Can you keep a secret?

By Marcia Sartori 
 
Would you dare to interrupt a group of co-workers who are engaging in inappropriate behavior? If you saw some of your co-workers making inappropriate gestures, would you correct them? If you heard a group of employees laughing about another employee’s foreign name, would you take the time to correct them?
 
Most of us would answer these questions yes, we would do something.
 
As business owners we need to carry this same level of taking an action to help or correct a situation. We interact with employees daily. We face a far greater liability personally and professionally if we do not take an action to assure our business processes are run properly and our employee interactions are free from improper behaviors. Can an employee feel free to say anything to you or around you and have no action taken because you can keep it to yourself?
 
If you are interacting with a group of employees and an employee tells a joke or makes a remark that specifically focuses on anyone in a protected class, the only choice you have is to take an action and the best action is to state in front of everyone, “I just need to thank you for giving me an opportunity to clarify to everyone here about what kinds of words and jokes we cannot have in the workplace.” To the person making the comment, “You can consider this a verbal warning. To the rest of you, consider yourselves educated and warned with a real life example of what we can’t say in the workplace. I do expect that each of you will take the opportunity to let others know. We are not paid to tell jokes or make what can be seen as negative comments about others of any race, age, creed, religious preference, sexual preference, or veteran status. For me to not remind all of you of this would not be fair to you.”
 
Now you may say, “I have always been told that a supervisor should correct employees in private.” The entire group heard it; the entire group was responsible for participating. So do you wish to be the supervisor that participates in this kind of behavior and does nothing or do you wish to be a supervisor who upholds a harassment free workplace? It is your choice and your liability. However, keep in mind that responding in front of everyone is a very clear message that can do more than any bulletin board posting. If you do not respond immediately, you may hear in the future that you routinely tolerate jokes that single out specific groups of people.
 
When an employee speaks to you and says, “Can we have a conversation that is confidential?” Your answer can really only be “Yes, but there are some areas in which I must take an action and if you get into any of these areas, I will let you know.” Whenever an employee gets into an area such as embezzlement, harassment, or inappropriate behavior, you have a responsibility to the company, yourself, the employee making the allegation, and the employee alleged to have done something improper. One cannot automatically assume that the employee is telling the truth, nor can one assume that the alleged wrongdoer has not done anything wrong. As a supervisor you can guarantee the employee to whom you are speaking that you have a responsibility to investigate this situation and will do your best to keep this as confidential as possible. In addition, you will conduct an investigation and will report findings at the conclusion of the investigation. Be sure that you do follow through on the investigation. You may consider having an outside organization conduct the investigation to ensure objectivity or if you choose to conduct the investigation yourself; you should get help on the proper way to conduct the investigation. After you conduct the investigation you should respond back to the employee in writing, have the employee sign your response, and maintain a signed copy for your files.
 
One may never really know the full implications of our actions, but we can establish a record.
 
I know of a company that had welding work to be done. Although the company had internal welders, a welding firm was contracted to help accomplish the work. When one of the contracted welders was teamed up with one of the company’s welders, the contracted welder said, “I don’t work with people of your race.” The company welder called his supervisor to report this incident. The next action employees observed was all the contracted welders including the supervisor, being removed from the company premises. This one action caused the contractor to lose the job. If the contractor’s employees had been informed of proper conduct, the contractor may have been able to complete the work. The employees of the company now had evidence that not only does the company stand behind their words, but they take appropriate action to assure a workplace free from harassment. Two years later in a Federal court case, the plant manager was able to state that whenever improper behavior was observed, immediate action was taken. He was able to make reference to this scenario and pointed out how they had terminated the contractor because of their behavior. 
 
Invest the time to educate yourself on recognizing inappropriate behaviors in daily employee interactions and business transactions. Then, the next time you overhear something, observe something, or have something brought to your attention that you know to be inappropriate, you, too, can take the appropriate actions to limit your liability.
 
 
Marcia J. Sartori is Vice President of Human Resources with TRSG, Inc.
 

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