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Blog: Why “not rocking the boat” can get you into choppy water!

Recent turmoil within one of the UK political parties is a stark and timely reminder of what can happen when an individual’s behaviour causes upset to colleagues, and when complaints are not dealt with decisively.  The lessons to be learned apply as equally to employees in the workplace as to members of a political party or membership organisation.

Several female party members complained over a lengthy period of time of inappropriate behaviour by a senior official, including inappropriate physical contact.  The official involved, strenuously denied any wrongdoing. Criticism was also voiced about the perceived initial unofficial approach taken by the organisation leadership of “having a word in the ear”.

This unofficial approach is often taken by organisations in the face of sensitive allegations and reflects the natural reticence of most leaders to rock the boat by venturing into sensitive areas, for fear of stirring up greater trouble.  Ironically, this often results in a later crisis to be managed - organisations end up being managed by events, and often in the public glare, instead of dealing with issues early and remaining in control of events.

This approach may be exacerbated in cultures such as the UK where a legacy of maintaining a stiff upper lip and not complaining can still persist.  A survey of over 2000 workers and managers for The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution in 2013 found that conflict avoidance is rife, with 73% of respondents saying that they would never tell someone that they don’t trust them, primarily to ‘avoid conflict’ and maintain ‘good practice’. 

My approach is different, and based on my experience working in Industrial Relations in Ford Motor Company.  My role was an avowedly commercial one - to do everything to resolve any form of conflict in the workplace in order to keep production running. I dealt with all forms of workplace conflict, such as counselling employees with body odour, or mediating between employee groups complaining about inappropriate behaviour.  The lessons learned still apply today in any workplace:

  • Make sure the organisation’s policies make clear what behaviour is required of colleagues, covering areas such as respect for the individual
  • Provide extensive and regularly repeated training on the policies to employees – and track compliance
  • Provide more specialised training for all “people managers”, including skills practice, to ensure they have a basic level of confidence in dealing with sensitive issues
  • Provide mentor / HR support to people managers to ensure they follow good practice
  • Provide a mechanism for employees to report unacceptable behaviour.  This can include the ability to report anonymously, but such anonymous complaints may need to be given lower weighting in the evaluation of evidence
  • Proactively manage sensitive issues – look into all allegations of inappropriate behaviour and decide if a formal disciplinary investigation is required. The outcome may well be that no disciplinary action is required.  
  • Be sensitive – do not be over sensitive
  • Communicate the outcome to both the complainant and the complained about colleague.  Do not hold back from telling employees how you see the situation – you can counteract negative reactions by proving you have dealt with the situation sensitively and decisively.  Any waves created will be much smaller than those that hit you if the situation is not proactively managed and escalates out of control
  • Investigate the alleged breach of your policy, e.g. whether the behaviour complained of happened or not, and was it acceptable or not? Do not fall into the trap of having to meet the burden of proof required for a criminal conviction, or whether or not a criminal offence has been committed.