Why lack of organisational knowledge about serious misconduct is not an excuse (and what you can do about it)

Grevis Beard
August 19, 2020

Where an investigation has found that serious misconduct allegations are proven, the post-investigation landscape can often be filled with comments of regret and angst about what could have been prevented. Amidst all the various post-investigation follow up, next steps, and even possible fall-out, we often hear the following statements:

“But we never knew”

“No-one ever told us”

“We had a vague inkling, but that was all”

“If we had known back then about these concerns, well of course we would have been more proactive”

“Is this just the tip of the iceberg? Well we don’t know.”

All of these observations are certainly understandable and likely to be quite accurate.

But I’d like you to take a step back and consider the consistent theme behind all these observations – and ask yourself if your organisation is guilty of this?

Onus on the individual to complain

There is a clear expectation, even almost an explicit onus, borne totally by individual employees who are subjected to discriminatory, sexually harassing or bullying treatment in the workplace that they come forward to complain.

In this paradigm, the organisation’s investigation process passively sits, waiting and willing to examine and make findings of fact on whatever allegations are fed into it, but it is an inherently reactive role.

What this paradigm fails to address is the psychology of individuals who are maltreated at work.

Employees who are stressed, disempowered and/or distrustful are not likely to also be proactive and confident enough to come forward to alert their employer to these concerns.

In actual fact, the statistics indicate that it is actually only about 1 in 5 employees (or an even lower ratio, depending on the circumstances) who do come forward to state allegations of concern for investigation.

Many examples from the #MeToo movement spring to mind here, as well as the dearth of reporting on issues of racism or homophobia in the workplace.

Is conducting an investigation really enough?

Ironically though, when the organisation is made aware of a specific, detailed matter of serious concern and then does swing into action to investigate (as it absolutely should), there can sometimes be the misplaced perception that all bases of risk are now fully covered.

That is, by abiding by one’s complaint handling or grievance policy, the ‘official messaging’ is all the necessary steps are being taken, there is ‘nothing else to see here’.

Yet, how do you really know that this is the case?

Certainly, an investigation can uncover what really happened on certain occasions, but it is inevitably confined to its scope.

If I might here use a mining analogy, the investigation of 17 allegations of bullying, for example, is like a deep dive down into the earth, which uncovers a particular sample of core matter to document and study, but it inevitably focusses on a pin-point across a geographic area.

So yes, while an investigation will enable you to come to grips with what really happened, one investigation will not alert you to what the lie of the land is in that “geographic (read workplace) area” more broadly. (My apologies to all geologists if my analogy is simplistic; I do hope that at least the HR readers are gleaning my message!).

It is the case that sometimes, during an investigation, “scope creep” will occur, whereby another employee, until then a minor witness, for example, might come forward and declare that they have also been subjected to terrible bullying. This would then lead you to then undertake “a deep dive” into their concerns, and these may (or may not) overlap significantly with the initial scope of the investigation.

My point is that investigations are reactive in nature, highly specific in their focus of inquiry, and can only ever happen once a complainant or issue makes itself known.

How to assess the breadth of the issue in your organisations

What I suggest is also needed, in addition to the “deep dive” tool of an investigation, in your “people risk” bag of tricks, is the broader “salt pan” tool of a workplace review. A salt pan is a thin but broad layer of salt which sits atop a flat large plain of level ground.

When you cast a blanket “salt pan” inquiry across the landscape of your workplace environment, albeit at a shallower depth, you will get a much better sense of the health and wellbeing of all who are in it: what is working well, and what is not.

A workplace review, undertaken proactively, will unearth issues, whatever they may be.

It is an ideal way to cut through the lack of intel you have, as the manager or HR, on ‘what’s really happening’ in your organisation.

By hearing about issues in real time, and short-circuiting employees’ reluctance to complain formally or initiate an investigation themselves, you are going out to ‘meet your employees in the field’ (last geological pun, I promise).

A golden opportunity to gather intel on what is really going on

In this way, you give your organisation the gift of information – absolute gold!

The intel from a review is invaluable. It tells you how your people are travelling, any issues of workplace morale, the degree of helpful and constructive communication (or not), management styles being exhibited, and what your “values in action” are really looking like.

In particular, by using a workplace review process, you can then get to solution-land much more quickly and without needing a workplace crisis, formal complaint or critical incident to trigger organisational action.

When issues of discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying are identified during a review, through confidential discussions with employees, there is the golden opportunity to then implement practical and strategic advice to resolve the workplace problems, there and then.

Perhaps you need to roll out refresher training, run some conflict coaching or facilitated discussions or implement some team-building activities or performance management. The solutions are bespoke, but will work if they are identified in response to the comprehensive intel you have collected.

Furthermore, by being intrinsically proactive, such consultation via a review will itself foster a culture of trust and consultation for the future.

Don’t sit back and wait for a complaint

So, what are you waiting for?

A regular workplace review is the best way to ensure you are proactively diagnosing how people are travelling in your workplace, and how they treat each other.

Don’t wait for there to be a stressful crisis or complaint that requires formal investigation. Conduct workplace review to proactively to monitor what is really going on, identify potential issues early and address them.

Your future self will thank you for being so proactive, your organisation’s reputational risk will diminish and your workplace culture will improve.

About Grevis Beard

Grevis Beard, Worklogic Director, is a highly experienced and widely respected author, dynamic speaker and trainer, and workplace investigator.

Grevis speaks knowledgeably and diplomatically on how to resolve workplace conflict, manage people risk and build a positive culture at work based on his extensive experience as a lawyer and workplace investigator. Grevis delivers a comprehensive range of in-house training programs designed to help organisations resolve workplace  complaints and create a positive culture at work. 

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