Dealing with delicate situations

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Someone comes into the HR department and you are fully anticipating a simple question about benefits or holiday entitlement. In fact, the member of staff wants to speak to you in confidence and the information they share with you could have huge implications for reputations in the organisation or, worse still, suggest that someone is at risk.

How should you deal with it? The recent allegations that Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard “inappropriately touched” a number of women highlight how important it is to manage delicate situations sensitively. It could be anything from someone making an accusation of verbal harassment, right through to serious allegations about sexual misconduct or fraud being carried out against the organisation – and it’s unlikely the same situation will happen twice.

In the latest twist to the Rennard tale, it has been claimed that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told one of the peer’s alleged victims that he didn’t have the “big picture” just before he released a statement saying that he had heard “indirect and non-specific concerns” about Lord Rennard. In HR, if someone approaches you with a sensitive allegation, getting that big picture needs to be a priority.

Sensitive allegations

Phil Richardson, an employment law associate with solicitors Stephensons, works with the National Day Nurseries Association, which represents around 4,500 nurseries across the country. When its members approach the firm for legal advice, it is often around sensitive matters around an allegation about how someone has behaved with children and they don’t know what to do next.

He explains: “You don’t come across sensitive allegations every day. We get lots of calls where people ask ‘What do we do next?’, so we would refer them to their policies and procedures as a starting point. But, often they’re gathering dust because they haven’t been needed.”

Whenever allegations have been made, the most important thing as an HR professional is to remain objective and to remember that, as an employer, you have a duty of care not only to the person who has made the allegation, but also the person against whom it has been made. Richardson adds: “It’s really important to step back. You may have already formed a view of your own, but you still need to follow procedure and not react to how you feel.”

Legal framework

According to Jonny Gifford, a researcher and volunteer mediator at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), you should also be aware (and make those involved aware) of the legal framework designed to protect employees’ rights in these situations. The Public Interest Disclosure Act, for example, provides protection for workers in whistleblowing situations. And if an employee causes detriment to another because of something they have disclosed, the employer could be held vicariously liable, so it’s always important to protect both parties.

Staying consistent with policies on workplace conduct and whistleblowing is key, says Gifford. “The problem is that sometimes, no one wants to come forward, or feel they don’t have the opportunity. This is why you should have clear policies that are supported in practice and reinforced by the culture – if you can deal with these things internally it makes things much easier.” In the CIPD’s December 2012 Employee Outlook Survey, almost one-third of respondents were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the opportunities available to raise concerns in their organisation, so clearly more work needs to be done on this.

Response from HR

HR’s immediate response to a sensitive situation should be to investigate, and depending on the allegation, this may require suspending the person who has been accused of something. You may also have an obligation to report any accusations of misconduct to a third party or professional body (in the case of the nurseries, for example, to Ofsted), which may decide to follow their own disciplinary procedures. Again, it is crucial to ensure a fair process here, stresses Richardson, including honouring full pay for those who have been suspended and following reasonable procedure and giving the other person the right to defend themselves.

In a case where someone has been suspended, this is often the point at which other staff start to talk about what might have happened and may draw their own conclusions. “Employees may start to gossip, or put two and two together and come up with five,” says Richardson. “It’s always advisable to ensure that, if anyone asks about it, it’s confidential. Just say ‘we can’t give any details’ and refer back to the policy.”

Employee-conduct policies

However, the gamut of sensitive situations HR might have to deal with is so wide that employee-conduct policies might not cover every eventuality. During her career, HR consultant and CEO of The HR Lounge Angela O’Connor has dealt with many delicate issues, from drug taking to sharing the news that someone has died. “You can’t legislate for all of them,” she says. “There is clarity in the legislation and there is some great advice available. But once you move outside the legislative boundaries, it’s really important to be open minded and objective. The policy is there as a framework.”

And, while the policy will provide a useful reference tool when an issue needs to be escalated, it’s important that staff feel they can approach HR to discuss concerns without them automatically leading to a formal procedure. “There needs to be space for an off-the-record, confidential conversation with HR,” says Gifford. “Yes, the duty of care must kick in at some point – especially if something criminal or damaging to another person has happened – but HR can have a dialogue and explain what the process is, and what they can and cannot do within the procedure.”

Confidentiality

That said, if someone does want to share a concern, it’s unrealistic to guarantee absolute confidentiality without knowing what they want to discuss, says O’Connor. “If they’re sharing something illegal, for example, then the organisation has a duty to take that forward. It’s hard, because you want to be sympathetic, but some things have to be escalated.”

Ultimately, the way you deal with sensitive situations can impact both the reputation of HR and the organisation as a whole. Examples such as that of Lord Rennard or even what happened with Jimmy Savile at the BBC demonstrate how leaders’ credibility can wane if it turns out they turned a blind eye to unprofessional or downright illegal activities and did nothing about it. Or worse, senior executives could find themselves in hot water, according to Richardson: “If it comes out that as someone senior you’ve known for some time that something was going on, you yourself could be subject to disciplinary action.”

Training

More training around potential situations that could arise would help HR professionals to be more prepared to deal with them, says O’Connor. “Think about the sorts of issues that could arise and work through scenarios. Get senior HR professionals to use case studies,” she suggests. “HR people coming through at a junior level need to understand how to deal with awkward or sensitive situations without getting too emotional.” Thankfully, these situations do not happen often, but being prepared to act objectively and professionally will help to resolve them smoothly for all concerned.

For more information on whistleblowing policies visit XpertHR.

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