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Reduce 'Drama' in the Workplace

A man and a woman sitting on a couch with a laptop in front of them.

​LAS VEGAS — It's likely that HR managers—more than once in their careers—will hear employees complain that they were excluded, belittled or had some form of bias perpetuated against them.

It doesn't have to be that way, according to Patti Perez, attorney and professionally certified HR executive. Perez is founder and CEO of PersuasionPoint, and author of The Drama-Free Workplace (Wiley 2019).

She addressed common workplace environments, situations and solutions during her session "Creating and Sustaining a Drama-Free Workplace" on Sept. 9 at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021.

"The more steps you take to avoid an unemployment-related lawsuit, paradoxically, the more likely you are to have one filed against you," Perez said.

For example, in the case of a person being fired, "it's often not that they were fired, but how it was handled," she said. "This falls into the category of 'workplace justice,' " a theme that is becoming more prevalent today. Perez said that when paranoid HR teams try to cloak their actions, they often fail.

Getting beyond this can be achieved when companies change their culture. It's never easy, Perez said, but creating a culture of truth-telling, profound curiosity and radical fairness will make a positive difference.

Create a Culture of Truth-Telling

If your company has an open-door policy, be truly excited about that, Perez advised. "Don't give off the vibe that, 'Oh, it's another employee here to complain about something,' " she said. "Make sure your staff feels comfortable about being able to come to you."

Display Profound Curiosity

Abiding by laws and regulations is an important step, but it's not the most important step, she said. "HR managers who show a deep level of curiosity [and are] genuinely and authentically curious when speaking to an employee will find the truth and still be in compliance."

She added, "You'll find that in many cases, showing that deep concern by listening to what the employee has to say lets them feel much better, and often a case is not brought."

Show Radical Fairness

Some employees will come out of a meeting with HR feeling like a double victim: They were violated in some way, and the HR department then sided with the perpetrator, Perez said.

"When this happens, it reflects a lack of caring about employee equity as shown by the HR team," she said. One example she shared occurs when employees who consistently received strong performance reviews suddenly are given poor assessments from a new supervisor.

In this scenario, it could be that a woman now has a male boss and makes a claim of gender discrimination. However, an investigation may find that the employee's previous managers skated through the performance review process and did not accurately review the employee for fear it might upset her.

"This is a sign of systematic problems in the review process and should not be blamed on the new male supervisor, who simply evaluated the employee on merits, in his opinion," Perez said.

Anticipating Drama

No matter what you do, there are situations that are naturally ripe for drama, such as when a company decides to reorganize a department.

"Here, HR can almost certainly anticipate drama, unless it appropriately introduces the reorganization to the staff," Perez said. "There need to be orchestrated attempts ahead of time to get buy-in from the department and to share regular updates on how and why it is occurring. This is not always easy, but it can make a difference. As an HR manager, you always have to be looking 10 to 20 steps ahead based on what it is you do."

If complaints are lodged after a reorganization and the HR manager looks back at what happened, he or she will likely be able to trace the source of the complaints to the point when communication about the change started to break down, Perez noted. "And [miscommunication] could create a sense of unfairness," she said.

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.


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