Emtrain Blog

How to Develop Our Workplace Respect Skill

How to Develop Our Workplace Respect SkillStudies show that work conflict impacts us in pretty significant ways—often even more than personal or family drama. That's because our identities are often tied to our work. So feeling disrespected can affect our self-esteem and trigger anxiety, stress - and often lead to conflict.

It's easy to say we should act respectfully in the workplace. But what does respect look like when we're stressed and facing a big deadline? Or, when we are out of the office having fun with co-workers?

You might think "Respect is easy—because I'm a good person." But good people make poor choices all the time. So what’s the difference between being “good” and being “respectful”?

Being respectful is intentional and takes practice and skill.

Creating a shared language of respect

Developing Our Culture Competency

Developing Our Culture CompetencyWhy Workplace Skills Are Just As Important As Career Skills
People prepare for their career by developing and practicing the skills related to their domain.  Marketers practice writing; salespeople practice the challenger sale; software developers practice coding, etc.  Sometimes, people learn a second set of skills when they take on a management or leadership role. These skills support the ability to manage a team or lead a department.  

Working on a team with different sorts of people also requires skill.  At least it does if you want a healthy workplace culture.  So what do workplace skills entail?  Workplace skills support the ability to be respectful and inclusive, and make good ethical decisions.  These three skills, working in tandem, create a healthy workplace culture which benefits recruitment, retention, and productivity.  But these three skills don’t just happen. They actually take intention, practice, and development. And when you deliberately cultivate those skills, that’s culture competency.


Core Culture Competency Skills at Work

Let’s start with being respectful.  It sounds pretty simple and it’s easy to think that any decent person could easily be respectful with co-workers.  But that’s a bit simplistic.  What happens when a “decent” person is stressed and out of patience?  Or letting off steam with co-workers after work?  Or is socially unaware of context and people’s reactions to their comments?  

There are plenty of “decent” people that act disrespectfully—sometimes unknowingly; sometimes carelessly; sometimes recklessly.  People need to be consciously respectful when they interact with co-workers.  Consciously respectful means we learn how to be patient and not react to difficult situations.  Instead, we shift our perspective and see the situation through another person’s lens.  

What about the ability to be inclusive?  Again, being consciously inclusive means we slow down; rely on a neutral framework to help us make better workplace decisions and make an effort to switch our perspective to see a situation from another person’s shoes.  This sounds easy, but it’s not.  It takes practice.  And just because you’re a smart person with good intentions doesn’t mean you’re automatically inclusive.

How about making ethical decisions?  When people are emotional and excited at a personal benefit or scared about a negative situation, then anyone can rationalize anything!  Any of us can tell ourselves a story that supports an intended decision—no matter how unethical.

What about when a good person finds a great business opportunity that benefits them personally, but not necessarily their employer?  Or when a good person is on the verge of getting fired and is motivated to “fudge” facts a bit to keep their job a little while longer?  Our emotions control our actions so much of the time and sometimes, those emotions are counter-productive to a healthy workplace culture.  So the ability to make good, ethical decisions comes from slowing down; identifying whether we have any personal motivations influencing our decision (either positive or negative) and then using a neutral framework to help us make better workplace decisions.  

Making ethical decisions is a conscious, practiced skill… it’s not just an innate characteristic of “good” people.  The same applies to inclusion and respect.  Yet organizations predominantly treat these skills as rules that people can quickly absorb in order to comply with organizational values.  That’s the wrong approach with the wrong intention, driven by lawyers whose main intention is to prevent and defend litigation—not to develop workplace skills.  Your intention drives results and when your intention is risk management, you don’t build skills.  But these are skills in the same way people have management skills.  Yes, you can read a book and theoretically understand the concepts… but it takes ongoing practice to become competent in these areas.  And that’s what employees and organizations need—cultural competency.

Developing Your Culture Competency Takes Intention and Practice

These are not innate abilities. Just because you are a well-intentioned person doesn’t mean you will be a great member of the workplace. That’s why culture competency requires developing essential workplace skills that require practice over time. Sure, some people may be more intuitive than others. But even if you intuitively have the right approach, it’s not the same as intentionally developing these skills and consciously putting them into use each day.

When we work with others, it's our job to develop our workplace respect, inclusion, and ethics skills so each one of us can actively create a healthier workplace culture. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing my perspective on how to build your own culture competency or set of workplace skills, and which sensitive workplace situations are good practice to develop these essential skills.

An Open Letter to the State of New York Regarding Workplace Sexual Harassment

An Open Letter to the State of New York Regarding Workplace Sexual HarassmentGuidance on Workplace Sexual Harassment is a Good Start, but Current Content Will Have Unintended Consequences that Will Make it Harder to Accomplish Your Goal to Eradicate Workplace Sexual Harassment

In April of 2018, Gov. Cuomo signed a bill which included, among many other provisions, new rules on how to identify, prevent, and resolve issues of workplace sexual harassment.  

The legislative mandates are the most sweeping of any state and New York is rightfully being lauded for its commitment to end workplace sexual harassment. The statute’s preamble, along with statements issued by the Governor and numerous sponsoring legislators, make the intent of this sweeping legislation clear: The law seeks to give voice to victims of harassment, hold individual perpetrators of harassment accountable, and send a strong message to employers about the prohibition of organizational tolerance and complicity.

Last week, the state issued guidance on how to comply with these new mandates. It’s a good start, but the authors of the guidance must ensure that the final language helps to achieve the law’s intended objectives. As currently written, some of the provisions have the potential to do the opposite.

This letter focuses on three documents - the sample policy, the sample complaint form and the guidance on training - and provides suggestions on how to improve them to make it more likely to assist employers and employees in their quest to end harassment.


Sample Policy

My guess is that the state will receive many comments about these and other issues related to the proposed policy language. Many of these comments will be from constituents with an agenda of advocacy—they will likely be “pro employee” or “pro employer.” By contrast, Emtrain is committed to providing resources and guidance that is equally applicable to leaders, managers and non-management employees. Our goal is to help everyone at work do their part to create and maintain a healthy, productive and inclusive workplace culture. And while the state’s commitment to prevent harassment is laudable and much of the guidance given is helpful, there are a few things included in the sample policy that miss the mark.

Definition of “sexual harassment”

The definition of this key concept, as written, leaves out a critical component of unlawful sexual harassment.

Under the section “What is ‘Sexual Harassment?” the language indicates: “A sexually harassing hostile work environment consists of words, signs, jokes, pranks, intimidation or physical violence which are of a sexual nature, or which are directed at an individual because of that individual’s sex. Sexual harassment also consists of any unwanted verbal or physical advances,sexually explicit derogatory statements or sexually discriminatory remarks…” Indicating that “any” unwanted conduct is sexual harassment ignores the long-recognized legal requirement that that behavior is considered unlawful only if it is severe or pervasive.

This misstatement of the law will cause confusion and hurt employers and employees alike. Employers will be required to give employees inaccurate legal information and will have to find other avenues to clarify the mistake.

Employees will mistakenly believe that even one incident can be a basis for a legal claim and might miss out on the opportunity to engage their company’s internal complaint mechanism.  

Everybody wins if companies are encouraged (or required) to implement robust and authentic complaint investigation resolution systems that encourage reports of misconduct (I call it a culture of truth-telling) and that approaches complaints as an opportunity to problem solve, rather than a burden.

With the current definition, one unintended consequence will be that employees might bypass the chance to address issues early, thereby making it more likely that the behavior will escalate and become unlawful harassment. Further, it may cause employees to think they need to seek legal counsel before giving their company a chance to address their concerns.

Complaint and investigation process

There are a number of issues with this section, all of which have a significant chance to be counterproductive.

Investigation of all complaints (emphasis in original): This makes sense. The state of New York, like many other legislators and private citizens, knows that too many reports of sexually-charged or sexist behavior have been ignored. It’s this attitude—ignore complaints, especially if they’re against high-powered leaders—that ultimately culminated into the #MeToo movement.

However, those of us who have received workplace complaints and conducted investigations know that not every single complaint can or should be formally investigated.

What’s better than requiring a full-blown investigation every time an employee uses a legally-charged term? A few things.

First, develop an early resolution program. That means you teach employees to call out bad behavior as soon as it starts—whether you’re the target or a bystander. Sometimes employees won’t be comfortable intervening, but having that as an option is helpful for everyone.

Next, teach employees a new language—one that doesn’t focus exclusively on legal terminology. Rather than “he harassed me,” teach employees to describe the behavior and its effect. “Rob calls me ‘honey’ in meetings. It’s embarrassing and demeaning and gives me the impression he doesn’t respect me as much as my male colleagues. I’d like your help so he can see how damaging his words are and stop talking to me this way.”

Finally, provide workplace investigators with the proper tools and resources to learn how to distinguish reports of misconduct that warrant an investigation and those that involve uncomplicated employee relations concerns. And make sure that organizations give these investigators the authority to conduct investigations and implement remedial measures that actually fix problems, rather than conducting perfunctory and inauthentic inquiries that everyone knows will lead to a slap on the wrist at most.

Use of complaint form: While it’s understandable that the state wants to encourage employers to keep verifiable records of harassment complaints, the form itself (see below) and the language about its use misses the mark. The policy “encourages” complainants to use the form. That’s good—the policy doesn’t mandate its use. However, the section goes on, “If [the complainant] refuses, prepare a Complaint Form based on oral reporting.” It’s semantics, but labeling an employee declining the “encouragement” to fill out a form shouldn’t be characterized as a refusal. Employees reading that type of language might mistakenly interpret it as intimidating and feel discouraged (rather than “encouraged”) from making a report in the first place.

Procedure: The policy says investigations should be completed in 30 days. This timeline is likely reasonable for a large percentage of investigations, but adding in language giving investigators the ability to use his/her judgment would be helpful. Similarly, the policy currently says “all parties involved, including relevant witnesses” will be interviewed. In many (most) investigations, there is no need to speak to every single person who might have information about the complaint. In fact, in many instances an investigator is able to thoroughly collect information without speaking to everyone and would cause greater harm by further expanding the inquiry.

In both these examples, the state appears to want to standardize workplace investigations—to provide guardrails to prevent incomplete or sham investigations. This is a great goal. However, what is missing is that workplace investigations, by definition, are not cookie-cutter endeavors. They require tons of judgment, compassion and customization. Having these types of requirements and taking away an investigator’s need to use independent and unbiased judgment will do more harm than good.

Investigation reports: The policy calls for a very structured written investigation report that includes (apparently) mandatory sections:  a list of document reviewed and a summary of the documents; a list of witnesses and summaries of what they said; a timeline of events; a summary of prior relevant incidents (reported and unreported); and the final resolution of the complaint (along with the corrective action taken).

First, this again undercuts the autonomy that must be given to impartial workplace investigators. I know, the intent here is to recognize that too many so-called “impartial investigators” were anything but. That’s fair and something needs to be done to make sure investigations are timely, provide everyone due process, are fair and are conducted by fair-minded professionals who seek to find the truth, solve problems and make the workplace better. This policy doesn’t do that. Instead, it seeks to build in impartiality through a strict structure, but this won’t remove bias, it will simply take away control and judgment.

Additionally, if investigators have to produce this type of report for every single investigation they conduct (particularly if they have to investigate and produce this type of report every time an employee lodges a complaint, as discussed above), employers will be required to hire an army or workplace investigators to handle the workload and the department will lose its independence and objectivity and will instead worry about finishing investigations quickly and hastily churn out reports.

Written documentation of investigation: The policy indicates the employer should “keep written documentation and associated documents in the employer’s records.” This is a good practice, but the language should include a clarification—these documents should be kept in a separate investigation file, NOT in personnel files. (The only document that should be in the personnel file is any written discipline or summary of discipline in the file of the person found to have engaged in misconduct.) WIthout this caveat, employers might place information about an investigation in a complainant’s personnel file, which could wreak havoc.

Information to complainant: “Inform the individual who complained of their right to file a complaint or charge externally as outlined below.” Any individual has the right to file a complaint and therefore there is technically nothing wrong with this mandate. The problem is that not all workplace complaints rise to the level of illegality and therefore may be dismissed by outside entities. Investigation reports should not reach legal conclusions, only factual conclusions (“Sue’s claim that Bob sent her ten sexually-charged emails is substantiated…” NOT “Sue’s claim that Bob sexually harassed her is substantiated…”) and the implication of this clause is that every employee has a case that will lead to employer liability. Additionally, this puts the workplace investigator in the uncomfortable position to have to field further questions about whether the complainant should move forward with a legal claim.

In the policy author’s quest to make sure all complaints are taken seriously and to provide a structure for conducting impartial investigations, they have overstepped and instead have taken away a crucial element of the investigation process: allowing investigators to use their sound judgment when looking into workplace concerns. If the language in the policy stems from an inherent mistrust of the system or a belief that internal investigators are fundamentally biased, my recommendation is to draft a comprehensive guide on how to conduct impartial investigations like we did in California.

Sample Complaint Form

I see two fundamental issues with the sample complaint form.

Asking complainant for legal information: Question #2 states,“Please describe the conduct or incident(s) that is the basis of this complaint and your reasons for concluding that the conduct is sexual harassment.” A better question would be to ask the complainant to describe the conduct that is unwelcome and/or offensive in detail and ask that person to describe the effect the behavior has on his/her ability to conduct their work as efficiently as possible (or words to that effect). Asking the complainant to not only provide information but to essentially reach a legal conclusion is dangerous and counterproductive. It also might discourage an employee from using this form since coming up with reasons “why this is harassment” is daunting.

What We Can Learn from Real-world Stories of Diversity and Bias

What We Can Learn from Real-world Stories of Diversity and BiasAs we’ve been helping companies create a more inclusive and diverse workplace with unconscious bias training, we’ve been lucky to accumulate some very rich qualitative data in the form of stories that are shared in response to the course material. We think that the thoughtful, safe environment of an online course that encourages an open mindset and nudges behavior change is a primary driver of encouraging participants to share their stories. We also promise anonymity, and this combination seems to make employees particularly open to sharing their personal stories.Why Personal Stories Matter

Personal stories are a particularly important element in efforts to create a healthier corporate culture because stories can impact their audience's beliefs, attitudes, intentions and behaviors. Stories tend to stay in people’s minds. Whether it’s a board member, an executive, a line manager, or an entry-level employee, someone’s emotional reaction and empathy response to hearing a story from within their own organization carries over into future actions and influences future decisions.

We’ve seen a range of stories from heartwarming to haunting, and share a selection of those stories with you to give a first-hand perspective of how unconscious bias affects the workplace.

The Positive Side of Bias and Diversity

Although many of the stories that are shared fall under the “what not to do” umbrella, we do often hear stories from employees who understand and appreciate the diversity in their organization, even if there’s still some work to do.

Here’s how we’ve heard employees talk about their understanding of why diversity is important for business:

“We have diversity in nationality of people where each one comes from a place and a culture that help understand more the diversity of customers we have.”

Decision-Making in Workplace Investigations: Keep it Fair

Remove unconscious bias from your workplace investigationsNow more than ever, companies are being held to a higher standard when it comes to workplace misconduct. They must have reliable and safe methods for employees to report misconduct, and they must establish trustworthy mechanisms for investigating and resolving those concerns. That means making sure that your decision-making when investigating claims of misconduct is free of actual or perceived bias.  We hear about the mental shortcuts our brains take to get through our everyday lives. Research tells us that many of these shortcuts are necessary and harmless, but more and more studies show that these shortcuts are sometimes quite damaging, especially when it comes to basing our workplace decision-making on stereotypes and faulty assumptions.

The discussion around unconscious bias at work has primarily focused on the employee life cycle—from hiring to promotions and from employee development to pay equity. An area that hasn’t been explored as extensively, however, is how our unconscious biases affect our ability to make sound decisions in the area of workplace investigations.

Corporations Must be Fair When Receiving and Addressing Complaints

How do we ensure that our decision-making is fair from the time a complaint is made until the investigation is finalized and a resolution is implemented? First, it requires a recognition that these unconscious biases exist and that they may inadvertently taint the decision-making of anyone associated with the complaint-investigation-resolution process.

This means that line managers—the group employees are most likely to turn to if they have a concern—must know how to distinguish between a relatively straightforward employee relations or performance issue (meaning an issue they can likely resolve on their own) and an issue that presents a more serious complaint that needs to be formally investigated.

And then there are the people in charge of actually conducting the investigations–are they being fair when making decisions about important issues like whether to investigate, who to interview (or not interview), or when making credibility determinations?

Finally, those in charge of participating in the process of fixing problems uncovered by a workplace investigation must be equally careful to make sure their own biases don’t negatively impact their decision-making.

How Unconscious Bias Can Negatively Impact Workplace Investigations

So what are some of the most important ways to watch out for unconscious bias when receiving employee complaints, investigating those complaints, or implementing remedies to make the workplace better?

There are several, but two of the most important are confirmation bias and affinity bias.

  • Confirmation bias refers to our human tendency to look for evidence that confirms our preconceived notions. That means that if a line manager automatically thinks that an employee who complains of misconduct is lying, that manager will look for evidence to confirm that belief or, worse, may decide that there is no need to investigate. This type of bias also creeps into decision-making when an investigation is conducted. An investigator who reaches a conclusion before considering all the evidence might decide to only speak with witnesses she knows will support that early conclusion. This almost always leads to a conclusion that is based on an incomplete picture.
  • “Similar to me” bias refers to our tendency to favor information from those who are “like us” (or to discount information from those who are different from us). The affinity might be based on factors such as race/ethnicity or gender, but in the case of investigations, an equally dangerous affinity might be based on position (is the accused a manager like me?) or other shared characteristics (the accused is married like me, is the same religion as me, and since I’d never engage in the misconduct, I bet he didn’t either). Failing to recognize and eliminate affinity bias can have dire consequences during the investigation process and is equally dangerous when deciding on consequences to the misconduct (typically seen in lenient discipline if the person found to have misbehaved is “like” the decision-maker).

One hallmark of environmental health is the extent to which companies establish procedures for handling complaints of misconduct, and the extent to which they follow those procedures when employees raise concerns. Eliminating unconscious bias from that process is vital for employees to feel they are part of an organization that takes complaints seriously, investigates them fairly and distributes discipline for misconduct in an even-handed way.