Who Has the Ball on Workplace Harassment & Violence?

Unpacking the Role of HR – Harassment and Violence – Guiding Practices

Over the past 20 years, the HR profession has undergone tremendous transformation across Canada and is rapidly evolving as a critical business partner in the boardroom. HR advisory services in larger organizations are often delivered through divisional or departmental structures that mimic the traditional operational C-Suite management structure.  Even more common is seeing the HR partner in the boardroom when there is any perceived impact on its people. Solid evidence that the HR profession has gained credibility as a business partner.

Regulation is Good for Business, and So is Taking Care of People

Organizations such as the Human Resource Professional Association (HRPA) and the Chartered Professional Human Resources (CPHR) regulate the conduct of HR professionals.  By issuing designations, imposing qualification standards, and requiring their members to adhere to Codes of Ethics or Rules of Professional Conduct, there is a recognition of the growing complexity of the profession and for ensuring the highest standards of conduct and advice.

Undoubtedly, with regulation, registered HR practitioners are better qualified, educated, and strategically positioned in the boardroom to influence a company’s organizational decision-making in a way that matters most, its people.

Leaders who believe that people are an HR problem and who measure their leadership success only in terms of profits and earnings are leaving money on the proverbial table—factoring in the human and monetary cost of employee disengagement, turnover and workplace complaints, litigation and operational time to manage conflict, it’s a wonder that organizations tolerate, condone or ignore workplace harassment and violence.

Conflict is expensive. Harassment and violence can be even costlier, and doing nothing is no longer an option if an organization wants to avoid legal liability.

Organizations need to stretch their leadership teams to their maximum potential and elevate their organizational capacity to manage conduct and negative behaviour.  If an organization lacks the management competencies to deal with harassment and violence, it needs to be developed, recruited and form part of a performance scorecard. Often, managers do not understand or believe it is their responsibility.

HR plays a pivotal role in the complaint process. As advisors, they are well positioned to inform the employer of its obligations under the policy and legislation, but it is more critical for leaders and managers to understand that HR has professional responsibilities to ensure that the organization is legally compliant, but they do not manage the staff who report to manager they provide advice to.

What is a Significant Barrier to Optimum Performance?

Organizations that treat all conflicts as unhealthy are also missing valuable opportunities to create space for healthy conflict to thrive, i.e. operational process committees and employee relations committees. Conflict resolution, when practiced in a way that does not harm others and encourages healthy discourse, allows teams to grow and build engagement. Conversely, treating harassment, discrimination, and violence complaints as a nuisance and an “HR issue” is not in lockstep with the logic of how legislators want organizations to act and can attract significant liability when it does.

The legislators want the organizations to take responsibility, be accountable, implement meaningful measures to prevent behaviours from continuing and act in good faith regarding complaints.

Keeping Pace with the Evolution of Health & Safety Legislation

As quickly as the HR profession has evolved, so has the workplace harassment and violence law. Recent developments in health and safety legislation now give legal recognition to the nexus between workplace violence, harassment, and psychological harm. Although these have been a welcome advancement in modern workplaces, it has also left many HR executives flat-footed in terms of where HR fits into the problem-solving equation.

Hold the Phone – Before You Call HR

Contextually, HR often receives the complaint, communicates with all parties, supports the business owners from an advisory perspective, and remains tethered to a complaint from beginning to end. If it sounds exhausting, it is.  This methodology of complaint management has nothing to do with policy and nothing to do with the professional practice of HR. Instead, it contributes to role confusion in which responsibilities are conflated in the complaint process.  Some business owners believe that complaints of harassment and violence are an HR problem.  When a complaint is received, the reflexive reaction is to call HR.  This is not in itself is not a problem, but what ends up happening is that the call to HR is not for advice; it is to pass the proverbial accountability buck to HR.

Organizational Paralysis, Causes, Effects and Impacts

While this is happening, often the complainant is left wondering where the complaint went and why it is not being managed or responded to. This organizational paralysis causes the complaint to escalate and parties, particularly the complainant, to lose confidence in the process and disengage.

Employee disengagement caused by organizational paralysis will often eventually lead to more serious consequences for the employer, such as damages, sick leave, grievances, litigation or complaints to government authorities.

Paralysis is happening for several reasons.

  • The organization does not have the skills to successfully manage the complaint, the employee, the situation and in many cases, all three.
  • The organization is risk-averse and cannot evaluate how to manage a complaint.
  • Over legalizing the problem instead of addressing the issue with the employee and making genuine and sincere attempts to resolve the complaint.
  • The organization’s leadership team has not invested time and energy in the development of an ethical or policy framework to respond to complaints.

On the flip side, paralysis can also be intentional, resulting from a toxic work culture or an abuse of authority.

Here are some other examples.

  • The organization’s anti-harassment and violence policies and procedures become a source of institutional power, protectionism and control.
  • There is a lack of functional alignment/integration between HR, Health, Safety and Wellness.
  • Limited knowledge and ineffective use of risk assessment tools and controls.
  • When cases escalate to workplace absence or psychological injury, the organizational tendency to “fix the person” rather than “fix the work environment” perpetuates mental health stigma and prevents recovery.
  • Organizations will intentionally structure their internal responsibility system to be under-resourced from a staffing or budget perspective.

Generally, complaints received by the organization are the catalysts for the impromptu video-conference meeting with representatives from operations, HR, and labour relations advisors (in unionized settings) to set the corporate response protocol. The boardroom fills with nervous energy while the organization jockey its position and delegates the role of fixing the problem to HR.

Enabling Leaders to Lean-In

HR are advisors, problem-solvers, coaches and strategists, but they do not execute the strategy. Leaders need to be able to operationalize conflict resolution strategy with support from HR.

An aggrieved employee is waiting to be heard, to be listened to and to receive assurances that the organization is there to support them.  Leaders fail to recognize that they have the authority as the manager or supervisor to address the complaint and make the necessary changes to ensure compliance with provincial or federal human rights or health and safety legislation. HR does not impose disciplinary penalties; HR does not manage employees, make operational decisions, or speak as a manager. 

HR provides competent advisory services based on a knowledge of human resource practice grounded by operational or business acumen for the sector they work in.  For organizations to be truly effective in managing their people, leaders need to be involved, interested and engaged in managing their people and accountable for the culture they want.

The best HR professionals I have worked with are empathetic, caring, decisive and, most importantly, want to help.  Seasoned HR professionals can provide high-value advice but recognize that a tax on emotional labour comes with human conflict. Ensuring that organizations can decisively manage complaints as a shared organizational goal allows managers to resolve complaints effectively with the expertise of HR.

The Top-5 HR Pro-Tips

Pro-Tip 1:

Managing workplace conflict, violence, and harassment requires a unique set of skills not taught by any course of HR study. To be effective, HR professionals must be trauma-informed and complete in-depth training on workplace psychological harassment and violence.

Pro-Tip 2:

Decline to investigate if you are untrained and if there are any factors which could be seen as a conflict of interest or a bias.

Pro-Tip 3:

Build a list of qualified resources to refer injured employees and those substantiated as harassers.

Pro-Tip 3:

Do not simply refer an employee to your Employee and Family Assistance Provider (EFAP) provider in response to a request for support.  Many EFAP providers are not specialized in this area, and employees can often wait before they can meet with a healthcare professional.

Pro-Tip 4

Remind employees of applicable benefit coverage for the various options for employees when it comes to a qualified healthcare practitioner.

Pro-Tip 5

The last tip; have a robust support system and a healthy work-life balance.

Sandeep Bandhu, MIR is a licensed paralegal in Ontario with the Law Society of Ontario, Principal and Founder of Brickhouse Legal Services Professional Corporation and allied member of the Human Resource Professional Association in Ontario.

Consultant and Trainer for the Canadian Institute of Workplace Harassment and Violence.