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How the Black Lives Matter Movement Will Affect HR Employee Investigations
Coming to A Workplace Near You?
Is HR Ready for This New Social Activism?
Welcome to post-Ferguson America, where now more than ever before people question firmly entrenched authorities.
They judge from the gut. They argue to upend technically lawful decisions and the entire systems that support them. They're not afraid to speak up, show up, and enlist like-minded others in their crusade for change.
November 2014 marked a 21st century turning point in America's consciousness on racism. This occurred after the unprosecuted shooting of 18-year-old African American Michael Brown by a Caucasian police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Protests and civil unrest quickly followed, and Black Lives Matter demonstrations spread beyond the St. Louis suburb to far-flung cities across America, including Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City.
Reader Weigh In
Do you support the demonstrations that have occurred since the Ferguson decision?
Is Silence An Act Of Complicity?
"Here, in [King's] own words, are the philosophy and strategy of nonviolent protest . . . King's persuasiveness comes through again and again." - The New York Times Book Review
Police Brutality Is Only One Concern
- "Hands up. Don't shoot,"
- "I can't breathe," and
- "Black lives matter."
Demonstrators of all races sat down, fell out in the streets, and hurled canned food, bottles, and rocks.
Complaining that silence is an act of complicity, they marched peacefully, stopped traffic, and defiantly stayed home on the biggest shopping day of the year.1 Students walked out of class and risked suspension.2 Athletes faced rebuke when they struck the now-famous hands-up pose for a national television audience.3
Have no doubt. Ferguson was a watershed event. Americans decided they were fed up and would have no more.
No matter how you feel personally about the demonstrations, odds are that this new social justice movement won't stop with concerns over police brutality.
Pressure Cooker Of Distrust
Why Are HR Employee Investigations Important?
When companies are alerted to possible misconduct in the workplace they have the duty to investigate the dispute.
Even if the misconduct is reported as an informal complaint, the company is officially put on notice. Its response can be a factor in whether an employee files and wins a lawsuit.
Example investigation issues include alleged acts of discrimination and harassment, theft, fraud, or other violations of policy.
Racism and the Workplace: What To Expect As A Result of the Black Lives Matter Movement
Emboldened by the public support for civil rights, citizens will also begin to call for improvements to economic and social justice on the job. After all:
- we spend one-third of our lives at work
- employment opportunities tangibly separate the haves from the have nots, and
- work fulfills a key social identity function. It gives valuable meaning to who we are are as people.
Here are five game-changing ways that Ferguson and its aftermath of racial consciousness and activism will impact HR employee investigations in tomorrow's workplace.
Will HR be ready? Will you?
Trying To Change the World: 5 Game Changers For HR
Change #1 - Employees Will Demand More Transparent Decisions
Think about all the key decisions that you entrust to strangers when you decide to go to work for a company. You have simple faith that decisions involving hiring, promotion, pay, and firing will be nondiscriminatory and legally compliant.
Such employment choices are critical because they affect the trajectory of your career. They translate into money in your pocket, status, and whether you even have a job. For example:
- Whether you're identified as "promotable," whether you are selected for a management training program, or whether you are even called for an interview ... these are someone else's decisions.
- In the event of a layoff, the assessment method that separates those who still have a job from those who do not—this, too, involves someone's decision. Let's hope it was a fair and non-discriminatory one.
- Think about pay, discipline, the opportunity for training, and issues surrounding your working conditions—for example, whether you'll get the time off you requested, and who gets assigned to what work space. You are at the mercy of decision makers.
- And when you complain? Whether your viewpoint will be considered, who hears your complaint, and what they do about it (if anything) ... those are each someone's decision.
In post-Ferguson America, employees will look more closely at both the consistency and appropriateness of such decisions. And particularly when employees don't get their desired result, they'll expect explanations that are reasonable. (Of course, they may or may not take the time to listen to those explanations.)
Who Is Spinning the Truth?
How much do you trust Human Resources?
Corporate Spinmeisters, Beware
For too long, HR and other decision makers have relied upon "spin" rather than plain-speak to present their decisions, and employees have allowed them to get by with it. Or HR decision makers have stonewalled employees with hollow explanations:
- "It's a confidential matter" or
- The decision was "consistent with the business needs of the Company."
And that was all that was offered. Sound familiar?
In post-Ferguson America, however, HR and managers will find that such empty answers won't be enough to satisfy employees hungry to understand why and how. It also won't be enough to be merely technically correct according to law and Company policy. If the decision doesn't have a straightforward explanation, then employees will be more prone to calling the Company out on it. Call if the "sniff test."
If a company requires a secret formula for a layoff, that's not transparent. If no one really understands how employees are identified as "promotable," then something truly stinks. It hasn't passed the sniff test.
And if middle and upper management is a vast wall of Caucasian masculinity, well ... sorry, but that's even more damning. (It's not always intentional. People select others like themselves and may have hidden biases they don't even know about. But that doesn't make it less harmful to those on the receiving end.)
Change #2 - Employees Will Question the Entire Decision Making System
Companies should anticipate that their entire HR Investigation processes may come under scrutiny. As a result, outsourcing this key compliance function will become an increasingly popular option.
Here's why: When an employee complains to HR about a work issue, he or she expects to receive an impartial hearing and fair resolution. Although the HR investigator works for the company, he or she is supposed to be an unbiased trier of fact, a symbolic judge and jury—but often the detective, too. However, there is an inherent conflict of interest in HR's multiple roles which will increasingly become an issue in post-Ferguson America.
Employees will be more apt to voice their distrust in both the decision-making authorities and the entire process. Employees will want corroboration that HR investigators are
- professionally trained
- reflective of a variety of demographics, and
- both neutral and ethically uncompromised by the fact of also being company employees.
Employees will want more participation in major decisions that impact them. They'll want evidence—metrics—that the system actually works. Companies will have to balance these demands with cost and efficiency. (They do have a business to run.)
Ultimately, it will be more cost-effective to outsource the HR Investigations role, and this will inspire greater employee confidence in the entire decision making system.
Change #3 - Employees Will Increasingly Look At Interpersonal Treatment
Just as the nation has side-stepped a real conversation about race, so too have American companies. It's seen as too delicate, too potentially explosive a topic.
However, employers will need to be able to articulate where they stand on the issue of race and inclusiveness, and they'll have to be able to back up their words with consistent deeds.
Research shows that fairness perceptions can influence how an employee will engage with the organization afterwards in terms of job satisfaction and commitment, absenteeism, turnover, sabotage, job performance, and performing voluntary work behaviors that help the company.
American Workers: Are We A Nation Of Malcontents?
According to Gallup, America is a nation of discontented workers, and it's costing the US $450-$550 billion a year.5
- 30% American workers feel engaged about their work -- that is they feel passionate about it and connected to their company.
- 52% American workers feel disengaged
- 18% were actively disengaged. They went out of their way to undermine their colleagues.
With 70% of people feeling "checked out" at work, expect the new social activism to spread beyond the issue of race. People of all backgrounds will be looking for ways to improve the quality of their work lives.
Continuing to pretend that race is a non-issue won't work. Race is an important lens through which we each experience the world. All of us have blind spots in our perceptions of others, and simply pretending that these don't exist won't make that so.
Because personnel and workplace issues are especially complex, employees use all of the available evidence to detect whether they have been fairly treated. Much of that comes in the way of interpersonal treatment.
When people feel unfairly targeted by authorities, they withdraw their cooperation. Ferguson has unfortunately highlighted this issue.
In the post-Ferguson workplace, employees will increasingly look at the extent to which decision-making authorities treat them with respect and non-bias during the investigation. Does the investigator appear to have the employee's best interests at heart, or does s/he seem punitive? They'll look for evidence that they are valued members of the organization and that their perspective is considered.
These perceptions are the employee's truth. These perceptions matter. Or at least, they should. Research shows that fairness perceptions can influence how an employee will engage with the organization afterwards in terms of job satisfaction and commitment, absenteeism, turnover, sabotage, job performance, and performing voluntary work behaviors that help the company.
Power In Numbers, Attention With Theatrics
Change #4 - Employees Will Use Sensationalism To Gain Attention
If you work in a quiet office where everyone gets along, count yourself lucky. Many people do not.
Just as the situation Ferguson, there are employee situations where reactions can quickly spiral out of control. And when people feel powerless and disenfranchised, they often resort to dramatic options to air their complaints:
- confronting the CEO at a shareholder's meeting
- sending a mass company email
- posting a YouTube video or
- circulating petitions.
As gossip spreads, facts become fuzzier ... sides are taken ... issues morph ... the situation snowballs out of control. As a result, a public relations crisis occurs as a result of an incident that could have been handled better (in-house) if either the company or the employee had reached out instead of shutting down.
In post-Ferguson America, HR will need to anticipate and prevent such problems through improved communication, giving special effort to identifying employee thought leaders and major issues. They'll also need to be quick responders, deescalating employee issues that have already erupted from growing out of control.
As gossip spreads, facts become fuzzier ... sides are taken ... issues morph ... the situation snowballs out of control. As a result, a public relations crisis occurs as a result of an incident that could have been handled better (in-house) if either the company or the employee had reached out instead of shutting down.— FlourishAnyway
Change #5 - Employees Will Mobilize More Outside Of the System
There is power in numbers, and the post-Ferguson protests demonstrate that people have found effective ways to mobilize outside of a system they feel is stacked against them.
Within an employment context, individuals certainly have the option to find other employment. However, post-Ferguson more employees will perceive that it's their duty to speak out and seek change in their own circles of influence. Thus they'll increasingly mobilize support by
- joining forces with other employees in their workplace who have the same concerns (i.e., class action lawsuits)
- complaining to government agencies in record numbers
- enlisting support from powerful others, including elected officials, celebrities, and civil rights organizations and
- airing their grievances through the media.
An Employee's Complaint Options Outside the Workplace
Complain to an external government agency
Enlist support from powerful others
Go public with the grievance
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and/or state Human Rights Board
Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCCP) - for the many businesses that are federal contractors
one's elected officials (especially Congressional Black Caucus members)
U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (WHD)
The End Has Yet To Be Written
The chapter that was Ferguson is not yet complete. We don't know how this one fully plays out yet. But what we do know is that civil rights in America will never be the same.
We've seen a renewed energy, albeit an imperfect activism, sweeping the country. And just as Rosa Parks' defiance wasn't restricted to civil rights in transportation, today's Black Lives Matter marches won't be restricted to the allegations of police brutality. It will eventually expand to the workplace as people seek economic and social justice there.
Will you be ready?
History Is Still Being Written
Quotes Worth Reflecting Upon
"If you want to make enemies, try to change something."
- Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States
"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."
- Desmond Tutu, South African social rights activist
"Excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism."
- Oprah Winfrey, American talk show host
"It is often easier to become outraged by injustice half a world away than by oppression and discrimination half a block from home."
- Carl T. Rowan, American newspaper reporter
"Sadly, whites are rarely open to what black and brown folks have to say regarding their ongoing experiences with racist mistreatment. And we are especially reluctant to discuss what that mistreatment means for us as whites: namely that we end up with more and better opportunities as the flipside of discrimination."
- Tim Wise, American anti-racism activist and writer
"When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."
- Victor Frankl, Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor
"The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do."
- Amelia Earhart, American aviator
1CBS News. "Ferguson decision ignites protests in many cities." Last modified November 25, 2014. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ferguson-decision-ignites-protests-in-many-cities/.
2Liao, Shannon. "NYC High School Students Risk Suspension and Arrests to Protest Ferguson." The Epoch Times. Last modified December 1, 2014. http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/1115649-new-york-city-high-school-students-walk-out-of-classes-in-protest-of-ferguson-decision/.
3Walters, John. "What Hands Up, Don't Shoot Really Says." Newsweek. Last modified December 2, 2014.http://www.newsweek.com/what-hands-dont-shoot-really-says-288685.
4Tyler, Tom R., and Steven L. Blader. Cooperation in Groups: Procedural Justice, Social Identity, and Behavioral Engagement. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press, 2000.
5CBS News. "Study: Most Americans unhappy at work." Last modified June 25, 2013. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/study-most-americans-unhappy-at-work/.
© 2014 FlourishAnyway