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Karen Grave: The consequences of getting things wrong

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Sometimes the consequences of getting things wrong are so important that they give us real pause for thought and cause us to question our practices. 

karen grave 2018

karen grave 2018

Karen Grave, president, Public Services People Managers Association

For human resources and organisational development practitioners, managing workforce related matters well is something we should be aspiring too whatever our particular area of practice.

However, I would argue that one of the most important areas to get right are related to employee relations – bullying, conduct, grievance. LGC research has shown that over the last 3 years we have started to see a rise in cases – this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a range of reasons. However, getting things wrong in terms of how we conduct those matters has serious and often long-lasting consequences.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking protecting reputation justifies damaging an individual

For anyone involved in a complaint – whatever its nature – there is no doubt that it can be a stressful experience to go through. Good human resources practice should always attempt to ensure that a grievance, conduct or other matter can be resolved before a formal process is started. This isn’t because we are trying to cover up items, it’s rather that we know that once a formal process starts an often ‘invisible’ set of pressures can arise. All involved feel pressurised, people worry about the consequences of raising a complaint. Thankfully, many cases are resolved well and although some complaints are rising, they are a tiny proportion of the work that HR and organisational development practitioners do.

Nevertheless, it’s cases that go badly wrong that are most instructive. This is because they tell us a lot about organisation culture, whether our HR processes are robust and perhaps more importantly they tell us a lot about whether our organisations live and breathe their values.

As a HR professional, it is always deeply disappointing to see when things go wrong. Thankfully it doesn’t happen too often but when it does, it can be awful. We know of the experiences of dedicated employees who have raised whistleblowing concerns about practices in health and local government. Some of these individuals have found themselves treated appallingly badly – people have been suspended for years in some instances, accused of terrible actions which have subsequently been proven to have been false, forced out of their roles, forced to sign settlement agreements and sometimes people have struggled to be employed again.

It is not unreasonable that organisations will try and manage their reputation. But it is profoundly unreasonable if this is done at the expense of people who are genuinely trying to make things better and who have been brave enough to formally raise a genuine and evidence-based complaint.

There are real consequences. It is often hard to recover an organisation’s reputation, employee morale dips, trust corrodes, recruitment becomes harder and so on. Often times it is when organisations are already under pressure that things go badly wrong.

There isn’t a magic wand but perhaps there are some tips that might help leaders and HR avoid the bad mistakes:

  • Create a culture where managing workforce issues is an integral part of everyone’s role, so that we can proactively manage issues and nip them in the bud
  • Make sure HR processes are robust, agile and reflect organisation values for when you need them – it is doable.

And the most important for me – always always put the individuals involved at the heart of the matter. Always reflect on why people are making complaints, don’t do something that goes against your values, don’t make the mistake of thinking that protecting reputation justifies damaging an individual and make sure that you act in a way that means you can look yourself in the mirror.

Sometimes tough decisions need to be made, but the way we make them and the way we enact them defines us. 

Karen Grave, president, Public Services People Managers Association

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