Fallout of Bullying, Harassment and Grievance Processes - 7 reflections from a coaching perspective
For the HR professional or business manager, accusations of bullying, harassment and bad management are ‘heart sink’ situations. Let's say you've investigated and the processes are over. No doubt, there will have been some evidence - no smoke without fire...
Maybe you are concerned that it will happen again - and that really is the last thing you need. Maybe one or more of the employees are on sick leave and are now expected back. You may be perplexed that things could possibly have got this far.
This article considers the fallout from bullying, harassment and grievance procedures based on what I've heard in facilitated discussions and coaching sessions as a workplace mediator and behavioural coach. Here are seven areas I think could be usefully considered:
1 - Time: it's likely this will have taken significant time. Now the processes are concluded, it's time to quickly put in place remedies. If there are recommendations to act upon, make sure they happen speedily e.g. relevant training and specialist support and understanding from their line manager. From the perspective of the employees the process was difficult. Be assured they want this to be resolved - and quickly.
2 - Perspectives: No matter what evidence there is, be assured that the employee accused of harassment does not think they have harassed. The employee who is accused of bullying does not think that they are a bully. They had no intention of bullying anyone and so it didn't happen. But, also be assured that the person on the receiving end of their behaviour is convinced that's exactly what they did. Nobody is satisfied because nobody feels fully vindicated. Consider a facilitated discussion so that each employee can better understand the other’s perspective. Consider using terms like ‘the behaviour which needs addressing is…’ (and then be specific). Avoid any language that is predicated on building and defending a "case" - reframe things to find a mutually agreeable way of working together again.
3 - Stress: potentially emotions will still be running high. For less resilient employees, they may be anxious, stressed, angry and/or depressed. For those who feel less emotional stress, they may still be bemused and agitated. Both will be worried about their future careers. One will be concerned about being labelled as 'a trouble maker' for making a complaint, the other that they need to 'clear their name'. Cumulative stress is toxic to health and may lead to sickness absence, insomnia and fear of going into work. Work quickly to identify this - consider Employee Assistance Programmes/OH, counselling or therapeutic support. Recommend a visit to their GP if they are showing signs of emotional distress. Make sure any return to work has relevant support, ask the employee what would be helpful to them on the day they come back. Consider relevant resilience and wellbeing activities.
4 - Trust: trust levels will drop. Clearly trust towards the colleague making accusations will drop but this may extend to someone else who they may feel hasn't supported them in the way they want e.g. other colleagues or HR. Most terminally, they now don't trust their employer as an organisation. Their resentment won't likely to be overt but it's your organisation's reputation on the line when the employees talk about what's happening to them at work to their social network. They may just need time to process what on earth has just gone on for them they may be in shock. Coaching is an excellent way to allow a space to talk about issues related to trust, to resolve them and move on.
5 - The team: has a fair idea of what’s gone on. There may still be tension in the office. Or they will be "heads down" getting on with their work, thanking their lucky stars they weren't directly involved and hoping for the best. Hardly a great place to work! There may be inaccurate rumours circulating. Some people will want to stay right out of it and will pretend it never happened. If the team was interviewed as part of an investigation some may be worried about retribution for telling 'their side of the story'. Maybe there's confusion about what's happening next. Morale may have dropped. Consider a team briefing or, better still, a facilitated team coaching meeting. Allow people to talk honestly about working together. Encourage questions about what's happened. Discuss how this could be avoided in the future. If appropriate, encourage the team to suggest how they could support team members who may be returning to work.
6 - Avoidance: people involved in conflict at work can send each other to Coventry after a grievance or disciplinary process. They may have a wary and ‘stilted’ approach and scrutinise conversations for a 'hidden agenda'. Maybe other people are roped in to act as intermediaries. Maybe they only write to each other by email and agonise over what to say to protect themselves or even to send barbed covert messages. Consider a workplace mediation to agree ground rules for working together again via a ‘Working Plan’. A mediator who is entirely independent of the situation is the best option (whether they be internal or external). The key thing is to get people talking. It’s this discussion about behaviour, feelings and motivations that helps stop this behaviour. The person who is accused of bullying can, for example, honestly explain: ‘I didn't focus enough on you, I just wanted to get the job done, I see now this was a mistake’ and this can be a revelation to the other participant. This openness does not necessarily make employees become best friends, but it does start communication. Individual coaching can also encourage individuals to work out ways to move the relationship onto a more positive and sustained footing.
7 - Motivation: these experiences can destroy an employees relationship with their work. It can become particularly toxic when managers continue to ‘punish’ them after the process is over. They may block promotion, training or development opportunities. It can leave some employees feeling that their motivation for their work has completely left them. Encourage managers to draw a line under the grievance and disciplinary process particularly once any stipulated period is over. Let people move on. Show support to the employees by offering coaching, think of it as an investment in their future re-engagement with the organisation to support and motivate them again.
In my opinion, workplace mediation, behavioural coaching, psychometric assessment and talking is the way to get things back on track. It really does work!
Do you have other ideas ? What is you experience? I’d love to hear your views.