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Chris Norris


Certified Forensic Investigator (CFI) Director, WZ Europe & International Training

Read more from Chris Norris

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How can HR professionals become the ‘go to’ for the #MeToo movement?


The words ‘Charitable Trust’ have taken on a completely different meaning in recent weeks with the opening of the floodgates of wave after wave of inappropriate behaviour and cover up allegations levelled at aid workers in parts of the world populated by the most vulnerable people where lives have been torn apart by war and natural disasters.

From Oxfam to Save The Children, organisations sent into the world’s trouble zones to assist local populations at their lowest points have been accused of reaping their own destructive force and compounding misery by lacking the moral leadership to deal appropriately with allegations of sexual misconduct, bullying and intimidation.

Furthermore, those in the centre of the claims who have been removed from post have simply, yet cynically, moved to alternative charities working in the same area, further compounding the PR nightmare for the charitable sector which has seen life-long donors withdraw their financial support.

This has created a double-whammy for the charities that depend upon the generosity of their donors. All of the collateral goodwill that has been achieved is undermined and the recipients of aid lose out to other charities where governance is deemed stronger.

HR sits at the heart of this issue with many charities arguing that the funding structures do not allow for robust vetting as every last penny is expected to support front line aid delivery rather than paying for back office administrative checking.

However, this governance is essential if the charity world is not to follow the post-Weinstein entertainment sector into a #MeToo cul-de-sac where allegations follow further allegations until the good causes concerned become damaged brands that have lost all moral authority.

We do not need to look overseas for poor corporate practices. Inappropriate behaviour can and does happen in every work environment, but in three out of every four incidents, the matter is never reported. Indeed, a study reported by the Huffington Post suggested that a staggering 71 per cent of female employees did not report some form of sexual or inappropriate behaviour at work.

This is for a multitude of reasons. In the charity sector many victims may lack a voice, but other aid workers who have fallen victim fear ridicule, embarrassment and even accusations of joint-culpability – that they somehow encouraged the behaviour.

The other reason for the under reporting is the fear of not being believed, particularly if the alleged perpetrator is in a position of power or influence, leading the HR team to enter the investigation process with unintended bias, or simply that reporting it will negatively impact the victim’s own development within the business.

Of course, all of these dynamics can compound the issue and simply validate the inappropriate behaviour allowing it to re-occur and in so doing, create a non-stick culture of impunity.

So, how can a HR team preserve the moral high ground to communicate a zero-tolerance approach to this prevalent culture? How can it make itself the ‘go to’ place for ‘Me Too’ complaints? Indeed, how can HR prove an independent mandate to view every accusation on its merits and be approached in a fair and dispassionate way, whilst making sure that they act professionally without fear of favour?

I have been working in the world of ‘he said, she said’ for many years, but we have seen a tripling of interest in our Workplace Investigative Interviewing Strategy (WIIS) training in the last three years as HR teams have recognised that this sensitive subject requires an equally sensitive approach based upon forensic fact-gathering from all parties. Empathy always facilitates dignity in a non-confrontational interview.

WIIS, which is now available in the UK, sensitively explores the entire process from distinguishing between accusation and false accusation right through to the dismissal or removal of the alleged bully/harasser by using a series of cognitive techniques, but importantly, without reverting to combative communication.

The technique is based upon the use of open-ended questions that call upon the subject to expand on their statements but within the exploratory perimeters of the interviewer. It uses supplementary questions to assist the interview through points of clarification. These techniques include the open-ended question – ‘tell me what happened after the meeting’ to expansion: ‘how did he pull you aside?”

In addition, there is the confirming question approach: ‘And there was no one with you at this point?’  The ‘echo’ question - the repetition of what the subject has just said, e.g. ‘Aggressive?’ - is another step along the path of truth gathering as is the ‘closed’ approach. Here, the skilled interviewer would ask something along the lines of: ‘Was this the first time that he touched you?’

Encouraging the subject to imagine an alternative truth to their own perception of what has occurred is another technique used by WIIS trained personnel. For example; “Would there be any other reason you could think of that a camera in the corridor would show it happening differently?’

Finally, there is the ‘assumptive’ question that probes beyond what has thus far been disclosed during the interview.  An example of this would be: ‘So, how many times has this happened prior to this particular incident?’

It is also important that the examples outlined above are sequential – there is a correct time and order to deliver the right questions to get to the bottom of the complaint and ultimately determine the truth.

Although written examples such as these may appear difficult to envision, handled properly and delivered well, the tried and tested technique comes over as no more than a non-threatening conversation between two co-workers.

Whether it is a charity or any commercial organisation, there is a momentum for change and to call out inappropriate behaviour at all levels. For the HR team, this is where the real work begins as they must have an open door and open mind in their approach to allegations so that they can deal sensitively and empathetically. 

Charities working in troubled areas must tread as carefully as if they were crossing a minefield where every step could be their last. Their effectiveness depends upon leaving a positive legacy for the local community rather than a disaster zone of their own making.

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Chris Norris

Certified Forensic Investigator (CFI) Director, WZ Europe & International Training

Read more from Chris Norris

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