I am currently handling a nasty investigation into bullying and harassment at my company. What do I do after the investigation if all parties remain with the company? The relationship has broken down — do we just have to move the employees? I think it’s too late for mediation.
If you’ve done a proper investigation and determined that the problem wasn’t big enough to fire the alleged perpetrator, it can be a bit difficult. There are lots of situations where this can happen. For instance, Jane complains that John is sexually harassing her, but what happened is he merely told one off-color joke. While no one should tell off-color jokes at the office, one joke is not severe or pervasive enough to result in a termination.
Perhaps it’s a bullying case that doesn’t violate the law but does violate company policy. When you have someone gossiping about coworkers, it doesn’t violate the law, but it sure makes for an unpleasant environment.
At the end of all of this, you have two (or more) people who don’t like each other. In the first situation, Jane is likely to think that John did sexually harass her and that you were wrong not to fire him. John, on the other hand, thinks that Jane is too sensitive and he feels like he was harassed by her accusations. Talk about awkward. Here’s how to handle it — although to be fair, sometimes the situation just won’t be salvageable.
Make the findings clear. Don’t make the mistake that many managers make of trying to forget about it and hoping the problem goes away. You investigated, and you found out there was a problem of some sort — now you need to fix it. Have formal sit-down meetings with both the accuser and the accused, separately. Explain the conclusion you came to and how the solution will be implemented. Explain that you expect everyone to act like adults from now on and that any retaliation (on either side) will not be tolerated.
You should allow questions, but keep it focused. When it devolves into whining, cut it off. Make it clear that both parties are free to come to you with concerns, but that you expect proper behavior.
Offer a transfer, but only if that’s practical. One of the key rules is that reporting bad behavior should never result in punishment. Now, if your investigation showed that the accuser made up the whole thing in order to advance her own agenda, you can certainly punish that person. But if John really did tell off-color jokes and you’d like to transfer one of them to diffuse the situation, you need to keep the following things in mind.
Is the new position a lateral move, a promotion or a demotion? The answer may not be so obvious. If you run a grocery store, moving someone from store A to store B may seem like a straight lateral move. But if store A is twice the size, then a move to store B may seem like a demotion.
Are you offering the transfer or insisting on it? You can say, “Jane, I know it’s uncomfortable for you to work with John. Would you like to transfer?” That is very different from, “Jane, I know it’s uncomfortable for you to work with John, so we’re transferring you.”
You can transfer either party, but if it looks anything at all like a punishment, it should be the guilty party.
If the transfer is to a new physical location and not just another job, remember to consider commute times. Employees may not perceive the jobs as equal if their commute doubles.
Keep a close eye on the situation. If everyone stays together, it’s the manager’s job (and HR’s job) to keep watch. Any relapse into bad behavior should be dealt with swiftly and strictly. The gossiper doesn’t get to do so much as plan a surprise party because it’s done behind backs. The teller of off-color jokes takes no more risks with humor.
Have the victim’s back. Often in bullying cases, there isn’t a perfect angel and a mean, nasty bully. There can be a bit of evil on both sides. But when there is a clear victim, make sure you have that person’s back. Watch out for subtle acts of retaliation. Simple things — like delaying the monthly report, which then forces the victim to work late on Friday night to get her tasks done — should be dealt with. The perpetrator should feel a bit micromanaged after this.
Make the policy clear across the entire department. Your company undoubtedly has sexual and racial harassment policies, and it should have a general bullying policy. It’s time for a refresher for everyone. Reminding employees to treat everyone with respect is always a good idea and helps make for a better environment for all.