Whether it’s he said, she said or any other combination thereof one of the major issues we face in today’s workplace are personalities and the clashes they bring appearing at all levels of the hierarchy. When investigating these issues the determination that needs to be made is where this issue can be categorized. Is it a common conflict among workers, or could it be considered that all too commonly used category of harassment? The latter term will perk ears quicker and become a higher priority in the human resource triage much like claiming a head injury in the emergency room. Which may explain why it is so commonly misused and as a result the system so commonly abused.
Having that said, the question remains. How do we determine which way to lean when it comes to dealing with these complaints? Our answer will only become clear when we first have a clear understanding in the differences of the two.
A conflict can be defined in many ways depending on what we are discussing; however, the fundamental definition is as simple as, a difference that prevents agreement. If we put it in these terms we can almost see it as a competition or struggle for power, a tug of war of sorts. When we were kids we would often hear our mediators’ attempt to resolve issues by a diagnosis as simple as “oh they’re just jealous” or “you just both have strong personalities”. As simple as that sounds, quite often it is accurate.
When we look to hire someone to better our team we quite often seek out the person that can make their own decisions and work independently, more importantly someone who is motivated to better the organization. Nothing motivates more than a little healthy competition, whether that represents two people in line for the same promotion or two people trying to better each other’s piece count. Either way the organization will benefit from the competition. When the contest becomes unhealthy and there is a clear winner in sight is when the problems start to occur. Quite often the person in line for the silver will be the one to lodge the complaint and claim ‘the head injury’.
The definition of harassment is much more aggressive in nature and very one sided. Aggressive pressure or intimidation, the act of systematic and/or continued unwanted and annoying actions of one party or a group, including threats and demands. The intent is to cause harm and force the victim into acting in ways against their choice. The purposes may vary, including racial prejudice, personal malice, or an attempt to force someone to quit a job. Quite often an alliance is formed and there is a reputation or past experience that will cause the victim to legitimately feel threatened by the bully.
We have been involved in numerous workplace investigations when it comes to these types of complaints, through numerous interviews and evidence gathering roughly 90% end up being determined as conflicts with chronic issues that surface exposing a pretty clear picture in the end. The problem is we only hear about the 10% we let slip by and the catastrophic results that make the front pages.