Workplace Allegations: Check and Check Again
Why is there a need to follow up on allegations?
First of all, what is an allegation? It is neither fact nor fiction. It is simply a statement made by someone within the organization who is in good standing.
An allegation is like a baseball pitch. If the umpire is feeling a little surly, he or she might say, “It’s nothing until I call it!” An allegation is like that pitched ball—it must be called one way or another.
What does it mean if an employee makes an allegation and it is ignored? Let’s look at two very different examples. One- I was sexually harassed. Two- there is a safety hazard in the parking lot because of a dead tree that could fall on someone or on someone’s car.
Both allegations are screaming to be investigated. The first one should set off alarm bells in anybody’s head. Sexual harassment is a big deal taken seriously by the federal Department of Labor and by any state Commission on Human Rights. The second allegation may, on the surface, seem a bit far-fetched or even superfluous. Who cares about a dead tree, really? But it needs to be investigated as well.
The rules about sexual harassment are pretty formal and established: an allegation investigation must be thorough and timely. Thorough means thorough—alleged victim, alleged perpetrator and all potential witnesses must be questioned. Timely means the investigation must commence within 72 hours of notice being provided by the whistleblower. In the example regarding the hazard in the parking lot, the rules are more ambiguous but the allegation still cannot be ignored. Ignoring it sends a negative message to the employee.
I’ve said that allegations scream to be investigated. You might say that that’s a bit of a strong word. Why do they “scream?”
The answer could be tangled up in the organization’s culture. If an employee said something was bothering him or her, and management told the employee that it was unimportant, what would that say about the organization and its culture? If management says that something that bothers the employee is unimportant, it’s no different from saying the employee is unimportant. At the very least, management should respond to the employee’s concern by taking a look at whatever it is.
Taking people’s concerns seriously communicates that they are being taken seriously. Even if management finds no substance in the concern, the employee will surely appreciate the effort made to investigate the concern and to consider its merits.
A “healthy” employee will appreciate it. A cliché that I like to quote is the following: Healthy people need to have their say. Unhealthy people need to have their way. If employees are mentally healthy/ stable, they will recognize that management allowed them to have their say and, in response, did a fair and thorough examination of the concern. That’s all healthy people can really ask for or expect.
If management fails to respond appropriately, it sends a chilling and damaging message to employees. Management’s values are on display with every decision that management makes. The organizational culture is a byproduct of the organization’s values, which is to say the organizational culture is a byproduct of the senior leadership’s values.
By the way, in the first example regarding sexual harassment, the organization takes on new liability once the allegation is made. We’ll talk about that in a future blog.