May 1 2020 - When there is a major dispute between two people within the walls of the office, it's easy to determine the role of your human resources department. Your job is to step in as a neutral third party when people cannot otherwise come to an accord. You are a mediator, ensuring that everyone within your organization follows your standards of acceptable professional behavior.
Simple enough, right?
But what happens when the root of a conflict isn't within the workplace? What happens when two employees are involved in a personal dispute taking place outside of work hours? When should you get involved, and when should you simply leave them to sort things out on their own?
The short answer is that it depends.
As an employer, your organization does not have direct control over how employees conduct themselves outside of work. That isn't to say you've no influence, however. You can and should mandate and expect a baseline of acceptable behavior.
In broad strokes, this should cover the following:
- Social media. Employees should, as representatives of the company, avoid overtly inflammatory or hateful conduct. They should not openly disparage their employer or colleagues, nor should they misrepresent the organization in any way, shape, or form.
- Public behavior. Employees should act professionally and respectably, and remain within the boundaries of the law. They should not engage in any openly illegal behavior, including harassment or stalking of customers or co-workers.
- Impact on work. Employees should avoid any behavior outside the workplace which will directly impact their capacity to perform their duties.
- Interpersonal disputes. It is expected that employees leave any disputes that occur outside the workplace where they originated.
By ensuring you have a comprehensive and well-thought-out policy for off-the-job conduct, you can then determine, on a case-by-case basis, if a particular incident requires informal mediation, a grievance hearing, or a disciplinary hearing. Do note, however, that there are certain scenarios in which your department most assuredly should become involved. Most commonly, these are cases of open harassment, such as stalking and sexual misconduct.
In these situations, it is your responsibility as an employer to launch an investigation into the conflict. You must take all such claims of harassment and unsafe conduct seriously. In part, this is because your HR department plays a vital role in the safety and well-being of employees.
But moreover, it's tied to the fact that, particularly in situations involving sexual harassment, organizational leadership plays a critical role in ensuring poor conduct is taken seriously.
"Our research points to a single step that leaders can take to help reduce sexual harassment," reads a research brief published in the Harvard Business Review. "Communicate to employees that preventing it is a high-priority issue...Companies that wish to eradicate sexual harassment must follow words with actions, taking steps to bring transparency and accountability to policies and investigation processes. However, setting the right tone with a clear zero-tolerance message is an important first step."
Situations involving sexual harassment aside and unsafe conduct aside, whether or not HR should step in and tackle personal disputes must ultimately be determined on a case-by-case basis. Lay down clear-cut policies, and be vigilant to ensure that out of work conflict does not bleed into the workplace.
About the Author
Brad Wayland is the Chief Strategy Officer at BlueCotton, a site with high-quality, easy-to-design custom t-shirts.