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HR Handled Right

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retaliation

One of the biggest frustrations I hear from my plaintiff attorney colleagues is this; jurors (and most people for that matter) have a very hard time understanding why anyone would put up with sexual harassment for weeks or months without doing anything about it.

In fact, ask 100 people on the street what they would do if some creep at work was coming on to them and 90 of them will say they would take some kind of action – tell the person to knock it off, go to HR or punch the guy (or gal) in the mouth. However, if you ask 100 people who have been in that situation what they actually did, you’ll get very different answers. The vast majority will tell you they either a) tried to ignore it; b) tried to stay away from the person; or c) found another way to get out of there (asked for a transfer or quit).

The Top Reason Employees Keep Their Mouths Shut

So why don’t intelligent, usually assertive employees speak up right when the offensive behavior starts? Hands down, the number one reason is this: “I’m afraid of what will happen.” Most employees realize that once the proverbial cat is out of the bag, there’s no way to put it back in – and they no longer have control over where it goes.

Just about anyone who’s thought about speaking up is terrified of what will happen if they do. Before s/he speaks up, s/he is just a regular employee. However, the minute the employee complains about offensive behavior, s/he becomes something far more sinister in many executive’s eyes. A complainer. A prospective litigant. A financial threat. And, all too often, the corporate fear surrounding this new role gets communicated in a myriad of ways.

When the Fear is Justified

Unfortunately, some employees can cite very good, company-specific reasons why they should keep their mouths shut. “I saw what happened to the last person who complained.” “My manager does the same thing and no one cares.” “HR can’t keep their mouths shut.”

It’s not just about how previous sexual harassment complaints have been handled; employees are all too aware of how employee complaints in general are dealt with. An employee who walks through a manager’s open door policy only to encounter a closed mind behind it learns pretty quickly the difference between policy and practice.

So What’s HR to Do?

Fear of retaliation is natural. I don’t think there’s any way to completely alleviate it. However, there are some things HR can do to minimize it, both before and after a complaint:

  • The most important step senior executives can take in this area is simply to communicate ethical expectations more clearly to employees. In fact, research suggests that improving clarity of expectations and disciplinary guidelines can reduce misconduct levels by more than 40%
  • Managers and supervisors should be trained on how to handle employee concerns and how to instill a corporate culture in which employees raise concerns without fear of reprisal. Employees not only expect their managers to know what to do when faced with an offensive behavior complaint, they expect them to do it with tact and sensitivity.
  • All employees should be put on notice (e.g., through training and the employee handbook) that, if they punish another employee for raising a concern, they will be subject to disciplinary action.

Any manager who thinks employee silence is golden should consider that the longer offensive behavior goes on, and the harder a company makes it for an employee to complain, the more likely it is that what’s golden will be the bank accounts of the attorneys involved.

Failing to provide critical information on a project. Spreading malicious rumors about coworkers.Destroying or stealing company equipment. Giving classified product information to a competitor.

These are just a few of the ways I’ve seen employees retaliate toward a company for perceived injustices. Plaintiffs don’t talk about what happened (I’m suing because I lost my job or because I was sexually harassed) nearly as much as they relate stories of interpersonal inconsideration and abuse (no one took my complaint seriously, I was marched out the door accompanied by a security guard).

When Employee Trust is Broken

In a work environment, revenge occurs in response to violations of trust, i.e., when expectations concerned another person’s behavior are not met, or when that person does not act consistent with one’s values. Violations of interpersonal justice, i.e.., how one expects to be treated , tend to evoke the strongest emotional responses, ranging from anger to moral outrage.

There is evidence, for example, that dismissals or terminations do not provoke violence in and of themselves. Rather, vengeful attitudes and behaviors result from the humiliation that occurs when terminations are conducted in an abusive and insensitive manner. In fact, numerous studies have found a relationship between unpopular decisions or outcomes (being terminated, for example) and retaliation only when there was anger over how the decision was carried out (was the person treated with respect?) and how it was made (was the decision-making process fair?).

Over 80% of the cases of workplace homicide involve employees who want to get even for what they perceived as their organizations’ unfair or unjust treatment of them. This is not to deny the role of individual differences and how they interact with different workplace situations. An employee who explodes may have a higher level of aggression to contribute to the outburst.

Workplace Retaliation: Don’t Break Your Psychological Contract

Retaliation at work doesn’t just occur in response to interpersonal abuse or humiliation. It can also result from the perceived violation of a psychological contract, i.e., the expectations that both employees and employees bring to the employment relationship that operate above and beyond the formal job responsibilities.

The currency of the psychological contract is not traditional compensation. Rather, it involves intangibles such as respect, freedom from harassment, recognition, continuous, accurate, and updated communications, and opportunities-to-grow and develop. An abusive manager, unrealistic sales projections given to a candidate during a hiring interview, a grievance that falls on deaf ears – these are all things that can lead to a sense of betrayal and injustice – and fantasies of revenge.

Improving Your Fairness Quotient

Human resources can play a vital role in organizational justice by:

Checking all policies and work rules to assure that there are procedures that create fairness. The important ones center on pay, diversity, and etc. Look at decisions made in implementing these rules and general working practices to assure that fairness and equality is explicit in all supervisory and management decisions about employees and their work.
Including leadership and interpersonal skills in your management development program, including 360-degree evaluations by subordinates, coworkers and management.

Making sure all candidates are provided with “realistic job previews” (i.e., providing an accurate description of the job, organization, and opportunities, including both positive and negative features).
Providing multiple avenues for employees to deal with grievances (and the feelings associated with them). For example, in addition to formal grievance procedures, engage your EAP to give informal talks during corporate transitions and offer outplacement services during layoffs.

The Bottom Line

“Revenge is a confession of pain,” says a Latin proverb. While there are many reasons employees engage in sabotaging or aggressive acts in the workplace, HR can play an active role in reducing the odds it would be in response to an unfair or abusive work environment.