If you ask any HR professional who has been responsible for employee relations, the majority of them will tell you they have had a conversation that started with this phrase. (I don’t want you to do anything, I just thought you should know). Your response is very important, but can go one of two ways. Either you stop the employee there and inform him/her of your obligations under the law to share the information with involved parties if the claim is related to harassment, discrimination or the safety of one or more employees. Or, you can ask the employee to discuss the impact that the incident(s) are having on their job, and what they think would need to change in order to feel more comfortable. Let’s examine both options a little more closely.
The downside to telling the employee that you cannot guarantee confidentiality is that the employee may then choose not to share the details of the incident(s). Harassment laws state that the employer is liable if they knew or should have known what was going on. Having the employee leave without providing you with any information may create liability for the company. The upside is, that if the employee truly believes there is wrongdoing, they will often continue talking with you anyway. This method will often weed out those who are only coming to HR or a Senior Manager, in order to cause trouble for a supervisor or co-worker. You can often console an employee by providing that you will only share information with those who have a business need to know, that you will share only limited, general information, and that you will keep them informed of the process and who will be informed before you share the information with anyone. And finally, this is a great point to inform the employee of their rights and protections under retaliation laws.
The second option generally works well when the employee doesn’t seem especially upset by what has happened, or in the case of a pattern developing, rather than a specific incident. In this case you can encourage the employee to share what difficulties he/she is experiencing in their job. For example, the employee may state that another employee is constantly sharing what they are doing in their personal life. The employee may feel this is distracting from their work, taking time out of their day, or making them feel uncomfortable with the subject matter. You can then provide helpful assistance the employee can use to make the behavior stop. For example, you can suggest that they pull the employee aside from other employees and share that they feel that they are not able to get the proper amount of work done and are uncomfortable with all of the personal conversation during work hours. The employee can ask that he or she be able to have some quiet to be able to appropriately focus on their work. If the employee agrees to try to correct the problem themselves, that is perfectly acceptable. Just be sure to remind the employee that if this solution doesn’t work, you will need more information, and set a follow-up meeting to ensure the solution is working, and document you conversation and follow-up plan. Since there are no details of who or when, this should not be shared with managers, or any other party at this time.
With either of these methods, you should be prepared to change to the other method mid conversation as the conversation progresses. And remember, it is important to let the employee do most of the talking. Your role is to listen and be impartial, while obtaining all the information you may need if the situation progresses.
I mentioned confidentiality a bit earlier. We’ll get into more detail in Part 2.