Chris Norris, CFI and Director of Wickander-Zulawski asks: are HR professionals equipped for that ‘difficult conversation’?

Some of the best-known female faces in the entertainment business have gone ‘black to basics’ by attending recent awards evenings – the US Golden Globes and the BAFTAs in the UK – dressed in black and were accompanied or accessorised by an inspirational female activist to call time or shout: ’cut’ on the long-term abuse of power by bullying male executives in their industry.

This simple, dressed down and corporate statement has sent shockwaves through a largely male-dominated world where big and small screen icons from in front of and behind the cameras have emerged as either abusers or victims of unwanted hierarchical and patriarchal patronage. In other words, what was once anecdotal evidence of a living and breathing ‘casting couch’ suddenly shifted from feature fiction drama to fact or documentary.

However, although the fall-out of the Harvey Weinstein scandal opened the floodgates for claims of inappropriate behaviour in Hollywood, the #MeToo movement is far from an exclusively celebrity issue. Inappropriate behaviour can and does happen in every workplace all over the world, but the spotlight never falls upon it because in three out of every four incidents, the matter is never reported. Indeed, a study reported by the Huffington Post suggested that a staggering 71 per cent of female employees did not report some form of sexual or inappropriate behaviour at work.

This is for a multitude of reasons, not least the fears of ridicule, embarrassment and even accusations of joint-culpability – that they, the victim, somehow encouraged the behaviour.

The other reason the under-reporting of power abuse is so prevalent is the fear of not being believed, particularly if the alleged perpetrator is in a position of power or influence, leading the HR team to enter the investigation process with unintended bias, or simply that reporting it will negatively impact the victim’s own development within the business.

Lastly, there is an ever-increasing problem of the bystander effect in which multiple people are exposed to an incident but each individual assumes the other colleague will report what has happened.  In actuality, when all witnesses or victims rely on somebody else to stand up and report what happened, nobody does and the situation progresses.

Of course, all of these office dynamics and nuances can add up to compound the issue and simply validate the inappropriate behaviour allowing it to re-occur and in so doing, create a non-stick culture of impunity.

So, how can a HR team challenge and communicate a zero-tolerance approach to this prevalent culture? How can it make itself the ‘go to’ place for ‘Me Too’ complaints? Indeed, how can HR prove an independent mandate to view every accusation on its merits and be approached in a fair and dispassionate way, whilst making sure that they act professionally without fear of favour and with regard to all of the actors in this workplace drama?

I have been working in the world of ‘he said, she said’ for many years, but we have seen a tripling of interest in our Workplace Investigative Interviewing Strategy (WIIS) training in the last three years as HR teams have recognised that this sensitive subject requires an equally sensitive approach based upon forensic fact-gathering from all of the actors. Empathy always facilitates dignity in a non-confrontational interview as opposed to the famous ‘You can’t handle the truth’ outburst from Jack Nicholson when being cross-examined by Tom Cruise in the courtroom scene of  ‘A Few Good Men.’

WIIS, which is now available in the UK, sensitively explores the entire process from distinguishing between accusation and false accusation right through to the dismissal or removal of the alleged bully/harasser by using a series of cognitive techniques, but importantly, without reverting to combative communication.

The technique is based upon the use of open-ended questions that call upon the subject to expand on their statements but within the exploratory perimeters of the interviewer. It uses supplementary questions to assist the interview through points of clarification. These techniques include the open-ended question – ‘tell me what happened after the meeting’ to expansion: ‘how did he pull you aside?”

In addition, there is the confirming question approach: ‘And there was no one with you at this point?’  The ‘echo’ question – the repetition of what the subject has just said, e.g. ‘Aggressive?’ – is another step along the path of truth gathering as is the ‘closed’ approach. Here, the skilled interviewer would ask something along the lines of: ‘Was this the first time that he touched you?’

Encouraging the subject to imagine an alternative truth to their own perception of what has occurred is another technique used by WIIS trained personnel. For example; “Would there be any other reason you could think of that a camera in the corridor would show it happening differently?’

Finally, there is the ‘assumptive’ question that probes beyond what has thus far been disclosed during the interview.  An example of this would be: ‘So, how many times has this happened prior to this particular incident?’

It is important to say that these questions facilitate the smooth running of the interview, but it is not just how they are asked, but when. It is important that the examples outlined above are sequential – there is a correct time and order to deliver the right questions to get to the bottom of the complaint and ultimately determine the truth.

Although written examples such as these may appear difficult to envision,  handled properly and delivered well, the tried and tested technique comes over as no more than a non-threatening conversation between two co-workers.

Whether it is Hollywood or any commercial organisation, there is a momentum for change and to call out inappropriate behaviour and power politics that denigrate co-workers and employees. For the HR team, this is where the real work begins as they must have an open door and open mind in their approach to each allegation so that they can deal with all ‘actors’ sensitively and with empathy.  In Hollywood terms, it is all about honing the script to make it deliver the greater impact.

Only by doing this can the HR team provide a secure environment for coming forward in the first instance but also the fostering of the truth and the separation of fact from fiction.

If you are interested in diversity and inclusion or finding out more about transforming your company culture to be more diverse and inclusive you may be interested in our Diversity and Inclusion Conference 2018 held in London on the 19th April. Click here for more details.