The 'going to your manager' approach won't work with the most serious office problems

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Managers will always be on the frontline when tough workplace issues arise — "going to your manager" is ingrained in every employee and there is often a fear and reticence about reporting directly to HR. But the current training methods for managers do not provide them with the critical skills they need to handle these situations.

The sexual assault allegations made by a former Tinder executive, detailed in a lawsuit earlier this week, will need to be determined by a court of law — Tinder parent company Match Group CEO Mandy Ginsberg has denied the allegations. But issues in the Tinder case are another example of the corporate world being a flashpoint for serious claims of workplace misconduct and managers making preventable mistakes in their attempts to address these difficult situations. We believe the answer to this epidemic starts at the top and we need to start holding managers accountable for their handling of toxic workplace behavior, but to do that effectively requires understanding where and why managers are failing.

When allegations of harassment, bias, discrimination and workplace bullying first arise, more than 70% of the time the complainant will discuss the alleged incident with their manager rather than human resources or the legal department. Unfortunately, research we've recently conducted strongly suggests that managers are often unprepared to handle those conversations, possibly exposing the company to substantial and expanding liability.

"Of all the forms of workplace abuse, I believe retaliation is the most corrosive. It masks malignancies that grow within a culture until they finally burst into view."

Retaliation, a contentious issue in the Tinder allegations — Match Group denies the sexual assault allegations factored in the executive's firing — also is poorly understood by frontline managers. Fifty-six percent of the managers who participated in simulations we recently conducted for companies failed to discuss or explain retaliation with the complainant, witnesses, or the alleged perpetrator. As a result, complainants or witnesses often fear they will be retaliated against and will be more alert to any perceived retaliatory behaviors. The lower burden of proof required for retaliation claims has led to a surge of complaints in recent years.

Rather than relying on anonymous surveys that rarely reflect actual behaviors, we enlisted over 100 managers and leaders from a wide range of organizations — large, small and diversified by industry — to participate in proprietary, live, multi-part simulations of workplace scenarios. Each manager partook in at least three scenarios involving actors posing as employees and HR members reenacting real circumstances. We recorded these simulated conversations and found that managers are consistently unprepared.

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In 25% of cases, the managers felt the situation did not merit escalation. In others, they erroneously believed they had addressed the matter sufficiently on their own. In one case, the manager was actually convinced by the alleged perpetrator that escalation was not necessary. Current management training is clearly still not teaching managers the importance of promptly relaying these situations to HR.

Of all the forms of workplace abuse, I believe retaliation is the most corrosive. It masks malignancies that grow within a culture until they finally burst into view. This leads people to ask how long have these bad behaviors been going on? Why didn't anyone say something?

Protecting confidentiality can help shield complainants from retaliation. The Tinder complaint highlights the risks when confidentiality is breached. In this case, the plaintiff Rosette Pambakian alleged that Gregory Blatt, former Tinder and Match CEO, approached her to discuss "…quashing the incident and not speak[ing] of it again."

By knowing the identity of the complainant, the alleged perpetrator was given an opportunity to fundamentally undermine the investigative process. Similarly, it was alleged that individuals involved in the investigation were breaching confidentiality in a manner that could influence the testimony of others. Managers need to understand the nuances of when confidentiality can be guaranteed and when it cannot under the existing laws and guidelines to protect the investigative process.

Watching a video and answering some multiple-choice questions will never adequately prepare managers for those difficult moments. But our research reveals the extent to which managers are failing on the basics: in 41% of cases, managers did not even ask questions, repeat key facts, and clarify critical details of the alleged incident. Fifty-six percent did not explain that their company has an anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy at all, let alone explain the details of the policy. Thirty percent did not discuss next steps or outline an investigative process.

If we expect to win the battle for gender and racial equality in the workplace, we need to change the way we think and learn about workplace harassment. We all need to practice being the leaders our teams expect us to be. We need to give managers the opportunity to practice dealing with harassment, bias, discrimination and bullying in a safe and realistic way, so when real issues arise, they will be able to handle them effectively and decisively.

The business world can't put these problems behind until it does a better job giving managers the skills they need to be successful.

By Steve Wiesner, founder of pelotonRPM, a human resources training technology company