Betray an employee or put the company at legal risk?

What would you do if an employee told you, in confidence, of an incident involving possible sexual harassment, destruction of personal property, and invasion of private space--and then asked you not to report it?

I’ve been an IT manager with a team for a number of years, but at the time the following incident occurred my duties had changed so that, while I was still a manager, I no longer had any direct reports. A woman in the department asked to talk with me privately and in confidence. She stated that she came to me because I had a good reputation for listening and of not being judgmental.

She reported that she had been working alone late the previous evening, when a young man, who worked in the same department, stopped by her desk and attempted to start a conversation. He apparently made several remarks that she regarded as being demeaning and sexually inappropriate.

She stated that at first she attempted to deal with it by simply not responding to his comments, but then he heightened the tension by picking up an orange from her desk and starting to play with it like a ball. She politely asked him if he would please put it down, but ignoring her request he continued to play with the orange. She became more insistent, now demanding that he put her orange down, to which he responded by smashing it onto her desk and walking out of her office.

The manager's reaction
When the employee finished recounting her tale, I started by acknowledging the validity of her complaint. I agreed that, as she had reported them, his comments were improper and his actions threatening. I also agreed that he should not have touched anything on her desk.

Trying to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of the interaction between them, I asked her, "When you told him not to touch your food, was your expression neutral, angry, or did you smile?" I went on to point out that people sometimes feel guilty when they feel they are scolding and they try to soften their reprimand by smiling.

I informed her that, in my opinion, anyone who is as out of touch with acceptable employee interaction as the young man appeared to be could easily misinterpret a smile as acceptance of his bad behavior.

She acknowledged that she might have smiled. I suggested she work on keeping every aspect of her expression and body language consistent with what she was saying. Finally, I reiterated that in my opinion, based upon her description of the event, she had done absolutely nothing wrong.

My affirmation of her right to be infuriated and distressed by his behavior did nothing to assuage her anger. Not being in any position of authority over either employee, it was unclear to me as to how I should proceed, other than to comfort her and offer some practical advice for dealing with such situations in the future.

An ethical dilemma
I asked her if she wanted me to bring her complaint to her manager or to human resources or to approach the young man directly. She declined, stating that she would prefer to wait to see if it occurred again. She stated that she was particularly reticent to make a formal complaint about this young man because he was a minority and she was white, and she felt that would have some impact on management’s perception of the incident.

This put me in an extremely awkward position. If I did not pursue her complaints, then as a member of management, I was putting the company in line for a lawsuit. If I went forward, however, I would be betraying her trust, and if she failed to substantiate my report, I would be endangering my own standing in the company.

We want to hear what you have to say!
What would you do if you were faced with this situation? You can submit your ideas either by e-mail or by posting a discussion item at the end of this column. A week after the publication of a scenario, we'll pull together the most interesting solutions and common themes from the discussion. We will later present them with the situation's actual outcome in a follow-up article. You may continue to add discussion items after the week has elapsed, but to be eligible for inclusion in the follow-up article, your suggestions must be received within a week of the scenario's publication.

Catch 22: Lose a client or alienate a technical lead?
In an earlier column, we presented a case in which a manager was faced with a situation in which he could potentially either lose a key client or keep the client at the cost of alienating a critical technical lead. Some respondents felt that the employee should take precedence over the client. Gal4 wrote, “Be the real manager and support your employee and his career progression.” Others were of the opinion that the client's interests must be considered before those of the employee. For example, Mareets wrote, “Please remember to sing this song, ’the client comes first.’”

Others suggested creative methods to try to meet the needs of both the employee and the client. For example:
  • GSG wrote, “Make it a win-win by transitioning the guy over and having him train his replacement at the same time.”
  • A few members suggested keeping the employee but giving him the raise he would have received if he had been allowed to transfer.
  • Others said that the two managers should work together, at least temporarily, to enable the employee to receive his raise and transfer smoothly to the new account, while ensuring that the original client still receives the same degree of service and approves all changes made to the personnel assigned to its account.

Many respondents indicated that they believed the current state of affairs to be a symptom of a much deeper problem within the company that must be addressed to avoid such situations from occurring in the future. Respondents suggested that:
  • Contractors should never rely on a single tech; there must be a policy to support and enforce knowledge sharing.
  • Every account should be documented in such a way that enables another tech of equal ability and knowledge to assume responsibility for the account within a predefined time period.
  • An environment that fosters communication and mutual respect between account managers must be sought to avoid situations in which one manager attempts to “steal” an employee from another.

What really happened
Here is how the manager actually resolved the situation:
The employee had a history of company loyalty. Counting on that, the manager acknowledged the offer and explained that it could not happen at this time. The employee was given a justified promotion to the top level in his job family, but no pay increase, since the budget had no increases available.

A measurable knowledge transfer plan was put in place that would provide the manager with some assurance that this key employee’s technical expertise was no longer mission-critical.

When the results were complete six months later, these metrics verified that knowledge transfer had occurred within the key employee’s team and that the reliance on him was unwarranted.

The key employee’s suggestion that a confidence-building course for the other teams be implemented was accepted. His request to allow team members to attend client meetings in his place was not accepted, but he was allowed to bring them to the meetings. He allowed his team members to respond to client questions to establish client confidence in his team.

An agreement to review his availability for transfer on a biannual basis was established. The position that triggered the issue was no longer available. The employee remained with the account team until the existing contract was completed. The key client was then lost in a competitive bid. Requests by the winning competitor and by the customer for permission to offer a position to the key employee were denied, and the employee went on to other positions within the company.

Corporate culture had been that owning managers provided bonuses to team members, even for work done in support of other accounts. Over time, this changed and now accounts that tap resources outside of their organization offer bonuses to those individuals for any assistance they provide.

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