There are a number of reasons people are drawn to the Human Resources profession. The one constant, however, seems to be that people in HR have a good deal of emotional intelligence and/or self-identify as people persons. In other words, they’re a good "read" of others. That skill set is particularly advantageous when interviewing candidates for a position or conducting a workplace investigation. HR’s ability to assess the credibility of the complainant against the accused, as well as the witnesses and their underlying motives, is critical to getting as close as possible to the truth of a matter.
The problem with such a skill set is the tendency to engage in tunnel vision. HR’s acute ability to understand the players and their motives can give them such an accurate read of a situation, HR fails to step back and look at how others would assess the situation without the benefit of factoring in body language or tonal shifts, etc. And, of course, by others, think an official at the Department of Fair Employment and Housing or U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When employees bring claims of harassment or discrimination, they must exhaust their administrative remedies with a governmental agency at the state or federal level before pursuing their claims in court (either by obtaining "right to sue" letters or via a just cause determination by the agency itself). And note that an agency’s investigation generally plays out on paper with position statements and offers of documentary evidence—not by calling witnesses to the stand. Even when it’s possible to get a read on a claimant’s body language, claimants are seldom the same people in, say, a mediation that they were at work. Further, when an employee takes their case to an attorney, that attorney will want to review all the documents relevant to the case before agreeing to represent the employee. Ultimately, HR must assume that reading people is secondary to what is apparent from the documents supporting the employment action.
Whether it be a claim of discriminatory hiring practices or unlawful harassment, step back and assess how the situation looks with as neutral an eye as you can. It’s often the case that an employee has such a history with the company, it’s easy to discredit their version of events, especially given their posturing when conducting the investigation itself. But remember: Their demeanor doesn’t translate to paper. Moreover, supervisors are seldom as good at performance documentation as they should be. It’s very likely the case that the employee’s personnel file makes them look much more favorable than what is widely known to management. These considerations must factor into any decision to discipline or discharge. Likewise, in hiring, ensure the resumes and interviewer’s notes support the most qualified candidate for the position.
The Employers Group Helpline answers thousands of calls a year, many of which provide this neutral, third-party perspective to a situation for which HR has become too close to remain neutral. That perspective can help HR assess not just how it might look but facilitate an additional review the documentation in light of that perspective.
Need another opinion on any issue you're facing at work? Members can contact the Helpline at 800-748-8484 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Article by Mark Nelson, J.D., Senior Helpline Consultant