Just because a high proportion of employees are away from the office does not mean conflict has disappeared – in some ways it has become more complex, and HR teams are calling in independent mediators and investigators for support. Personnel Today spoke to a team of investigators about navigating employee grievances remotely.
HR professionals have become accustomed to pivoting most of their activities into the virtual world during the coronavirus pandemic, but arguably one of the most challenging tasks to move online is that of investigating grievances and complaints.
With most office-based workforces at home, conflict situations can escalate quickly as managers fail to detect early signs of relationships under strain, or colleagues misconstruing the real intent behind emails and messages.
Disciplinary and grievance
Coupled with a heavy workload in HR due to the constantly changing landscape of furlough and employee wellbeing, many have opted to calling in third-party investigators to help resolve complaints. Katherine Graham, who has worked in investigations for more than 20 years and is founder of mediation company CMP, explains: “The last three months we’ve seen an upturn in grievance investigations and mediations. Staffing levels in HR, together with the discovery it’s possible to investigate and mediate using tools such as Zoom and MS Teams, means HR are finding it easier to bring us in.”
Whereas Graham and her associates would be used to meeting with complainants and other involved parties in person to conduct an investigation, the move online has unearthed some interesting changes in behaviour. She adds: “There’s been a shift in the way people present when they’re engaged in a dispute or process. If you’re having a difficult conversation over the telephone when someone’s at home, they’re slightly more natural. They bring their whole self to the process compared with how they might act if they were in an HR person’s office.”
That said, it can mean they’re more emotional, which has its good and bad sides. “When you have a telephone conversation the power of silence is so much greater and things happen faster – so apologies might come quicker, there might be an emotional outburst or someone simply reaches the end of the line,” says Graham. “Our job as investigators is to slow the interview and that can be tiring.”
The events of the past six months have created some challenging dynamics for anyone working in employee relations. The killing by police officers of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests mean issues around race are highly charged. Razia Aziz, one of CMP’s associate investigators and a leadership consultant, believes many organisations are keen for external, independent support on many grievance issues related to race.
“In the current climate they’re keen to ensure any interview is conducted by someone who understands what is involved, and ideally someone who is a person of colour themselves,” she says. “Organisations who were paying lip service to anti-racism in the past will struggle in this climate, as people of colour are not letting those microaggressions go which they once thought of as ‘water off a duck’s back’ – they’re more likely to stand up and say this is not OK.”
Often, however, the discomfort organisations feel around discussing race issues means investigations into employee conflicts are not handled as well as they could be. Aziz adds: “In white-dominated organisations there can be a litany of poor practice from the moment of the claim to when we get asked to look at the case. Some managers are so afraid of an accusation of racism that they begin to act in irrational ways.” This means simple elements of good practice such as showing care toward complainants and updating complainants on where they are the process or regular communication are lost, risking making the issue worse.
The job of an external investigator is not to draw conclusions about whether someone is at fault, but to deliver evidence to the team that has requested their services; this evidence may then be used at a hearing or ultimately a tribunal. “In complex cases especially, there’s a sense that HR need to keep their hands clean so we’ll come in and do an objective investigation,” adds Graham. “We can’t make a decision, only recommend whether there is a case.”
There may be years of incidents that no-one picked up on… So you don’t just need a forensic eye but a steady hand” – Razia Aziz
Aziz says sometimes it can be challenging to pin down evidence in cases where it’s a case of one person’s word against another’s. “If you can’t triangulate the accusations or document the evidence, as is often the case when it comes to micro aggressions, you’ll hear the stories and have a feeling about them, but not be able to uphold the claim as it’s based on two conflicting versions of a conversation.”
In cases where an accusation of racism or race discrimination has been made, she adds, the complainant may have endured multiple historic incidents before gathering the courage to report, so this needs a delicate, trauma-informed, approach. “There may be years of incidents that no-one picked up on, and there is trauma associated with that. So you don’t just need a forensic eye but a steady hand.”
With the average wait time for an employment tribunal standing at nine months and organisations keen to dissipate conflict in its early stages, there has been an upturn in employers looking for neutral assessment, says Graham. “Neutral assessment is a hybrid between mediation and investigation, with HR wanting an external perspective on their liabilities and risks so they know how far to push back,” she adds.
One of the challenges is that most workforces are still getting used to these new ways of working brought on by the pandemic, intensifying small grievances or creating misunderstandings.
“The issues are often around communication – there’s an insecurity that comes with not knowing about things you’d automatically be involved with in the office,” she concludes. “People are worried about their jobs and those pleasantries and pauses we’d have over coffee have gone. It’s a hard world for HR to navigate.”