that in HR matters,  “Consistency Might Not Be Worth the Cost.” Although I understand that no two situations are exactly the same, and careful consideration of all the factors should drive reasonable outcomes, taking out the need for consistency seems a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

For literally decades, employment attorneys have been driving into the heads of HR professionals that consistent compliance is everything. Why? Because defending a discrimination, harassment or retaliation claim is extremely difficult when there is no fair and consistent process in place. How can you prove that treatment is unbiased? And liability protection is a big part of the HR function. But I agree, it is not everything.

The dangers of having a culture where it’s okay to decide on an individual basis what is acceptable or allowed and what is not, are more about the impact on culture than about liability. HR professionals and managers are human. And quite frankly, the concern is about leaving the door open to favoritism and unconscious biased based decisions.

The good news is, in this case, you can have it all! You can implement a consistent compliant process that uses organizational beliefs, core values and standards as measurables to determine outcomes. It’s about implementing a consistent, transparent process that is the right fit for your culture and can clearly define and document why and how decisions are made. It doesn’t have to mean the same decision every time. But it does have to mean using the same process to come to the right decision every time, and documenting how that is done.

The benefits of using a consistent, complaint and compassionate process

A consistent, compliant process for handling and/or investigating a situation or incident allows employees to see that:

  • the organization cares about how all people are treated in the workplace.
  • A predictable and transparent process means that employees will be treated fairly and with respect, no matter what the outcome.
  • their voices matter and there are means to begin conversations on things that are not working before they become big issues.

Once employees understand and trust the consistent processes, they will use them earlier and more frequently to resolve issues resulting in:

  • quicker and more respectful resolution to problems large and small.
  • increase in team work efficiencies and enjoyment.
  • peer to peer resolution through more open communication.
  • reduction in fear of bringing issues to the forefront.

Let’s face it, employees who feel they are treated fairly in opportunities, valued in their contribution, and respected in communication and treatment thrive in the work environment.  It is okay to be creative, open to new ideas and practices, but we don’t need to lose consistency in order to do it.

The HR Impact of Gender Quotas on the Board of Directors

Whichever side of the line you stand on, everyone seems to agree that the new California Law requiring at least one board seat be filled by a female for publicly traded companies leaves a lot of room for debate and concern. In fact, Governor Jerry Brown wrote in his signing statement for SB 826, “I don’t minimize the potential flaws that indeed may prove fatal to its ultimate implementation.”  And, as is often the case, it is likely that other states will follow. Although California is the first to have binding regulations, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois and Colorado, and various municipal governments, including the city councils of both Philadelphia and New York, have already passed nonbinding resolutions aimed at increasing female representation on boards.

As with many new business-related laws that take effect, HR should take preemptive steps to determine the impact this may have on their organization. The California Chamber of Commerce has argued that the new policy, “violates constitutional prohibitions against discrimination”, and “prioritizes gender over other aspects of diversity such as race or ethnicity.” When these statements are made publicly, discrimination claims tend to rise.

In light of the potential stir that may arise from the search for a female to add to a board that is already in place, the possible unseating of a current Director, or the placement of a so-called “token female” on the board,  HR may want to proactively consider the following measures as a way to step up to the table and provide added value in the process.

Provide a summary of the potential impact the search for a female Board placement could have on the company. Suggested items to be covered:

  • Reminder that placement without prior communication could create an impression that the Board is simply filling a mandated requirement with the easiest or safest option.
  • Communications early on as to what the Board is searching for including qualifications, experience, strategic vision and leadership capabilities can clarify the company goals for the position and prevent the appearance of bias.
  • Positive communication within the company during the process can create excitement as the company moves toward increased diversity, and the impact that will ultimately have on the company.
  • Clarification on who will own the placement process will prevent duplicated efforts.

Provide a proposal of how HR could assist with creating a positive outlook, such as:

  • Providing staff communications on the search, and how the company is excited to embrace this new opportunity for balance in leadership.
  • Assist with initial search efforts and screening to allow the process to move forward in a timely manner.
  • Suggest that HR could provide guidance to the Board on how to document the process and decision as protective measures against discriminatory claims after the fact.

In the long run, a more diverse and balanced Board of Directors will likely have a positive impact on business performance and company culture. Taking the initiative to shine a positive light from the start can make the process better for everyone involved.

Are You Outsourcing or Insourcing Your Investigations?

According to an article in Bloomberg Law, (Article: Surge in Outside Workplace Investigations in #MeToo Milieuir) there has been a surge in the number or workplace investigations being conducted by third-party investigators. Along with the high level, high dollar cases we read about in the news, these are the cases that are easily measurable. The article quotes Amy Oppenheimer, Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer, as saying that “only about five out of 100 claims rise to a high level of seriousness.” So, what about the other 95%?

Employers are required to investigate all claims. But more than that, they must investigate any time they become aware that harassment, discrimination or bullying are taking place in the workplace. Even if no one has come forward to complain. At an average cost of $8,000 – $20,000 per investigation for outsourcing to an attorney or investigator, and an average of 1 investigation per 50 employees per year, an employer with 1000 employees could spend $200,000 per year on outsourcing their investigations. This sounds like a significant expense, until you consider the cost of a claim if one investigation is not handled properly.

Most HR professionals know the answer to this ongoing problem.  Companies must have a consistent, compliant and thorough investigation process in place for conducting these investigations in-house. And when you ask them, the first response is that they do have a sound process in place. But when digging a bit further, the majority will say that the process is inconsistent as there are several people who conduct the investigations and they all have their own way of doing things. Or, that their process relies heavily on emails, hand-written notes, and questions that are developed on the fly. So we ask, “18-months from now when you get a notice from the EEOC or state employment agency, do you feel you could adequately defend the investigation you conducted?” The answer is generally not a feeling of confidence.

There is a better alternative available that makes it much easier to prove a consistent and complaint investigation process. InvestiPro, as mentioned in Bloomberg Law, is the first automated investigation solution. Schedule a demo and spend a few minutes learning how technology can help you have confidence in your workplace investigations.

HR Offense -vs- Defense. What’s Your Plan?

It still surprises me when I hear that employees have brought forth a complaint to HR or a company executive, and no investigation was conducted. Although the numbers are reducing over time, some organizations still believe that there is less liability in simply doing nothing. Then, if a claim arises, a quick settlement is the customary resolution. But where does this leave your company culture?

Although you may have a process in place, there must be a plan for actively using the process and communicating it to employees regularly to be effective. When reviewing your policy and process, is the strategy for Offense or Defense? When your favorite sports team takes the field, do you think they just run out on the playing field and start playing? Although that might be hysterical to watch, it would obviously be chaotic and inefficient. And for some of us, I understand that is how our investigation process feels at times. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Taking an Offensive stance can reduce time spent on investigations, reduce potential liability exposure, improve retention and strengthen company culture through accountability and trust. In the SHRM article, “New Tools Aid HR During Workplace Investigations” Aaron Crews, attorney and chief data analytics officer with Littler in Sacramento, CA, confirmed that, “After receiving a notification letter from the EEOC or a state agency that a claim has been lodged, companies can respond before the regulatory body proceeds with the claim. Historically the EEOC has dropped over 53% of claims made based on the employer having performed a prompt and impartial investigation based on a planned, consistent process.

We can provide information that further explains the benefits of an Offensive stance on unwanted workplace behaviors?  Follow our Blog, and we’ll send you a whitepaper that can help.

Ford did their investigation, so what went wrong? Result: $10M Settlement.

When a company is in the news for paying out at large harassment discrimination settlement, the first thought is that they did not conduct an appropriate investigation. But that is not always the case. Last week the EEOC ended an investigation into claims of harassment by employees in two Ford facilities in the Chicago area. (https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/8-15-17.cfm) Based on the findings, Ford agreed to settle the claim for $10.125M in monetary relief to multiple female and African-American employees who had claimed sexual and racial harassment. Ford chose to voluntarily resolve this issue with the EEOC, without admission of liability, to avoid an extended dispute.

A spokesperson for Ford provided a statement that, “Ford does not tolerate harassment or discrimination of any kind; we are fully committed to a zero-tolerance, harassment-free work environment at all facilities and to ensuring that Ford’s work environment is consistent with our policies in that regard. Ford conducted a thorough investigation and took appropriate action, including disciplinary action up to and including dismissal for individuals who violated the company’s anti-harassment policy.” As such, it appears that they met the legal requirements. So that may have you wondering what went wrong.

It is simply not enough to conduct an investigation once an employee or group of employees comes to HR and files an official complaint. A company must be able to prove that their managers are trained regularly on what behaviors to look and listen for, in order to stop the behaviors before they become systemic or egregious. And take prompt action to investigate immediately at the first sign of a problem. It is equally important to ensure appropriate follow up post investigation to ensure the improper behaviors have stopped and no retaliation is taking place.

In the Ford Motors case, there was reasonable evidence that employees and managers were aware of the behaviors which were claimed to meet the definition of harassment, and that they did not address the issue in a timely manner. Their excuse was that no official complaint was made, even though there was open discussion by employees in the workplace, so no investigation was required. This resulted in the improper conduct continuing, and affecting more employees, until an actual complaint was filed. By the time a formal investigation was conducted, the EEOC found that the company had retaliated against employees who complained about the harassment or discrimination.

In addition to the $10 million to be distributed among the claimants, Ford will be under the scrutiny of the EEOC for a period of five years and will be required to report any employee complaints of harassment and/or related discrimination. They must also provide documentation that they are continuing to disseminate their anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and procedures to employees and new hires. And provide proof that they are constantly monitoring their workforce for issues of alleged sexual or racial harassment and related discrimination, to include monitoring by managers.

To prevent this from happening to your company, take the following steps:

 Institute a walking management policy. This type of policy requires all supervisory employees to spend a required amount of time each day observing and interacting with their workforce, and noting conversations and behaviors that may signal problems.

 Train supervisory, HR and executive employees on what signs to watch for. For example, the absence of conversation when managers walk in the room, changes in absentee patterns and physical rigidity or avoidance when interaction with a specific employee or employees are required.

 When it is noticed that an employee is acting differently, start a conversation. Even if it only includes small talk to begin with, it will increase the comfort level of the employee in coming forward with a complaint.

 Prove that the company/HR open door policy is effective by making it a priority to stop what you are doing to allow employees to come in and talk. It can be difficult for an employee to come forward, and if they are shut down on the first attempt they will generally not try again. Then follow up on the information you receive, even if there is no formal action to be taken.
For more tips and guidance on Investigations, sign up for the HR Investigator’s Blog and the Workplace Investigations Quarterly Newsletter at www.investipro.com.

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Workplace Investigations Improve Company Culture. Really?

Over the last few months, I have been speaking at regional HR meetings on the topic of “Using Workplace Investigations to Drive Employee Engagement and Improve Company Culture. And although I hear some skepticism on how this could be possible, attendance has been at very high levels. When talking to the attendees, I am hearing that HR professionals are very interested in finding a better way to handle sticky and serious employee relations issues. But there are numerous reasons why we are still doing the same old thing.

  1. There is no time to spend on research and implementation of anything that is not a daily process.
  2. Although investigations are costly and time consuming, most HR departments do not have a budget set aside for employee relations.
  3. The limited training resources available on investigations don’t provide information that transfers over well to actually conducting the investigation.
  4. Owners and/or executives are under the impression that avoiding investigations creates less liability than exposing possible problems in the workplace.

Now consider this. What if a workplace investigation was simply another standard business process that HR used to talk with employees and gather information, in order to find out what is really happening in their organization so that improvements can be made? When you think about it, you are likely doing this to resolve issues that arise and improve communications and actions between employees anyway.

Recent surveys show that employees often don’t bring forth issues of discrimination, harassment and bullying because they either don’t believe anything will be done about it if they do, or that they will get blamed and be treated poorly or lose their job. HR must clearly communicate a new initiative to investigate all workplace challenges in the same manner, in order to create a great place to work for everyone. And then stand by that promise. The good news is, they don’t even have to be called investigations. Maybe the “Better Workday Project” would fit well into your company culture. When employees start to see a positive impact, they will get on board.

There are several benefits that come from using the same “investigation” process for all forms of workplace conflict.

  • Employees get comfortable with the process and open participation increases.
  • Employees begin to see that brining issues to HR really does lead to resolution and a better place to work.
  • The relationship between managers and HR becomes more interactive.
  • Studies show that employees that trust upper management and HR, and feel they are treated fairly, are more productive and engaged with their peers.
  • When the serious accusations arise, investigations are more productive, and employees are less fearful. After all, they usually know what is happening in the workforce before management or HR.
  • It is much easier to get owners and executives on board for the serious investigations, when they have seen improvement by investigating the smaller employer relations matters.

One step forward:

The next time an employee relations issue arises, take the time before you act to plan out a means to deal with the issue that implements the standard steps of an investigation. Then work through the steps methodically to see how this application could reduce time spent and make the process more calm and respectful.

Don’t have a streamlined, compliant investigation process in place? Get a little help from InvestiPro.

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Will Your Investigator Spill The Beans? A Lesson From The White House.

Whether it’s your VP of HR, a department manager or an outside investigator, can you be sure your workplace investigator won’t jeopardize the investigation by sharing too much information? We all believe that our people know better than to share the details of an investigation with anyone who does not have a business need to know. But sharing information at the wrong time, even with the right people, can still jeopardize the investigation.Continue reading

When HR Does Something Good “Just Because”.

In work, as in life, it is often the little things that matter. Let’s face it, life isn’t perfect. And although we all try not to bring our personal lives into the workplace, there are times when it just can’t be helped. As HR professionals, we are often aware of employee’s personal situations when no one else in the company knows. For privacy reasons, we are required to keep it that way. But it’s important to remember that while keeping the workplace fair and compliant, we can also help keep the workplace human and do something good.Continue reading

5 Common Misnomers Re: Employer Retaliation

We all know that the laws enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) make it illegal to fire, demote, harass, or otherwise retaliate against either job applicants or employees based upon the individual doing any of the following:

  • filing a charge of discrimination,
  • complaining to their employer about discrimination on the job, or
  • participating in an employment discrimination proceeding, such as an investigation or a lawsuit.

In addition, most state anti-retaliation laws provide remedies for any discrimination or “adverse employment action.” But there is still a lot of misunderstanding about the extent of the definition of retaliation. As a rule of thumb, if the action could look like retaliation from the outside, stop and think through the entire situation before taking action. Otherwise, you might find yourself having to defend your actions.

The following are the 5 most common misunderstandings to watch out for:

  1. It’s not retaliation if the employee quits.

It is not uncommon for an individual to resign after an uncomfortable conflict or investigation. In some cases, this result is for the better for both the individual and the company. However, employers and managers need to ensure that they did not deviate from normal practices in order to urge the employee to resign. When courts conclude that the employer was trying to get the worker to quit, or made working conditions intolerable, then they declare a “constructive discharge,” and allow the victim full remedies after quitting. Protection: Establish a process of getting back to work after a conflict or investigation that ensures the affected employee is treated fairly and appropriately.  

  1. We’re going in to slow season, so they can’t prove retaliation if we reduce her hours.

We hear of this often, especially in seasonal industries where a reduction in hours is common at certain times during the year. However, this does not automatically provide protection for the employer. For example, an employee complains that her supervisor is making lewd gestures at her and she is fearful about walking to her car at the end of her shift. An investigation results in a reprimand to the Supervisor. The Supervisor is a high performer and the company decides not to terminate. At the end of the busy season, the Supervisor is asked to provide a list of those employees who he suggests should have their hours reduced or be laid off, and the complainant is at the top of the list. The Supervisor says she is a bit slow and not friendly to guests. On the surface this seems like a legitimate reason to reduce hours. But when customer surveys are reviewed, she consistently has high scores. Yes, this is likely retaliation. Protection:  Review recent actions with any employees that are subject to adverse actions, even when it is a regular occurrence such as seasonal layoffs, to ensure the basis for the action is sound.

  1. As long as I don’t tell HR about the complaint, I can just move the employee to another department and the problem is solved.

At company A, employees submit their time-off requests to their department manager who generally approves the time as first come first served, but also considers the reason for the time off request. Jose has requested time off on several occasions with the reason of attending family matters such as a church services or funerals. After a couple of his requests being denied, Jose complained to his manager that he and a couple of other Hispanic employees are frustrated that their time-off requests seem to be denied more often the other non-Hispanic employees. The manager comments that Hispanics have so much family that they can’t expect to get all of their requests approved and maybe they should stop having kids. Two weeks later, a new employee with a specific skill set is moved into their department, and the Manager sees this a great opportunity to move Jose out of the department into a position that is on a less desirable shift. This is not an easy answer. It’s retaliation. Protection: HR should have a policy in place to talk with each employee that is being moved to ensure they understand why is it a company decision. Generally, if the employee believes that it is due to other reasons, such as retaliation, they will bring it up at this time. 

  1. The victim is protected, but the complainant is a gossip who always stirs up drama, so we can terminate her without it being retaliation.

We expect and require employees to participate in a workplace investigation when they have information that could be useful in determining the outcome of the case.  Often, the organization would not be aware of problems in the workplace without employees coming forward. However, most of us have dealt with the employee who feels it is always her job to report everything…..personal matters, gossip, what the rumor mill says, you know the type. But a complaint is a complaint, and the complainant has protection rights the same as anyone involved in the incident. Often supervisors and managers are not aware of these rights and by changing the way they act toward this employee, they could be guilty of retaliation. Protection: Train all supervisors, managers, and executives about the potential liability from retaliation. And remind everyone involved in a complaint or investigation of their rights and responsibilities every time. 

  1. An employee who has complained can be terminated for violating company policy as long as it is unrelated to the topic of the complaint.

Although employees cannot be terminated for participating in protected activity, this only applies as long as their behavior is lawful and does not violate the company code of the conduct. That being said, employers must look at the severity of the action, and the reason for the action, in order to determine if the action could be construed as retaliation. For example, Sherry has a physical confrontation with Ally. After the incident, Sherry notifies HR and an investigation ensues. Ally is terminated for hitting Sherry, and although the company feels Sherry may have provoked the incident, there is no proof and Sherry is not disciplined. The next day, Sherry’s manager finds that she has been using her company email for personal business in violation of company policy. This is reported to HR and Sherry is terminated. Sherry report this matter to the EEOC and claims that others use their company email often, including her manager, and are not reprimanded. In addition, Sherry claims that the personal email use was to set up a security service to walk her to her car after work as she was frightened that Ally might return to do her harm. The outcome, Sherry got her job back with back pay and penalties. Protection: Before using violation of policy as a reason for terminating an employee, ensure that the policy is consistently upheld and the penalty is appropriate.

Sign up for the HR Investigator’s Blog to stay on top of the laws and best practices and ensure liability protection. And when it is time to investigate, www.GoinvestiPro.com – Simplifying the way employers conduct investigations.