HR Professional - July/August 2013 - (Page 50)

harassment “SOLUTIONS” TO HARASSMENT AND VIOLENCE ISSUES CAN MAKE THE PROBLEM WORSE BY JOHN CURTIS INFORMAL, ALTERNATIVE DISPUTE RESOLUTION MAY BE THE BETTER SOLUTION There’s an old saying, “The cure can be worse than the disease.” Sometimes, that’s what happens when employers implement their policies and procedures for harassment and violence in the workplace. For example, consider Ontario’s Bill 168, which requires employers in the province with more than five employees to devise workplace violence and harassment policies, develop programs to implement such policies and engage in assessments to measure the risk of workplace violence. Two years on, we find that in some cases, the resulting procedures may be too strict or “informal” options are ill-defined. As a result, employers and managers may feel they have little choice but to escalate situations into full-blown investigations. PROCEDURES MUST NOT LEAD TO ESCALATION Most policies start with trying to resolve the conflict “informally” through steps such as having the people involved sit down and try to find a resolution. If this does not work, a formal process of investigation is launched, in which an independent or external resource is called in to do interviews with the affected parties and anyone else involved. A report is prepared determining if harassment has occurred. As the number of steps increase, sometimes tensions in the workplace also escalate—both sides bring in supporters, involving more people until the whole workplace is polarized. The end of the process will be a report, but there are often no clear-cut findings of who is at fault or resolution steps that 50 can be taken. Frequently, the parties in the conflict must go right back to working together again, setting the stage for continued conflict. Often, the option of starting a formal investigation gets used when the person assigned to deal with conflict situations—frequently, someone on the HR team—is not in position to take effective action at the informal stage, or it has simply gone too far by the time HR gets involved. HR may also be seen as too aligned with management to act as an effective neutral in the informal resolution process, offering yet one more reason to move to a formal resolution process. Unfortunately, another root cause likely arises from a skills gap: few are trained to conduct an effective informal resolution process. As a result, managers or staff may not feel confident enough to take on this task, and may want to move the task off their desk by encouraging an investigation. BETTER CONFLICT-RESOLUTION TRAINING NEEDED It is often best to avoid the problem in the first place. The challenge can lie with the difficulty that many frontline management staff—who are frequently the “first responders”—have in dealing with workplace conflict. It may be due to a skills gap or simply a preference for conflict avoidance, based on the notion that conflict takes us away from our “real work.” Many employers have set up a training program in conflict resolution, but all too frequently this is limited to an annual presentation that does little more than describe the organization’s J U L Y / A U G U S T 2 0 1 3 H R PROF E S SION A L violence and harassment policy. The opportunity for training is there—and must not be wasted. Press for truly effective skills development around recognizing the causes and signs of conflict among employees, and developing ways to defuse conflict. Training should focus on learning better communication skills to foster understanding of those with whom employees may otherwise find themselves in conflict. Context-specific conflict resolution skills can be taught. If the problem is harassment from a client or customer across a service counter, for example, this is different from the same kind of harassment over the phone in a call-centre cubicle. Conflict between employees is even more complex and potentially poisonous for the workplace. Because an investigation may be disruptive, long and costly, employers must do what they can to keep conflict resolution at the informal level— in part by writing the organization’s policy so the investigation process is not launched before the informal process has had a chance to work. At the same time, it is important to make it clear that the informal part of the process is not an attempt to push the problem under the carpet and that the people managing this informal process have the necessary skills, and are perceived by the parties as sufficiently neutral to do so. ● John Curtis is a lawyer based in Kingston, ON, who has a mediation and ADR practice and has worked as an adjunct lecturer in ADR at Queen’s University Law School. Contact him at, 613.328.4015 or visit

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of HR Professional - July/August 2013

Editor’s Letter
Leadership Matters
Legal Words
Career Literacy
The Relocation Lifecycle
Mitigating Risk When Employees Work or Travel Abroad
Getting Beyond Employee Entitlement
The (HR) Data Mine
Raising the Roof
Talent Management
Training & Development
HR 101: The Nuts & Bolts of Complaint Investigations
Interview with an HR Hero: Joseph (Val) D’Sa
Off the Shelf
The Last Word

HR Professional - July/August 2013