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October 26, 2016

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Managers and Supervisors: Beware the Myth of the “Formal Complaint.”

April 12, 2016

When you spend the better part of your professional life examining employee complaints, the subtleties of handling those complaints become a big deal.  I have written often in this blog about the importance of handling these complaints properly; listening carefully, not debating or pressing; avoiding laying blame and asking open ended questions.  Most importantly, I have described the importance of accepting the “gift” of a complaint by thanking the employee for their trust and willingness to bring it to your attention.  These fundamental practices can make the difference between an employee who remains engaged and one who becomes an adversary.

What I have discussed less is the misunderstanding that seems to persist among many leaders –at many levels — that acting on employee complaints is optional.  In the past several weeks I have encountered multiple incidents in which employees shared incidents or situations with their supervisors, managers and even executive leaders, and were asked whether they wanted to file a “formal complaint.”  When, in some cases, the employee demurred, the leader did nothing to address the concern.  In each of these instances, the conduct described was sufficiently severe that if it had happened, it would be a violation of organizational policy prohibiting harassment, discrimination or inappropriate conduct.  Let’s unpack the idea of a “formal complaint.”

Under Title VII and most state laws governing discrimination or harassment, legal exposure for an employer begins when the employer “knew or should have known” that unlawful conduct was occurring. In most cases, liability begins when the employer, having that knowledge, fails to take action to stop the conduct.  An employer “knows” about conduct when it is reported (by a target or third-party), when an agent of the organization saw it or heard it or when an agent of the organization actually did it.  “Should have known is about reasonable supervision and oversight.”  So, when an employee tells a supervisor, manager or executive that something has happened, the organization “knows.”  Whether the employee wants you to take formal action becomes rather irrelevant.  Whether the employee wants you to do nothing becomes irrelevant.  The obligation to take action has been triggered.  In fact, asking an employee if they want to make a “formal complaint” appears to place an actual obstacle in front of the employee — as though they are the ones who have to decide whether to potentially get someone in trouble.

A “formal complaint” under this fictional construct often involves a “written statement.”  Personally, I detest employers requiring employees to prepare written statements about their complaints.  From the incompatibility of the timing with the realities of human memory to limitations and variances in literacy, the utility of a written statement is quite dubious.  Nevertheless, it is a favorite of leaders who believe that a written statement will force employees to “stick to their story” or “be accountable,” the idea being that once the statement is written the employees have to stand by their account (never mind that human memory will often result in details emerging over time.)  I have been successful at persuading some leaders that the statements are gratuitous, and failed with others, but the one thing I will say with no doubt at all is that telling employees that you will not pursue their complaints without  a written statement puts you directly in harms way. The standard is not “wrote or should have written!”  It is knew or should have known.  The employee has told you.  You know.  You need to act based on what you know.

Of course, receiving complaints is a nuanced business and your ability to act is based upon the quality of the information you’ve been given, but it is always worth a reminder that with or without a “formal complaint” it is best to document employee concerns and take prompt, appropriate steps to examine and address those concerns.

Reflections on Fairness

March 9, 2016

I had the honor of speaking at HR West today.  It is one of the best HR conferences in North America, filled with energetic keynotes, informative breakouts and entertaining exhibitors.  Today I delivered “The Fairness Quotient and Why it Matters,” an evolving talk about the power of fairness to create resilience and loyalty in employees.  Today was special for me because I got to roll out my newly commissioned infographic:

Sepler Fairness Final

What I’m excited about is the concept that organizations don’t have to be perfect.  The evidence shows that if you are strong on only one dimension of fairness– distributive, procedural or interactional — that you significantly reduce the likelihood of employee claims and charges.  For years, I have been telling clients that outcomes are less important than process, that explanations are more important than outcomes, and that voice takes precedence over facts when trying to establish facts.  What this infographic puts together is all of the positive things that can be mined by following that simple set of principles.

When we deliver difficult news– an unexpected business change, reductions in force, even telling someone they did not get the job or promotion  — we have a choice about how to manage that.  Explanations, hearing someone out, honesty and yes, even apologies (well worded ones) can turn a potentially disengaged employee into a newly appreciative on.  When we train supervisors to focus on fair process, we gain the trust of employees in good times and bad, and when our leaders define fairness as a value, we create cultures that signal to employees every day that they matter.  This in turn lights the switch on positive metrics such as engagement and retention, and it increases the likelihood that when people have problems they will come to us sooner, giving us the time and opportunity to help them resolve the problems and get back to work.  This, my friends, is important and simple stuff.

If you would like a high quality hard copy of this infographic (suitable for hanging!) sent to you by snail mail, please drop me a line at  If you’d like to hear more about workplace fairness, just let me know.

The Face of Discrimination May be Our Own

January 18, 2016

On Martin Luther King Day, it is appropriate to consider where discrimination and bias sit in our own lives.  More often than ever, I find the subjects of privilege, income inequality and social segregation entering into my conversations.  Thanks to the bravery, persistence and pluck of groups like Black Lives Matter, issues previously visible only to those negatively affected are showing up in unavoidable ways to everyone.  As a progressive of good will, I ask myself how I can make a difference in calling out institutional racism and discrimination.  I try to listen more than talk and to be mindful of seeing the world through the eyes of others.

What I think is most important for people of good will to understand is that we are quite likely to carry biases in spite of ourselves.  Implicit bias, by definition, is bias held by people who do not believe themselves to be biased.  If you have never taken the Implicit Associations Test or learned about the results (75 percent of its millions of takers show a preference for white people over brown skinned people) then I recommend you do so. A fabulous resource is the Book “Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People” by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, the originators of the IAT.

Two points that Banaji and Greenwald make are particularly important for us to remember on this day. First, that people who believe themselves to be free of prejudice are unlikely to discriminate by a hostile or harmful act towards someone who is different from them, and far more likely to discriminate by showing preference towards someone who is like them.  This is a simple premise with a diabolically powerful message; we can assure ourselves we are not discriminatory because we are doing nothing bad. The illusion of “only helping” is an extremely sustainable one if we don’t recognize the actual problem — our very human tendency to break the world into “us” and “them” and to favor “us” without thinking. Even our most altruistic acts may contribute to unintentionally feeding the advantage of the in group and sustaining social inequity.

The second point the authors make presents the only credible antidote I have found to scrutinizing  implicit bias. It comes from the work of  Psychologist Daniel Kahneman who posits two types of thinking; System 1 thinking, which is fast and helps us function on a day to day basis but can be inaccurate, and System 2 thinking which is more deliberate, concentrated and accurate.  System 1 thinking is at work when we get home from the grocery store and smack ourselves on the forehead because we have forgotten the very item we went to the store to purchase in the first place. System 2 is the brain working on a substantive problem, writing a blog post or analyzing data.  From this concept emerges the idea of a “conscious pause.”  Before making an important decision or judgement about someone, particularly if it has the possibility of benefiting someone, we need to move out of our System 1 brain and into System 2.  We need to ask ourselves if the volunteer commitment we are about to make or the donation check we are about to write or the job offer we are about to make arises out of in-group favoritism.  If we truly are committed to overriding our biases, our blind spots, our quick conclusion that we are doing the right thing must be subject to scrutiny.  Pause.  Think about it. Reflect.  Ask hard questions, or even better, ask someone else to challenge you.  In field studies of bias, self-scrutiny actually made a difference in whether race or gender were factors in critical decision making.

Daily we can find opportunities to be outraged by bigotry, discrimination and xenophobia.  Calling out these things when we see them in our public figures and institutions is essential.  Today, though, remember to look inside, and to remember the insidious nature of our own, inadvertent, but pernicious bias.


Getting to Yes: Simple Leadership

January 4, 2016

It is sometimes the simplest ideas that bring about real culture change in organizations.

Three simple questions. Three simple answers. The result is a harbinger of everything important to employers. It’s very simple to create a respectful workplace if you boil it down to this: if you can get one hundred percent of your employees to answer three questions with “yes” every single day, you will have a workplace where employees are engaged, they are productive, they are self-correcting (because they are giving and getting honest feedback) and they are showing up and staying with your organization. What are these magical questions?
Does my employer value me?
• Do the people I work with and for treat me fairly and humanely?
• Does my work matter?
Of course, the converse is true. If only some of your employees say “yes,” the rest are saying “no.” Negative answers to these questions bring about behavior, attitudes and performance issues that take time, energy and emotional investment away from the organization’s mission.
If it’s that easy, why is it so hard to find employees who love what they do? Because we focus on too many metrics, we make organizations unnecessarily complicated, and we don’t measure leaders on the happiness and engagement of their employees. If, instead of complex performance matrices or numerical fictions, we simply told leaders that they would be evaluated, rewarded and compensated on how many “yesses” they got to these three questions, how would they be spending their time? Teaching, coaching, praising, guiding, communicating and collaborating. Try it. Put these questions on your wall and every day ask yourself, “How can I get my people to yes?” Challenge other leaders to do the same. If the experience of one of my clients is indicative, your people will notice the difference immediately. In three months of “getting to yes,” theft was reduced, productivity improved, conflict was handled at a lower level, attendance improved and injuries were reduced. Supervisors began to post their ideas for getting their employees to “yes.” No complicated training, no lectures. Three simple questions, one big payoff.

I’m Back

September 22, 2015

It’s been some time since I’ve posted.  It has been a busy year of travel, speaking, fact finding and immense professional growth.  Last week, I had the honor of traveling to Washington,DC to testify before the EEOC’s Select Committee on Harassment as part of a panel of fact finders.  They asked us to comment on industries and organizations most susceptible to harassment.  My written testimony can be found at the following link. Fran Sepler Testimony EEOC Task Force

Back to Basics In Workplace Investigations: Tips, Techniques and Reminders

January 7, 2014

ImageI’ve run into some situations lately that compel me to write about some basics of workplace investigation.  Yes, I tend to wander into the weeds of workplace bullying, coaching harassers and subtle discrimination, but at my core, I am a workplace fact finder.  I come to my investigations as a neutral and my job is to get to the bottom of things, while doing so in a way that makes my work both defensible and least disrupts the operations of the organization.

Some of you, readers, rarely do investigations and others do so with some frequency.  The missteps I most commonly see are what I would refer to as bad habits or non habits; faulty practices that frequent investigators use and keep using, and big attempts to use sophisticated techniques by those who have little opportunity to hone them.  With this in mind, I will offer up a few thoughts, theories and recommendations for all workplace investigators.

  • Remember that the majority of people who are the subject of your investigations will NOT be terminated, and your approach will affect their future engagement

This is as fundamental as we can get, and what makes an employment investigation completely different in tone and technique than a criminal investigation.  We are attempting to discern whether misconduct has taken place.  In some cases, if the facts show serious misconduct, the organization will terminate the employment of the bad actor because of the severity and the factual support for the the conclusions.  Most of the alleged misconduct that happens in the workplace falls into the category of “bad judgment,” “single moderate offense (remediable),” “good long term employee made a mistake,” “the complainant overstated the nature of the conduct,” or “violated a policy, but so have others without consequence.”  I could probably come up with more, but these are the ones at top of mind.  In each of these circumstances, there may be discipline, remedial action or both, including the dreaded “final warning,” but the employer may find the misconduct does not rise to a level where termination is justified or supportable.  Just last month I dealt with a fabulous manager who inadvertently gave one employee an advantage over another.  It was serious and called for remediation, and the manager was warned he’d be demoted if it happened again.  Classic.

My point with all this?  We must treat each person we interview with respect and dignity, and come at each interview with an open mind.  We should always start by assuring the person we are talking to understands who we are, what our process is and what their rights and responsibilities are, and we should begin by either asking general questions or allowing them to provide us their narrative about a situation.  Using interrogation techniques that involve threatening people with termination, telling them how much trouble they are in, using legal terms like “theft” and “harassment” or asking them if they think what they did was right or wrong do not belong in employment investigations.  We can be firm and direct in confronting statements we think are untrue, but not by telling people we think they are lying. We can make credibility assessments without labeling people in shaming ways. These are company human assets, and we do not want to destroy them in the process of getting information from them.  The gold standard for us is, “I was treated fairly.  The investigation was unbiased.  The outcome was fair, even if I don’t like it.”  These employees, while unnerved by being asked tough questions, or unhappy with the ultimate outcome will know they were treated fairly and humanely, and when this crisis is over, they will have a decent chance of being able to go back to work and reengage, whereas those who were verbally “slapped around” will have an enduring disdain for and resentment of their employer and whichever entity conducted the investigation.

  • It should now be the exception to tell or suggest to a witness to refrain from discussing our interview or the investigation.

From an earlier post: Banner Health Care 358 NLRB No. 93, the National Labor Relations Board found that blanket “gag rules” requiring all participants in an investigation to refrain from discussing the investigation while it was ongoing, with the rationale of protecting the integrity of the investigation was a violation of Rule 7, which allows employees to discuss the “terms and conditions of their employment.”    The NLRB indicated that an employer has to have a legitimate business interest that outweighs that rule, including the need to protect a specific witness, danger of evidence being destroyed, testimony was being fabricated or there was a need to prevent a cover up.  A blanket practice to require all employees to refrain from discussing the matter was deemed too broad to meet these criterion.

Well, that was bad enough, but if you have been paying attention, things got even harsher.   A recent NLRB ruling, THE BOEING COMPANY and JOANNA GAMBLE, an Individual ,Case 19-CA-089374, JD(SF)-34-13 NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD found that even suggesting that an employee refrain from discussing investigations in a routine checklist was a violation of their right to engage in concerted activity in the workplace.  The implications here are very important, in that if as an investigator you are going to either suggest or instruct witnesses to refrain from discussing any part of the process, you must have a SPECIFIC justification, such as a witness with a substantive reason to anticipate reprisal, specific evidence that is vulnerable, evidence of falsehood or a credible basis to think there will be a cover up.  This should be documented specifically before issuing confidentiality instructions.  While many of us grimace at the challenges these rulings create for those of us who’d like tidy statements and limited discussion, we must be aware of our requirements and comply with them.

And, despite my having sent the appropriate citations to tens of people who disagreed with this, let me be clear again that this applies NOT JUST IN UNION SETTINGS, as the rule is precisely formulated to ensure that people have the opportunity to discuss the terms and conditions of their workplace in order to form, or attempt to form unions.

  • Scope Creep is a Dangerous Thing

We all come across things during an investigation that force us to decide whether to fold the new allegations into our investigation or whether to pass them on.  One of the most important evaluative standards here is very simple; if the new allegations represent a more serious set of possible infractions than the investigation you are doing, create a separate inquiry.  Thus, while investigating possible isolated misuse of a company vehicle, you gather data from corporate information systems that reveals widespread misuse of corporate credit cards, finish the limited inquiry and conduct the broad, more serious one separately.  There are several reasons for this, the most pertinent of which is to avoid the minimization or escalation of the initial allegations.  If the alleged misconduct is unrelated (those allegedly misusing the vehicle are not implicated in the credit card allegations) the facts in their “story” should not be conflated with the facts of the allegedly more widespread conduct.  Similarly, if there is overlap in the parties involved, those parties should all be treated equally, rather than have one set of allegations lay deeper suspicion on the others.  More practically speaking, when a series of minor infractions mount up as an investigation is conducted, it is important that the investigation not be prosecutorial, and that minor infractions that would not otherwise have been addressed be given their proper weight.  When, for instance, an incidentally reviewed employee’s email to a colleague indicated that on a particular day she would be “slipping out ten minutes early” for a child’s concert, the investigator wanted to add this to findings as “misusing time.”  This was in an organization that did not maintain time clocks and was known for their focus on productivity over face time.  It was my rather challenging job to convince her that while this could be shared as part of her report, it was prudent to stick to the allegations that were being investigated in her findings of fact, avoiding a “piling on” of things best referred to in credibility or narrative portions of her report.  If she had concerns about repeated infractions, I suggested, a separate investigation would be warranted.

  • Your notes are your notes.

Honestly, whether you type out things verbatim on your PC or scribble lines with a crayon, the notes you take contemporaneously are your notes.  Save them.  You can type them up, you can clarify them, you can correct your grammar and spelling, and you can add the questions you asked to them if you like, BUT SAVE YOUR RAW NOTES.  There is no such thing as “draft notes,” because notes are by nature contemporaneous.  If you choose to make changes, as most of us do (mine are fairly illegible unless I do a quick “clean up” after I interview) make them in a way that is transparent; for instance, if you take notes on a computer, save the originals and then make any adjustments in a different font or a different color.  Save both versions.  If you type them up and “fix” grammar and spelling as you go, staple the originals to the new ones.  Why?  It is a fair question for someone scrutinizing your work to ask if the notes that formed the basis for your report or findings were contemporaneous.  If the answer is “no,” you want to demonstrate that any changes you made were for purposes of clarification, readability or future recall and that you did not substantively change the notes.  Honestly, I recently came across someone who crossed out one thing and wrote another, and when I asked why it had been changed, the answer was, “Because I felt bad I said that.”  Ouch.

Thanks for reading my blog.  If you find it helpful, please share it with others.  Happy New Year.

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