Investigating Civility & Collegiality Complaints: Lessons from the George Zimmerman—Trayvon Martin Case

HIGH IMPACT DIVERSITY & INCLUSION LESSONS

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Managing Collegiality & Civility Can Be a Challenge

Managing employee collegiality and civility is one of the more challenging human resource management responsibilities. Insults, bullying, and name-calling make trouble in close employee encounters. The overall impact on the organization is undermining civility, which drains productivity.

Yet, according to a workplace civility study of employees in Baltimore, Maryland, few organizations have collegiality policies or require training to address workplace civility.[i] Harassment and compliance laws warrant education and training, but mandatory civility and collegiality training is fraught with employee resistance. It seems that employees tolerate training required to meet federal and state compliance, but view training such as cultural diversity education as unfair, fruitless attempts at social engineering.

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Yet, consider the results of the Baltimore, Maryland workplace civility study [ii]

  • One in three respondents indicated that she or he was a victim of uncivil behavior within the past 12 months
  • 65% indicated that they had witnessed the behavior as bystanders.

Behaviors That Undermine Civility

What are the types of behaviors that we are talking about? Examples include:

  • Bullying
  • Refusal of a team member to work hard
  • Shifting blame of a mistake on to a colleague
  • Neglecting to say please or thank you
  • Not responding to email or telephone calls, and generally ignoring a colleague

Sound familiar? Although most of these incidents are not considered bullying, the consequences are the same—lower productivity. Employees tend to get overburdened by the suffering from these encounters, which drain energy needed to focus on their responsibilities. If left unchecked, the incidents pile up over time, which increases the victim’s use of sick leave, healthcare, and employee assistance resource.

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Other findings include:

  • Less than a quarter of the respondents in the Baltimore reported seeking out assistance within their organization to resolve the matter.
  • The good news is that those who were courageous enough to approach the irritating colleague to work things out enjoyed a resolution 40% of the time.
  • The bad news is that 44% reported that there was no resolution.

In any case, the worker’s typical initial response to the incidents included considering a job change, lower workplace performance commitment, and getting confrontational towards the culprit.

Does Your Company Have a Civility Policy?

One third of the Baltimore study respondents stated that their organization did not have a workplace civility policy as far as they were aware. Of those who indicated that their organization had a policy, about half felt that the policy was not communicated adequately to have the desired effect.

But, did their organizations have a grievance policy. About half of the respondents stated that their organization had such a policy, but 44% did not trust that the information collected would be confidential. These data reflect that the collegiality and civility landscape human resource managers must contend with in supporting employees in the service of maintaining productivity.

Where’s the Data?

A major challenge in addressing civility complaints is that too often the best data set is one employee’s word against another. Let’s take a news media incident as an example. Most of us agree that the death of American teenage Trayvon Martin is tragic and avoidable. However, the public does not agree about who is at fault in his death. George Zimmerman, a homeowner’s association volunteer guard, encountered the young African American male as Martin made his way back from a convenience store to his home.  We know that words were exchanged between the two before the altercation that led to Trayvon’s death by the concealed weapon George was legally carrying.

florida_stand_your_ground.fwGiven that there were no direct witnesses, prosecuting Zimmerman for murder required coming up with a credible account of him using unnecessary aggression instead of protecting himself. This is very similar to an employee who reports that a male co-worker made inappropriate comments to her of a sexual nature, but there were no witnesses.

The jury had to determine which story was more credible—the one Zimmerman told which faulted Martin as the aggressor or the one the prosecutor offered. Legally the case seems rather straightforward. The Florida “Stand Your Ground” law basically states that when a person’s feels her or his life is threatened, the individual has a right to self-defense, which includes use of lethal force. A CBS News poll conducted after the trial showed that 52% of white Americans were at least satisfied with the not guilty verdict, while nearly every African American  (94 %) taking the poll felt disappointed or described themselves as angry about the outcome.

Want to know why most African Americans share a sense of unfairness in racial incidents? See this short video.

Those who appreciate that Zimmerman was found innocent of murder believe that justice was served based on the assumption that the Stand Your Ground law applies in his case. Others focused on a sense of social justice and fairness based on the assumption that Zimmerman was presumably the aggressor by getting out of his truck against the 911 operator’s advice and following Martin, who then—from their point of view—had a right to self-defense under the same law. Notice that there are no direct witnesses. Yet, Americans divided into camps in taking sides based on the limited information the court system offered and the media decided to cover.

Crowds of Americans took to the streets of major metropolitan cities in protest of the verdict. This is unlikely to happen in response to a sense of unfairness in the outcome of a formal grievance in the workplace made by one employee against a colleague even if it is unionized. More certain is that employees will discuss the outcome among themselves, take sides while wrestling with allegiances, and look to the leadership for answers.

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Understanding the Collegiality Problem Underlying Civility

What is the key to making a decision that is in the best interest of the organization, manager, and employee? According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)[iii], following the paper trial may be helpful. Past “grievances, accident reports, excessive sick leave requests among colleagues, exit interviews and even employee assistance program (EAP) statistics or climate surveys” may provide data or names of other potential witnesses reluctant to come forward during the investigation.

Power and cultural differences also make trouble between even open-minded, smart, and tolerant colleagues. Former President Bill Clinton all but lost his informal status as the “first black president” among African Americans due to statements he made about “playing the race card” during the 2008 presidential election campaign[iv]. While campaigning for his wife Hillary, Bill Clinton made remarks comparing her rival candidate Barack Obama to Jessie Jackson. The African American community took offense and political pundits questioned whether or not Clinton’s real goal was to marginalize Obama by associating him with Jessie Jackson’s poor history with attracting white voters. No one can question the Clintons’ history of serving African American interest with their status and power. That does not mean that they cannot fall out of favor by making poor choices during competitors with an African American shining star.

In my professional experience, taking power dynamics into consideration can be very helpful. Research indicates that women and other historically excluded group (HEG) members are particularly sensitive to power dynamics. Perception of a manager’s mistreatment of them leads to a sense of unfairness based on the authority the manager has over them. According to research conducted by Sorensen, Vaughn et al. (2003), when an African American male (i.e., HEG) gets into a management position, he is less sensitive to the unfairness complaints his direct reports make about him than when he was a direct report. [v]  This suggests that with status and power an individual becomes less sensitive to unfairness because their point of view changes.

How is power played out in encounters between colleagues of similar status in the workplace? One of the most obvious is in demographic differences. When the “victim” is one of a few women in the organization or in a department, power dynamics are likely to factor into deciding a perpetrator’s intentions. Consider being the only female in a department. Perceiving that fellow male workers have informal discussions about a team project without including you will likely raise curiosity about why you are left out. You wonder if you are missing out on conversation that could increase your learning and allow you to contribute more to the team. You also wonder if it is because you are female. These perceptions have led to labels, such as the “Old Boys Club” and the “Glass Ceiling”.

The point is that power dynamics are real. While employee policies tend not to take power differences into account, it is alive and well in the interactions, the relationships, and each side of the collegiality complaint. The human resource manager must play the role of judge and jury in many instances. Under ideal circumstances, a win-win solution is discovered that makes each party feel supported and vindicated. In reality, such outcomes are the exception more than the rule by far.

Cultural differences also play an important role. In many cases it may be difficult to separate cultural differences from power differences. Bill Clinton has considerable social and political power as a past president of a super power nation. Yet, his effectiveness in competing in the modern political arena may be counterproductive now that the playing field has moved from all white American males to a more diverse group. Where would he have learned how to do the latter? According to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, Bill may have learned what was needed to successfully navigate the treacherous terrain of politics from savvy white males at an early age, but their limited scope of experience fell short of the coaching he needs to maintain steady footing today.

Something similar happens between well-intended colleagues from different cultural backgrounds. One person may have been raised to show appreciation for what others do for them, while others may have little if any early experience being offered gratitude for serving the interest of others. The result is a cultural clash in the workplace when an otherwise appreciative colleague does not show it when a co-worker does something helpful. The co-worker becomes incensed because she considers it “common” courtesy and “common sense” to say thank you. If we look carefully at differences in our backgrounds, what one person perceives as common may not be that common to others. The result is different styles that can easily clash at the most inopportune moments—Along with the resulting fallout.

How Can Human Resource Managers Sustain Productivity When a Grievance is Made?

Fortunately, physical violence is seldom an issue the human resource manager has to contend with, nevertheless many elements of the Zimmerman-Martin case are similar to collegiality grievances. Workplace policies serve to communicate expectations about how employees are expected to behave in carrying out their roles and responsibilities. Things that can go wrong in relationships among colleagues often appear unsubstantiated, vague and based on the situation and perceptions. An employee will likely feel slighted by a team member who does not show appreciation for additional help received in completing a project.  While HR cannot dictate that the individual shows appreciation, it is possible to provide victims with effective skills to address such behaviors.

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The HR professional may not have sufficient information to prove one way or another that the male colleague was offensive towards the female reporting the inappropriate behavior(s). What you do know is that something happened between them that led to the complaint and each of them played some part in it consciously or not. You need to take some sort of action in any case whether or not there is a policy in place. When possible, mediating a discussion between the two parties after an investigation and individual coaching to make certain that both parties are on the same page will serve everyone’s interest well.

As the poll data after the Trayvon Martin case verdict indicate, the racial differences in perceptions of fairness can have serious consequences for American race relations in the long run. When workplace differences include racial, ethnic, gender, ability, or other social group differences, managing the fallout from incivility can really get funky without skillful HR execution. If an employee starts to think that a colleague is “rude” and “unappreciative,” that could negatively impact the amount of support each colleague gives the other when they need each other most for workplace projects.  If the victim thinks the colleague’s behavior is due to stereotypes and prejudice, the individual is going to feel a sense of injustice and want the situation remedied.

Getting the culprit to accept responsibility for whatever happened with the colleague is only possible to the extent that you find ways to penetrate defensiveness.  One question I rely on in social competence coaching for someone who has been named in a formal complaint is

“What part of this situation are you willing to take responsibility for?”

The answer to this question is diagnostic.  There is no a simple formula, but let it suffice to say here that those who are truly regretful will become remorseful when honestly sharing what she or he believes could have been done differently. This is based on the assumption that it takes two to tango. Each of us must be willing to accept our share of the responsibility when things go wrong in a relationship.

You can coach the person from this point on. An individual who continue to place all the blame and responsibility on the accuser is not ready for a collegial relationship. The person needs more training, coaching, and/or time off to get where you need them to be.

Here is the full set of guidelines:

  • The first order of business is to take an objective approach investigation to the extent possible. Ask yourself what may get in the way of making an unbiased decision. What was unhelpful or useful in managing about similar past cases? Did you, for example, consistently view one party in the dispute more favorably than the other? If so, you may have discovered quickly how unhelpful that approach is even if it was unintended. When you find data to support your findings, how you report them makes all the difference in the world. Strive for balance. Also balance, to the extent possible, presenting favorable data you discover with those showing performance gaps directly related to the complaint against the person.

Keep the focus on identifying performance gaps and the goal of closing those needed to reduce the likelihood of a complaint being filed against the individual in the future. 

  • Are there any policy or procedural constraints that bind how to proceed? This brings up the question about how much power does the HR officer has in addressing the problem. Does the legal department or policy bind your hands? Are the policies and procedures too general to address most cases adequately? Tighten up and increase the clarity of existing policies to the extent needed. Use diplomacy when the rules are hard and fast. Instead of saying “I don’t make up the rules,” which appears insensitive help the individual understand why such rules are in place and that you believe he or she has what it takes to avoid the problem in the future with the education, training, and support your office provides.

A no tolerance policy may require that a formal investigation and report be filed which limits any considerations of an informal dialog with each party to establish if there is a less formal way to address the concerns. Be concerned about any dual role you may have with either party.

  • Acknowledge power dynamics among employees and the sense of unfairness that can be associated with it. This will increase effectiveness in managing civility. There is mutual benefit because the employee making the complaint needs to have faith in the process, the accused needs to feel supported, and the organization needs the colleagues working together more productivity.

Power dynamics between managers and direct reports is self evident. In this case, I argue that the manager is the primary target for education and training. There are more subtle ways in which power dynamics take place among co-workers. A person with a visible disability has to a large extent less status than one who is perceived as more abled. I remember interviewing an engineer with a hearing impairment who was so stressed by the daily slights experienced in the workplace that he said there are days when he could hardly get out of bed because he felt so beaten down by how he was treated that gathering strength to tolerate another day seemed daunting.

He gave the brief informal hallway meetings that take place sometimes between the manager and staff. He sits at a desk with his back to the hallway, so his hearing disability made it next to impossible to know that the meeting was taking place. The meetings were annoying not only because his manager failed to include him, but he also had to endure his colleagues telling him that what was said was unimportant because they did not want to take the time to share the information. The power was in the hands of the well-intentioned co-workers and manager to assist their disabled colleague, but it was too much trouble to commit to.

  • Digital witnesses to allegations can be very helpful as pointed out by SHRM.[vi] Review all relevant email and saved text concerning the matter can be serve as the necessary data to bring the culprit’s attention to the behaviors that cause trouble for co-workers.
  • According to HR Executive Online, the HR manager needs to determine if there is “higher turnover, excessive absenteeism, requests for transfers, or requests to change schedules/shifts” related to poor supervision and workplace incivility. If so, the investigation needs to consider what may be the basis for this performance in relation to the complaint.[vii]
  • Update or implement a code of conduct that links civility and collegiality to the organization’s vision and mission. Avoid a list of Do’s and Don’ts. These tend to project a punitive rather than a collegiality policy. You want members of the organization to take the conduct seriously and meaningfully. Train them in civility skills.
  • Make certain that the leadership models collegiality and civility. If they do not model the desired behaviors, members will not take it serious. This will undermine the HR office’s efforts. Partner with the leadership in putting together the policy and promote training among the leadership first. Offer them civility and collegiality skills training. Make certain that you attend the training as well.
  • Use executive coaching as a preventive measure rather than as remediation. I have had the honor of more than two decades of serving as a cultural competence coach for numerous executives who have been accused of discrimination and/or harassment. These managers must complete the coaching requirements of the sanctions imposed by the outcome of the investigation. No matter how much the human resource manager describes the coaching as an opportunity for personal development, the manager’s sense of unfairness makes it difficult to accept.

As the coach, it takes time and effort to get the individual to fully understand that the training is an continuous learning opportunity and taking full advantage of it results in better leadership skills. Once the individual open up to the learning, she or he finds it useful. I think one reason is I take a no blame—no shame approach that focuses on helping the individual get back to work as quickly as possible with tools to avoid similar future incidents.

  • Offer all employees civility training. It does not have to be mandatory (apart from managers and supervisors) if packaged correctly and the content offers useful, easily applied, and effective behaviors. In addition, all you need is for about 1/3 of the organization to complete the training and apply it for changes to happen.

Summary

Why is it that few people report workplace incivility to HR??  The data from workplace bullying studies suggest that many believe filing a complaint will not lead to a successful resolution. They are left to their own devices to figure out how to address the matter. When they run out of options, they leave the organization—oftentimes without having secured a new job. In the meantime, their productivity plummets.

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The HR manager’s job is not easy when it comes to addressing the concerns brought up in collegiality complaints. Collecting good data to identify the behaviors that create problems for workers can work along side good policies and procedures can adequately address the range of complaints. Providing education and training will move the organization towards a more civil culture.

Billy Vaughn, PhD CDP is a seasoned consultant, author and speaker. He trains human resource managers in the DTUI.com certification-training program. Click Here to learn more about Billy and the training program. Leave a message for Billy in the form below.

References


[i] Bullying: How do I conduct a workplace investigation into bullying when there are no witnesses? December 11, 2012. http://www.shrm.org/TemplatesTools/hrqa/Pages/InvestigationIntoBullying.aspx

[ii] Preventive Strategies for Workplace Bullying. Snyder & Maurer. (October 10, 2012). http://www.hreonline.com/HRE/view/story.jhtml?id=534354451


[iii] Sorenson, R., Vaughn, B., Tappey, R., & Robinson, K.  Managers’ Perceptions of Workplace Fairness as a function of Gender and Race of Observer and of Target Individual.  The Institute of Behavioral and Applied Management Conference, Denver, CO., November 14, 2003.


[iv] SHRM (2012). Investigations: Bullying: How do I conduct a workplace investigation into bullying when there are no witnesses?
http://www.shrm.org/TemplatesTools/hrqa/Pages/InvestigationIntoBullying.aspx

[v] Andy Sullivan (Reuters, April 22, 2008). Bill Clinton takes on Obama, media on race comments. http://blogs.reuters.com/talesfromthetrail/2008/04/22/bill-clinton-takes-on-obama-media-on-race-comments/


[vi] Forni, Buccino, Greene, Freedman, Stevens,  & Stack. (2003).


[vii] Forni, Buccino, Greene, Freedman, Stevens,  & Stack. (2003). The Baltimore Workplace Civility Study. http://www.ubalt.edu/jfi/jfi/reports/civility.PDF

 

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