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HR Handled Right

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Your most gregarious employee suddenly becomes withdrawn and aloof. Your previously decisive teamleader can’t seem to make the simplest decision. Your easygoing coworker starts arguing with coworkers and takes offense at the drop of a hat. Your most dependable employee shows up late, calls in sick, and doesn’t finish projects. These are some of the symptoms of depression in the workplace.

So what’s a manager to do? On one hand, production must continue, yet the compassionate manager should also be concerned for the well-being of the employee. Performance issues have to be dealt with and yet the employee’s previously stellar record – or obvious emotional pain – tempts the manager to just pick up the slack until the employee gets back on his or her feet.

The scenario of the depressed employee often presents a dilemma for his/her manager. So why does the manager have to deal with it? The employee is a grown-up; why doesn’t s/he come to the manager first?

Note to Manager: Don’t Wait for Me to Come to You

The odds are, s/he won’t. Most depressed employees would rather eat dirt than admit to their managers that they’re depressed. Part of this is because of the shame many depression sufferers feel about what they feel is their “weakness.” However, a large part of their silence is due to the stigma many people continue to experience around mental illness.

For example, in an online survey of 1,129 workers conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, a high percentage believed that seeking help for particular psychological problems – such as drug addiction (76%), alcoholism (73%) and depression (62%) – would not be as accepted. As I mentioned in another article I wrote, for every story I’ve heard about a supportive manager or caring HR professional, I’ve heard ten from employees who felt their disclosure led to being teased, overly scrutinized, or discriminated against.

The First Step: Recognizing how Depression Impacts Work

Most managers have some employees they’d like to clone and some they’d like to clobber. And, certainly, a slacker can become depressed just as a superstar can. What’s noticeable about depression, though, is the change in the employee. The good employee’s performance declines while the marginal employee gets worse.
Here’s what that change in performance may look like:

  • Unfinished projects
  • Forgetfulness
  • Increased errors
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Indecisiveness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in work or socializing with colleagues
  • Seems tired/fatigued

What to Say to a Depressed Employee

Managers are not there to talk about medical problems, counsel, or diagnose. They are there to talk about work performance and behavior. They are also there to care about their employees’ wellbeing. When talking to a potentially depressed employee, here are some ways to do both:

  1. 1. Start with your concern for the employee. “Sandy, I’m concerned about you.”
    2. Focus your comments on observable behaviors. “You’ve been late to work four times in the past two weeks and your reports have had twice as many errors.”
    3. Acknowledge the change. “This isn’t like you. You’re normally the first in to work and the last person in the department to make mistakes.”
    4. Offer them an olive branch. “I don’t know if things in your personal life are affecting you, but if they are we have a confidential employee assistance plan that might be able to help.”
    5. Be prepared to set limits. For instance, if the employee mentions marital discord, problems with a child, financial problems, and so forth, the manager should be empathic but should limit the conversation.
    6. Refer to an E.A.P. Offer the employee the telephone number for the employee assistance program or suggest that it would serve the employee well to consider outside professional counseling through health care benefits, a community clinic, an employee assistance plan, or even through pastoral counseling.
    7. Reinforce your concern. ” I’m very invested in helping you get back on track.”
    8. Reinforce the need to improve performance. “However, whether or not you contact this service, you will still be expected to meet your performance goals.”

The Bottom Line

Clinical depression has been described as a black dog, a suffocating blanket, and an endless, dark hole. Untreated, it can sap the energy and motivation out of the most productive employee. With the right help, it can be managed, overcome, or worked around. In fact, for some people, coping with depression has given them some gifts that might now have otherwise received – such as a greater perspective and empathy for others. At least, that’s what one lifelong depression sufferer you may know said – Abraham Lincoln.


Most internal investigation courses do a great job talking about the law and how it applies to offensive behavior complaints, but fail to educate their students on the psychology involved. Here are a few ways in which an investigator can follow the letter of the law and still lose:

Treat Your Employee as a Plaintiff

You may have the most laid-back company on earth, but as soon as an employee complains of sexual harassment, it’s a whole new ball game. Employment attorneys, whose job it is to CYA, immediately jump into litigation mode and begin to anticipate every possible legal curve ball that your employee could throw at them. This creates anxiety in HR professionals, which changes how they interact with the complainant.

The employee, who is already paranoid about what will happen now that she’s opened her mouth, has her worst fears confirmed. She feels like a pariah, she is left in the dark about what’s happening, and she is convinced that the retaliation she feared would happen has begun.

Ignoring the perception of bias

It doesn’t matter if you have the calm of the Budha or the rational mind of Socrates, if the parties involved think you are biased, then, for all intent and purposes, you are. Never think your stellar investigation will persuade them otherwise. There are ways to assess this at the beginning of the investigation; make sure you do. Otherwise, you run the risk of conducting an internal investigation, having a dissatisfied party, and then calling me to do another one.

Talking Like a Lawyer

“You are being terminated for sexual harassment.” Really? Last time I checked, sexual harassment is a legal finding that can only be determined in a court of law. The accused may be guilty of a violation of company policy or misconduct, but don’t call it sexual harassment. Only a judge or jury can decide this.

Focusing on the Wrong Issue

Yes, it is unbelievably frustrating when you’ve done everything in your power to encourage your employees to speak up – conducted highly interactive harassment prevention training, routinely asked your employees how things are going, queried about any interpersonal problems as part of the performance review – and your employee is silent as death. Silent, that is, until his performance is under the gun or you’re speaking to her about her tendency to under-dress.

However, now is not the time to express that frustration. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been conducting an independent investigation and the complainant kept telling me how “all the HR person focused on was why I didn’t say anything before now.” Yes, the fact is relevant – it is pertinent when assessing the complainant’s credibility, it is relevant to possible motives, etc. However, don’t spend time interrogating your complainant about why she kept her mouth shut until now; it will come back to haunt you.

The Bottom Line

Conducting a good offensive behavior investigation isn’t just about following the law; it’s about understanding the psychology behind it.

Workers claiming job discrimination based on disability, religion or national origin surged to new highs last year, with disability discrimination climbing for the sixth straight year. The increase has skyrocketed since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act in 2008 that made it easier for people with epilepsy, diabetes and other treatable conditions to claim they are disabled; in fact, since 2005, disability discrimination claims have almost doubled.

Lead Supervisors: First Responders to Disability Claims

While HR continues to bear the brunt of understanding and implementing the new changes and nuances, don’t underestimate the role front line supervisors have in communicating with disabled employees. The attitude and responsiveness of supervisors often determine, more than physical barriers, whether an employee with a disability feels that s/he is being treated fairly. In fact, the words of front line supervisors – both verbal and in careless e-mail – are the single biggest source of evidence that can turn a nuisance claim into a “bet the company” lawsuit.

Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act: What Supervisors Need to Know

As with all areas of employment law, you should reinforce to your supervisors that they consult with your HR department or legal counsel for additional information and specifics on company procedure. Here are some additional ADAAA points to consider:

* When it comes to disability requests, the revised ADA, i.e., the ADAAA, shifts the emphasis from investigating (why or how to accommodate) to what needs to be done.

* When talking to an employee with a disability, supervisors shouldn’t ask questions about the condition itself. Instead, they should focus on job-related questions about the effect of the condition on the employee’s ability to do the job.

* The ADAAA requires that accommodation be approached with an open mind (i.e., not begin by questioning the existence of the disability). As before, employers must honor the disabled employee’s medical confidentiality and may not explain to other employees why any resulting change is being made.

* The supervisor may not be in a position to determine the legitimacy of a request for accommodation without medical input. Thus, employers can require employees to provide documentation from an employee’s health care provider about the disability and the need for accommodation. Supervisors should turn to their human resource professionals as they engage in this process with the employee.

* Employees asking for an accommodation need not use any particular words and are encouraged to talk directly with their supervisor. Supervisors need to be able to recognize when an accommodation is being requested. Examples of accommodation requests can include references to doctor’s appointments, medical treatment, or specific problems (I’m having difficulty hearing other people on the phone).

For every minute spent preparing, an hour is earned. This is especially true for HR professionals, who not only bear the direct responsibility, but also ensure that those in the line of fire have the backup they need.

There’s an office gossip in every company. The only employee who thinks gardening means tending the office grapevine. The person who knows so much you’d swear s/he is bugging your office, and filling in the blanks with National Inquirer headlines.

Unquestionably, office gossip can be a thorn in management’s side. Chronic gossip mongers can undermine morale, weaken authority, and create unnecessary stress and tension. If an employee is spreading malicious or consistently false rumors, his or her behavior needs to be dealt with just like any other company problem. However, don’t think sitting an employee down and reading him or her the “riot act” will put an end to the office grapevine.

Let’s face it, people are going to talk. According to Video Arts, seventy-five percent of employees first hear about critical job-related matters through the office grapevine. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, silence isn’t always golden when it comes to office rumors. The grapevine can be a valuable way to learn about your employee. Even when the content is false, as our lead-in quote points out, they often reflect an employee’s fears and concerns. Rather than putting your energy into squelching office rumors, your time might be better spent steering the flow of information in your favor. Here are four strategies that will help:

1. Listen to what is said without losing your temper. Don’t go on a witch-hunt for the source of the information; instead, correct false rumors as quickly as possible.

2. Provide as much accurate information into the office as is feasible. Use informal (spontaneous meetings, lunches) as well as formal (memos, bulletin boards) means of communication, but communicate critical information in person if at all possible.

3. Be accessible. Let employees know they have a place to go with concerns and questions, so they won’t have to turn to the company grapevine for information.

4. If you have a chronic gossiper, you need to confront him or her directly; let him or her know the rumors have to stop or s/he will be disciplined. Give the employee positive, constructive alternatives to choose instead of the gossip. After all, people who notice negatives can often help others identify what needs fixing so that they or their operations can be stronger. Show him/her a reasonable, professional method for approaching the person who has the “observed weakness.”

British author Paul Scott said, “Ah well, the truth is always one thing, but it’s the other thing, the gossip, that counts. It shows where people’s heart lies.” If gossip is widespread and rampant, chances are your employees either don’t know enough about what’s going on — or they’re afraid to speak up about it. So, while you don’t have control over what people say, you have more control than you think over how tempted they are to say it.


Contrary to popular belief, dress code lawsuits based on sex discrimination generally fail. This is because courts, recognizing that employees represent their company’s public image, have a lot of leeway in what they can require their employees to wear. And, yes, this is true even when they have different requirements for men and women.

A couple of recent lawsuits, however, have muddied the waters somewhat. Debrahlee Lorenzana, for instance, made the headlines in 2010 when she accused Citigroup of firing her because her curvaceous figure was “too distracting” for her male colleagues. Ms. Lorenzana alleged that her male employers essentially gave her a list of forbidden clothes – including pencil skirts, turtle necks, and spiked heels – that were allowed for other female employees. When she pointed this out, she was told these employees didn’t have the same delectable figure that she did. When she refused to revamp her wardrobe, she was fired.

Too Hot to Sell Sexy Lingerie?

Then came Lauren Odes, who, in May of this year, alleged that she was asked to tape down her breasts, wear baggy t-shirts, and/or wear a bathrobe to keep her male store owners from unnecessarily stimulating the male lingerie store owners. This case has an interesting twist because, not only is gender an issue here, but the religion of the store owners allegedly played a part in their requests – and ultimate termination of Ms. Odes.

The Quagmire of “Suggestive” Clothes

So what is the real issue here? With regard to Citigroup, there could be some legitimate question as to whether they had a discriminatory dress code if they had rules for “sexy” attire for women but not for men; this does not appear to be the case. Similarly, if either Ms. Odes or Ms. Lorenzana reported unwanted sexual conduct directed towards them by male coworkers (again, which does not appear to be the case), then either could have potential grounds for sexual harassment.

One reason both of these situations escalated was the way employers communicated to their employees about their dress code policy and their request for a wardrobe update. In my dress code training, I find that managers often use words like “provocative” or “suggestive” when talking to an under-dressed employee.

Provoking whom? Suggesting what? These words are not only offensive to the person, they can also be misinterpreted as an expression of sexual interest. Most of us are highly sensitive to any comments about our physical appearance; before your reissue your dress code as a summer reminder, make sure your managers know what to say when it’s violated.

In part 1 on suicide in the workplace, we talked about the employee who is either threatening suicide or thinking about. Now let’s take a look at what to do when the worst case scenario actually happens.

Our Employee Tried It

Scenario 3: You come in to work Monday morning to find a telephone message on your desk from the spouse of one of your employees. When you call her, she tells you that her husband, your employee, has been hospitalized over the weekend following a suicide attempt. You are stunned; not only did you have no idea this employee was in trouble, he was the last person you would ever think would attempt to take his life.

First, let’s take a look at this from a psychological perspective. If it becomes known that an employee has attempted suicide (and word almost always gets around, although, hopefully, not from you), coworkers may feel awkward or embarrassed because they don’t know what to say or how to act. However, avoiding the person or refusing to acknowledge the incident only makes matters worse. The returning employee also doesn’t want:

  • for someone to change to subject if s/he brings it up
  • to be given a pep talk
  • to be given a lecture, sermon, or put on a guilt trip
  • to be patronized, criticized or treated with kid gloves

If other employees ask you how to respond, encourage them to cue off the returning employee. If the employee brings up what happened, coworkers can offer valuable reassurance, respect and support. If the employee doesn’t, encourage coworkers to respect his/her privacy and not succumb to natural curiosity (why did you try it? how did you feel when you woke up? didn’t you think about your family?)

From an administrative perspective, of course, you need to make sure the employee is ready to return to work and able to complete the essential functions of the job. Work closely with the doctor’s office and spouse by writing the doctor, attach a job description (with ADA requirements needed to do the job), and let them know the environment and EVERYTHING and ANYTHING else that this employee may be exposed to and ask him if he/she is capable of performing the essential functions of the position.

If this person requires additional supervision or assignment of someone else to work along side this individual just to protect himself and other employees, this might be considered a hardship on the business as far as ADA is concerned. Working closely with the physician will help you decide on options like STD or LTD, further accomodation like light duty or putting in another area or position, personal leave until the person gets better.

All in all the study indicates that twice as many suicides among men can be ascribed to the “contagious effect” of the workplace than to that of the family.

Grieving at the Office

Scenario 4: This afternoon you will be attending the funeral of one of your outstanding employees, who, after attending a morning of training last week (during which everyone said he acted normal), went home during lunch and apparently took his own life. He joked with co-workers, asked questions, and took notes, leaving his books open and ready for the afternoon session. This employee was very popular with his coworkers and manager and everyone is virtually paralyzed by his death. In addition, there has been a lot of second guessing about what warning signs people may have missed or overlooked.

People develop close relationships in the workplace and the death of colleague can be as devastating as the death of a family member. In fact, a recent study found that, just as a suicide in the family increases the risk of another in the same family, men’s suicide risk increases if they have had one or more work mates who had killed themselves in the last year. In fact, this study indicates that twice as many suicides among men can be ascribed to the “contagious effect” of the workplace than to that of the family. That reason alone justifies encouraging employees to access your EAP if they would like to.

Second, while it is always good to educate your workers about the warning signs of suicide and depression, discourage employees from trying to second guess for what they might have missed. There are no easy answers. There are no simple answers. There are no single answers. Simply, there are no answers.

Part of the healing process is following the same rituals you would after any other death. Encourage employees to do whatever they would normally do to acknowledge a death. You should do the same. For example, if you would tell Mary on Sunday that you sure do miss John who died of cancer, you should tell her the same thing on Sunday if he died in this manner. Finally, no matter how tempted, don’t ask surviving family members to hypothesize about what happened. They’ll have a lifetime to ask themselves those questions without answers and they sure don’t need to try to answer them for anyone else.

The Bottom Line

Jeannette Walls once said, “When people kill themselves, they think they’re ending the pain, but all they’re doing is passing it on to those they leave behind.” HR professionals can’t prevent surviving work colleagues from grieving, but we can help them heal.

One of my first therapy clients killed herself. The week before, she’d been sitting in my office wearing red lipstick and orange bauble earrings, talking excitedly about flying out of state to see her newborn grand baby for the first time. I spent weeks listening to the tape of our therapy session and trying to figure out what I’d missed. I still don’t know. What I do know is that, more than twenty years later, it still hurts to think about it.

On-the-Job Hazards

We psychologists know the specter of suicide is ever-present in our profession. I don’t think the same can be said for sales managers or accountants or oil refinery workers. And yet, in 2010, 270 workplaces came face to face with a coworker, manager or subordinate who’d ended his or her life while at work.

This doesn’t mean it was because of work; workplace suicides may or may not have been motivated by work-related issues. On-the-job suicides are defined by the location of the decedent when he or she was killed. If the fatal injury took place at the decedent’s place of employment, then it is considered a workplace suicide. And, regardless of what “caused” the suicide, the impact on the workplace can be traumatic. In this article, we’ll take a look at how to handle threats of suicide; in part 2, we’ll look at what to do after an attempt.

If I’m Fired, I’ll Kill Myself

Consider this scenario: You have an employee who, after months of counseling and coaching, was finally fired for tardiness and a poor work performance. When word gets back to his department, several of his former coworkers come to you and say that this employee told them that he would kill himself if he were terminated. By the time you find this out, the employee has packed up his stuff and left the building. Now what?

Was this threat manipulative? Definitely. Emotional blackmail? Probably. Do you have any legal obligation to intervene further? I’m not an attorney but my bet would be – probably not. Last question; how would you feel if he followed through?

As an HR professional, there are times when it is tough to balance the need to protect yourself legally while acting with compassion. In other words, there’s what you have to do and there’s what you should do. Here are some options:

1. See if one of your current employees (former co-worker of his) would check in with him (by telephone; not by visit) to see how things are going. If, during the conversation, it seems as if he’s still “at risk,”contact your local crisis line people, EAP or social services staff to see what assistance they might be able to provide him. If the former employee seems truly disturbed and continues to threaten suicide, consider calling the police and report the situation.

2. If you offer an EAP for employees, make it available to him. While you might not normally do this for most terminated employees, you have nothing to lose, and a lot to gain, in at least making the offer.

3. Heighten security in your own facility. Some suicidal employees decide to take others with them into the afterlife; don’t give him a chance to do that at your office.

I’ve Been Thinking About It

Scenario #2: You have an employee on one of your night shifts who has told you that she is currently seeing a therapist for depression. Recently, she told her shift supervisor that she is suicidal and is afraid to be by herself or around any sharp objects. She has also been moody and unpredictable with her coworkers and will cry uncontrollably for no reason. Now you find out her supervisor has been spending long periods of time talking to her one on one to calm her down when this happens. This is very disruptive, but you’re not sure what to do.

First of all, if she has stated she is suicidal, respect those statements and take them seriously. Meet with her, tell her what you’ve been told (that it’s come to your attention that she has mentioned thoughts of suicide to her supervisor) and ask her about it directly and give her time to explain.

If she admits that she is suicidal (or even that she’s seriously depressed), get her commitment to either call her therapist or your EAP – and have her do so before she leaves your office (giving her some privacy). If she refuses and you believe she’s at risk, let her know you will need to contact 911 or the police to insure her safety. Also, compassionately but firmly let her know that she can’t be at work until she gets her issues resolved because it is clear that she is currently unable to do the essential functions of her position.

In addition, contact your legal to deal about any return-to-work concerns, privacy worries, or liability issues (aware she was suicidal and not doing anything about it).

The Bottom Line

As HR professionals, a suicidal employee can stir up all kinds of feelings – fear, anger, concern. It’s easy to act on these feelings, by either distancing ourselves from the source (let’s fire him for making threats), judging (how manipulative! If he really wanted to do it, he wouldn’t have said anything) or playing savior (I can save him if I listen enough, watch him carefully, etc.) However, what’s best for the distressed employee is also best for us – get him/her to the help s/he needs while making sure the office is safe for everyone.

Interviewing an employee who has been accused of sexual harassment is not for the faint of heart. As we saw in Part 1, it is natural for the accused to feel defensive, angry and victimized – whether or not s/he is innocent or guilty. However, there are some specific strategies you can use that will help you get at the truth without antagonizing the accused.

Hyper Smash

The Beginning of the Interview

As an outside investigator, I’ve yet to interview an accused employee who doesn’t already have some clue of the allegations against him /her. This is because HR has often interviewed the employee already either 1) as part of the initial investigation and before the decision was made to outsource it; or 2) to let the accused know about the investigation and that I will be contacting him/her.

If you’re an internal investigator, though, you will be tasked with letting the person know about the complaint. At the outset of the interview, explain the company’s policy against sexual harassment and give the accused a general overview of the issue that needs to be investigated.

I’m often asked what to do if the accused refuses to cooperate. The first step is to try to get the accused to talk about why s/he is reluctant to participate in the process and try to alleviate these fears/concerns. (If one of the fears is that HR can’t be neutral, consider hiring an outside investigator). If the employee still refuses to cooperate, explain that you still have an obligation to investigate the issue and if he/she does not provide you with relevant information, you will have to rely on other information — from others interviewed — and that the employee’s willingness to cooperate will be noted as a factor in the investigation.

The Meat of the Interview

Effective questioning starts before the interview begins. You should have already interviewed the complainant; before you meet with the accused, ask yourself what you need to know from this employee, how to present the question so as to gain accurate information, and develop a possible list of questions to use if the interview bogs down. In addition:

  • Start the investigation with broad questions and proceed to more narrow questioning as the interview moves forward.
  • Don’t begin with hostile or tough questions; they can cause the person to become defensive.
  • Save unfriendly or embarrassing questions (such as specific allegations of sometimes obscene behavior) until towards end of the interview.
  • Ask questions that elicit relevant information and the relating of events chronologically. You may even suggest that the employee present his/her reactions chronologically if that approach is helpful to them.
  • Do not put words into the employees mouth by asking questions in such a way that they suggest answers.
  • Review your understanding of the information you are being told.
  • After obtaining as much information as possible, review your notes regarding the specific allegation and ask about each of those not previously addressed by the employee.
  • If the accused denies the allegations or claims that some or all of the accused’s behavior was mutual or otherwise welcomed by the complainant, ask for any supporting evidence or witnesses that the accused can identify. If the complaint is denied, explore with the accused whether the complainant would have any motive to fabricate a complaint.

Ending the Interview

In a sexual harassment investigation, confidentiality is a concern for everyone. At the close of each interview, remind the accused that s/he must not discuss the complaint with anyone s/he works with. Tell him or her to come to you with any additional questions, concerns, or additional information.

Try to create a sense of predictability as much as possible. For example, outline when you anticipate completing the investigation, what will happen when it’s over (for example, that a report will be submitted to_____, that they will be allowed to read and respond to that report, etc.) Lastly, remind the accused that, in this sensitive situation, even the most innocuous comment can be misconstrued so it is crucial that the alleged harasser not retaliate or treat the complaining employee in any negative way.

The Bottom Line

Sexual harassment investigations are pleasant for no one, but – done right – they can lead to a successful resolution and better work environment.

Few things are as humiliating as being asked to discuss your sex life with someone you work with, or, potentially worse, a complete stranger. Whether or not you’ve done something that warrants it.

In fact, given the situation, it’s almost impossible for a person accused of sexual harassment not to become defensive. This can lead an investigator to conclude either a) the person must be guilty (why else would he be reacting this way?), or b) the person must be innocent (he must have been wrongly accused to be so upset).

In reality, the emotional reaction of the accused has little to do with whether or not the person actually did what s/he is accused of. In fact, whether or not the accusations are true, the person who’s been accused of sexual harassment often feels just as victimized as the person who’s made the complaint.

Common Mistakes When Interviewing the Accused

This can create problems for the investigator. Interviewing a person who’s been accused of sexual harassment can be as uncomfortable for the novice investigator as for the accused. As a result, it’s easy for him/her to fall into some common traps, such as:

  • using subterfuge in an attempt to get at “the truth.” This ploy usually involves a) trying to ambush the respondent, or b) failing to provide sufficient details to allow the accused to address the allegations against him or her. Employers sometimes try to take the respondent by surprise to see how he or she reacts to the complaint, thinking this will prevent the accused from having time to make up a story. However, the principle of procedural fairness dictates that the respondent should be advised that a complaint has been made and also advised that he or she will be given an opportunity to respond. Another error is to arbitrarily refuse to provide the identity of the complainant or details of the allegation in a sincere but misguided attempt to protect the complainants. However, failing to provide this essential information (without a very good reason, which will be discussed in a later article) makes it very difficult for respondents to adequately defend themselves.
  • acting as if the accused is guilty. Employers often suspend respondents during a harassment investigation. Doing so without pay, though, is tantamount to disciplining the accused before a determination has been made. In fact, using the word “suspension” – even with pay – is suspect. When needed, it is much more preferable to e to simply advise respondents (and complainants, where appropriate) that they will be placed on a leave of absence with pay until the investigation is complete.
  • subtly colluding with the accused. This trap is the other side of the investigative coin – showing bias in favor of the accused. This involves subtly implying that the complainant is either over-reacting or lying; this is especially likely when the complainant has a history of complaining or a poor work history. This can also happen when the accused is a high level executive or someone who is seen as too valuable to lose.

The Bottom Line

In the next article we’ll take a look at how to effectively interview the accused. For now, though, keep in mind that there are psychological traps, or biases, than can easily creep into interactions with the respondent. Fortunately, a bias recognized is the first step in a bias sterilized.

At first glance, having an open door policy is a no-brainer. Give employees easy access to a variety of listeners, handle grievances informally, and everyone will be happy. Unfortunately, organizational research, not to mention my own consulting experience, tells a different story. In fact, in some situations, open-door policies may cause what they are designed to prevent – perceptions of injustice and employee frustration.

Open Door Policies

Open-door policies typically draw on supervisory procedures whereby employees complain first to their immediate supervisors, they proceed up one or two hierarchical steps to resolve complaints. Unlike more formal grievance procedures, open door policies allow employees to go above their immediate supervisor and take as many steps as are necessary (in some cases up to CEOs) to resolve complaints. In addition, open door policies allow for more impromptu discussions and flexible time limits.

The Booby Trap Behind the Door

Unfortunately, in reality, open door policies often fail. In fact, one out of three employees who use them report feeling cynical or disillusioned about their organizations’ open-door policies, frequently observing that they were or are available “in theory but not in practice.”

More often than not, the employee is subjected to the deaf-ear syndrome, i.e., the lack of inaction that results when an employee steps through a manager’s door to complain. Preliminary research suggests that this deaf-ear syndrome results in substantial costs from litigation, decreased productivity, increased turnover and injustice perceptions.

Even when managers listen, they don’t always respond appropriately. Moreover, interpersonal skills play a critical role in informal systems because poorly specified protocols and low standardization allow individual idiosyncrasies in voice managers’ complaint– handling styles.For example, managers who deny or minimize an employee’s complaint, who retaliates against an employee who speaks out, or who protects favored employees regardless of the circumstances are turning what could be a positive chance to resolve a problem into something bigger.

When You Open the Door, You Raise the Bar

The mere presence of an open door policy increases employee expectations of remedial action. And, when it comes to handling sensitive issues, employees have high expectations. This is especially true when it comes to their managers’ communication skills.

Employees consistently say that safety (protection from retribution) and credibility (objectivity, neutrality) are the most important determinants of whether or not they are satisfied with how a complaint is handled. In fact, I think most employees would much rather deal with a complex grievance procedure, or one that took longer to get resolved, than deal with a simple systems that, despite quicker responses, may seem biased or unsafe.

In addition, during open-door exchanges, they want to feel heard, understood, and valued. They also want their managers to demonstrate their understanding through remedial action that could include ongoing monitoring of the situation, coaching through a problematic situation, or at least, providing an account to justify why remedial action would not be taken.

In fact, most employees believe effectively handled complaint procedures are part of their psychological contract with organizations. When these implicit promises to take complaints seriously are broken, bad feelings develop.

The Bottom Line

Many managers view complaints as personal affronts and, as a result, become defensive or deny the complaint’s legitimacy. Employers are rolling the dice when they place grievance procedures on managers who haven’t been trained in how to demonstrate empathy, actively listen, probe intelligently, and handle their own and others’ emotions effectively.

Employers need to take a realistic look at their open door policy and decide if they’re willing to invest in the time and effort to teach their managers how to do it right, or if they need to revert back to a more formal, restricted complaint procedure. The promise of improved morale and reduced litigation from informal voice systems will dissolve if these systems are, in practice, poorly designed or mismanaged. In other words, invest in your open door policy or get rid of it.