A big part of my job in HR is ensuring that the workplace is fair and everyone feels comfortable at work. Sometimes this means that I am brought in as a neutral third party to investigate and get as close to the truth as anyone possibly can. If the issue was brought forward by another associate and not a manager, it ain’t over until everyone has closure – and by everyone I am including the person who brought the issue up. They need to know that I not only looked into their concern, but that I took it seriously. This gets tricky because, while I do let the person know the issue has been addressed, I also tell them that I can’t go into specifics about how. As you can probably imagine, this can be a tough pill to swallow, especially if the issue was – at least in their mind – pretty egregious. They want to know that justice was served! They want revenge! However, to go into lurid details is actually a disservice to everyone involved. Trust me – no one is served by hearing the lurid facts about what did or did not happen to Johnny after he made that joke about the hard of hearing genie.
Now, just because this is the right thing to do doesn’t mean that it came to me naturally. Truth be told, when I was starting out I struggled with it. I couldn’t keep from putting myself in the shoes of the person who had initially come to me. I could see these folks sitting there thinking: “Here’s this HR guy sitting across from me, all decked out in his plaid shirt and Dockers, telling me that it has been addressed, and that should it happen again to come and talk to him, but why? What good is it going to do? I just saw Johnny in the lunchroom, walking around like nothing happened! He is still here with his salisbury steak, jello, and his inappropriate (and frankly not very funny) jokes, so what good did it do for me to go talk to this guy in the first place?”
Then it occurred to me. I am neutral, and to be neutral I had to be fair, and in order to be fair I had to treat everyone the same. Johnny screwed up, Johnny has a letter in his file and is on a short leash. In fact, I am fairly certain that Johnny wished the whole thing had never happened. However, to share all of that is not fair to Johnny. He has been addressed, and to tell the complainant the gory details doesn’t do anything but increase unnecessary gossip. Therefore, when I am asked what happened, I now respond by saying that it was addressed, but out of fairness to Johnny I am not going to go into details. That almost always ends it because even though someone may want to know more, they also know that they might be in Johnny’s boat someday and they will appreciate the same treatment.
If you are a manager and you have to address one of your employees, show them the respect everyone deserves and keep the details to a need to know basis – meaning maybe your boss, maybe your HR rep, whatever your organization dictates, but let it stop there. If someone comes to you wanting to know what happened with the issue of fill in the blank, simply reply that it has been addressed. If they push for details, appeal to their sense of fairness: if you were in their shoes, I wouldn’t share that, so I am going to extend the same courtesy them.
If you are someone who has been wronged and you have gone to HR – please don’t hate on them for not giving you a detailed account of what happened. They may not give you the fairness speech, but just assume that is the reason for the tight lips.
And if you are Johnny – eat your salisbury steak and leave the bad jokes to the professionals and HR bloggers.