By Jo Siggins
COVID-19 has propelled us into unprecedented times, changing the way we do business and changing our working arrangements. Nonetheless, many of the same pre-COVID workplace issues are still occurring – with some issues potentially arising more frequently due to our stress and workplace processes at this time.
Working arrangements outside the usual channels, including working from home, may make it difficult for employers to maintain established controls.
Workplace conflict, bullying or harassment can still occur even where employees are not working in close physical proximity to each other.
Online technology is increasingly being incorporated into our everyday business, and employees are working remotely relying upon online tools and email communication.
This increased reliance on email communication can lead to misunderstandings, even for the most skilled communicators. Without the ability to read body language, listen to verbal cues or detect emotion in an email, messages can frequently be misconstrued. This confusion can lead to conflict, which in turn may affect workplace relationships and productivity.
If workplace issues are identified, or a complaint is made, should employers defer a workplace investigation or mediation due to COVID-19? The answer is no.
The existence of COVID-19 does not remove the reason for requiring conflict resolution or a workplace investigation in the first place.
Delaying action to resolve or investigate an issue until ‘things settle down’ may have a detrimental impact on staff and the broader workplace. Why? Simply, because employers are obligated to provide a safe working environment.
If a complaint is made regarding allegations of discrimination, harassment or bullying occurring in the workplace (which includes while working from home), employers have a duty of care to take appropriate action. Similarly, any allegations or identification of fraudulent behaviour may have serious business implications if these are not addressed in a timely manner.
Whether an investigation is conducted internally or externally, postponing a matter may impact the procedural fairness and timeliness of an investigation. Delaying action also risks a potential loss of evidence. As time passes, critical evidence may be lost, and witness recollections diminished.
Importantly, delaying investigations or conflict resolution is likely to cause additional stress to the parties involved, thereby resulting in a potential risk to employee health.
If there is conflict between employees, physical separation or avoidance is not the best ongoing solution.
If employees will be required to work together moving forward, the sooner the conflict is addressed, the more likely there will be a productive, workable outcome to rebuild the relationship.
Both workplace investigations and conflict resolution can be conducted via video or teleconference to alleviate concerns regarding COVID-19.
Taking action in a timely manner will reassure staff that while they may be physically absent from the workplace, that their concerns are heard and they are supported by their employers through timely and appropriate measures.
Jo Siggins is the Director of Verity Group and has 20 years experience managing and conducting a wide range of investigations, specialising in workplace matters such as allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination.
Verity Group also assists organisations to mitigate workplace issues and effectively deal with conflict and disharmony in the workplace.