Leadership That Bolsters Employee Retention Requires Promptly Investigation Reports of Incivility

CATEGORY: Authored Articles
CLIENT TYPE: Nonprofit, Private Education, Public Education, Public Employers, Public Safety
DATE: May 04, 2022

In 2013, the Harvard Business Review posited that rudeness in the workplace was “rampant” and “on the rise.” Now, two years into the COVID-19 pandemic and in the midst of widespread political polarization, the workplace of 2013 seems downright quaint in comparison.

People have always disagreed about politics, but for the most part, a person’s politics were considered part of their personal life, and there was a clear line between personal life and work life. The COVID-19 pandemic blurred that line. Suddenly, millions of people were working from home, attending meetings in their bedrooms, and virtually meeting their colleague’s pets. It relaxed barriers, which had some benefits. Formerly intimidating supervisors became relatable when their young children interrupted meetings. Coworkers bonded over the loneliness of pandemic life. However, the blurring of lines between personal life and work life created other problems, such as the (incorrect) ideas that decorum in the workplace is outdated, and that any joke you tell your friends is now appropriate for your colleagues.

To put it mildly, COVID-19 and the mitigation measures used to combat it have become politically divisive. As employers have grappled with whether or how to implement mask and vaccine mandates, disputes over those policies have spread into the workplace and led to disagreements among supervisors and coworkers, refusals to wear masks, and various forms of COVID-19-related misconduct, such as submitting forged vaccine cards.

It is no surprise that this rise of incivility and COVID-related conflicts in the workplace has coincided with a rise in resignations. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that an unprecedented 4.5 million people quit their jobs in November 2021. Called the “Great Resignation,” some of the causes identified by social scientists and reporters are a tragic but perhaps unavoidable result in our pandemic world, such as lack of childcare and economic instability. However, many employees have resigned because they can no longer tolerate their “toxic” working environments – a reason that is both preventable and fixable by an employer.

Most employers are aware they have a legal responsibility to investigate allegations of harassment or discrimination. What they may not realize is that prompt, thorough, and fair investigations into all types of misconduct allegations increase employee morale and reduce turnover. Some companies, especially those focused on creating a “fun” culture, may shy away from investigating complaints out of concern that it will make employees uncomfortable. In one sense, they are not wrong — no one wants to be involved in an investigation. Subjects are apprehensive and witnesses want to stay out of it. However, that is a good reason to investigate as quickly as possible; it is not a good reason to forego the investigation altogether. The consequences of foregoing the investigation are too high.

Failing to investigate after receiving notice of potential misconduct sends the message that the company does not take complaints seriously. The employee who submitted the complaint may feel like they have no choice but to find another job, file a lawsuit, or do both. If they remain at the company, they likely will not feel listened to or valued, which can lead to low morale, poor performance, and increased absenteeism.

While all employee complaints should be taken seriously, the spectrum of the seriousness of employee allegations is extremely broad, ranging from minor to criminal. Minor allegations, like one employee making a rude comment, can often be investigated by a human resources professional on the day of the allegation. The HR professional can separately question the employees who were involved or may have heard the alleged comment, and draw a conclusion based on the collected testimony.

More serious allegations, like complaints of harassment or theft, will take longer to thoroughly investigate, as the investigator will need to collect and review all relevant evidence, whether in the form of testimony, emails/documents, or video footage.

Employers should consider retaining an outside investigator for claims that are sensitive in nature, as employees might feel more comfortable sharing personal information with someone they will not continually see in the hallways or lunchroom.

One company recently received an investigation report conducted by an outside female investigator, in which the investigator found that a male employee had aggressively grabbed another employee by the arm, pushed her forcefully resulting in her tripping and falling to the ground, all while calling her foul, racist names. An executive employee struggled with the investigation report findings because when the employee first reported this conduct to him, she did not mention falling and did not describe all the racist words. The executive did not understand how the employee could be vague with him but provide clear details to the investigator. The answer was that a subordinate employee, especially one who had experienced a traumatic event, likely did not feel comfortable providing distressing personal details to her boss. The investigator also had experience interviewing trauma victims and knew she needed to give the employee time and space to talk about the event, instead of pressing for details.

In addition to sensitive claims, employers should consider retaining an outside investigator for complicated claims, like time card fraud, which can require forensic analysis of time records.

Once an investigation has been conducted, whether in-house or by an outside investigator, the employer must decide whether discipline is necessary. Consistent discipline among employees is key, and is easier to administer when the company has clear rules of conduct and disciplinary policies in place. Given the blurring of lines between work and personal lives, the policies requiring respect between colleagues should cover any off-duty conduct. This does not mean that employers should become overly involved in their employees’ personal lives, only that behavior like bullying or harassment that occurs between colleagues at a restaurant or over social media will inevitably affect the workplace, and must be addressed.

While we cannot predict when the Great Resignation will end, a company in the habit of promptly investigating complaints and consistently enforcing its civility policies will reap the reward of increased employee morale and decreased turnover.

This article was originally published in the May 2022 edition of HR News.