Alternatives to workplace investigations

Jill Murphy
October 14, 2021

At Worklogic we are often asked for advice about how to respond to conflict or a complaint. I was recently asked by a community organisation for advice regarding a workplace situation. A staff member told his manager he felt bullied by a colleague, but he hadn’t made a formal complaint. This is often a crucial turning point for the manager – handled well, it could be an opportunity for the manager to support their employee to resolve the conflict. Or, if handled badly, things could get a lot worse. 

If someone discloses something and we have to decide what to do with that information, it can be very stressful. There is pressure to respond appropriately. It’s a bit like your teenager disclosing an ethical issue: on the inside your alarm bells are ringing as you desperately try to come up with the right response on the spot.

At work, when someone discloses potential bullying, what is the right response? Managers might worry if they offer support, this signals their agreement that there is bullying. Of course, that is not the case. But our response is important. The manager who closes down the conversation by stating that they have seen no evidence of the alleged behaviour does not do anyone any favours. It may send a strong signal to the staff member that the manager does not care and even condones the behaviour. However, the manager who sees the only option as an investigation may be cutting off options also.

Sometimes an investigation is important and necessary. It can uncover the worst types of behaviour in the workplace. And lead to action being taken. It sends a strong message to bullies, their victims and all staff that inappropriate conduct is not condoned and that complaints are taken seriously and responded to.

However, an investigation into inappropriate behaviours can be time consuming, expensive and on its own, it may cause workplace relationships and team dynamics to worsen. It can also be extremely stressful for the complainant, the respondent and any witnesses that are interviewed as part of an investigation.

The more open-ended a manager’s response, the better. As a first step, it’s important to find out what the behaviours are, and explore options for resolving the issues.  This might start with the staff member having a conversation with the other person, to explain how their behaviour is impacting and to request a change in the behaviour.  If they are not comfortable to do this, a facilitated conversation or mediation can be effective in helping both parties reach a resolution and agree on future conduct. In other cases, a coach or mentor for one or both parties would be appropriate. If the behaviour is an indication of broader cultural or team issues, it might be worthwhile for the whole team to receive some training in conflict resolution or understanding bullying. A workplace review, whereby someone can meet with team members to uncover issues, can be a helpful exercise.

While no one wants to hear that a staff member is having difficulty with another staff member (or is potentially being bullied), it can also be an opportunity for a manager to have a closer look at the team. It can be an opportunity for the team to develop better conflict resolution skills, and to develop those attributes so important to a healthy organisation, such as respect and trust.

An open-ended response to an issue and exploring options is almost always the best path. We don’t need to have all the answers. Even if we are a manager. Or for that matter, a parent. These days, I know better than to try and solve my children’s problems on the spot. I just need to listen and respond with calmness and curiosity.

If you would like advice on strategies to improve the way your organisation manages complaints, please contact Worklogic for an obligation free, confidential conversation.  

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Integrity Line is an independent whistleblower service for complaints about inappropriate conduct at work, provided by Worklogic. Click here to visit the Integrity Line website.