Hostile Workplace? When You Need to Initiate an Investigation.

Hostile Workplace? When You Need to Initiate an Investigation.

Conflict is everywhere. It cannot be helped.

Regardless of how motivated your employees are to behave, put a few ambitious, sensitive, or abrasive people together and you are bound to have some conflict.

But as an employer – where do you draw the line? How much of the conflict you are seeing is normal and healthy, and how much of it creates a hostile workplace? And when do you need to take matters into your own hands and initiate an investigation?

Hostile Workplace or Healthy Conflict?

What is important to understand about conflict is that not all conflict is the same. There are different types of conflict. and each type of conflict requires a different response. The three kinds of conflict you are likely to experience at work are:

1. Substantive Conflict: disagreements about overall direction, policies, values and goals. These are the kinds of arguments you might see in a political debate.

2. Procedural Conflict: disagreements about processes and procedures to best reach a shared goal. An argument about how to sell the most widgets is an example.

3. Affective Conflict: This is interpersonal conflict. This is the type that flares up and seems so very personal even as it threatens the productivity and stability of the whole workplace. Most complaints about “bullying” fall into this category, and this is the kind of conflict that could create a hostile workplace.

Hopefully, most of the conflicts you experience at work are the substantive or procedural kind: disagreements about how to accomplish goals. These are generally “healthy” conflicts because you can focus on outcomes, goals, and processes rather than personalities and emotions.

But when affective conflict is present in your workplace and an employee files a complaint, then you have a lot of murky waters to navigate. This probably includes an investigation that feels more like a balancing act than a straightforward “just the facts” process.

Hostile Workplace: Do I Really Have to Investigate?

Yes, most likely you do. If your employee’s complaint seems like it may violate company policy or federal law, then you are most likely required to conduct an investigation, even if the employee who sought your help does not wish to have one. Federal law makes investigation mandatory if there is suspicion of job discrimination, a violation of health and safety laws, or illegal drug use and all of these issues can be part of affective conflict. Even if you suspect no law is broken, it is still best to investigate any alleged misconduct that is brought to your attention. In the case of a potentially hostile workplace, better safe than sorry.

Hostile Workplace Investigations Require Careful Planning

It is one thing to initiate an investigation. It is quite another to run the investigation properly in a way that doesn’t make things worse. Whether you are choosing to do the investigation in-house, or outsource it as an independent investigation, there are many pitfalls to avoid. Do it correctly, and your organization can thrive. If you do it incorrectly, you may have a real disaster on your hands. In my next blog I will discuss the pitfalls of running a hostile workplace investigation, and how to avoid them.

For more information about the three kinds of conflict, whether the conflict you are experiencing requires an investigation, and how you should run the investigation, contact Kathleen Bartle.