I may be showing my age, but it’s likely you’ve at least heard the line from Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
A prison boss first used the phrase then the hero, Luke, repeats it at the end of the film. Moments later, Luke is killed in dramatic Hollywood fashion. If you need to update this mentally, picture Luke Skywalker in the lead role and Darth Vader as the prison boss.
But for all of Hollywood’s drama, they get some things right. Even in today’s real world, you can expect a negative result if you have a failure to communicate. It may not be as severe as Luke’s, but it won’t be fun.
Communication is critical for any organization. It’s literally the glue that holds the parts together. Whether it’s explaining a procedure or policy, letting people know about an insurance change or just telling staff about an icy spot in the parking lot, a failure to communicate will nearly always be a problem.
I was reminded of this following a recent series of court cases involving sexual and racial harassment allegations. One that especially caught my eye involved a temporary employee and the question of whether she had received adequate information regarding the policies at a company where she worked a temp. Although there were multiple issues, a big concern was whether the temp worker had been adequately informed of her rights to lodge a harassment complaint.
The question of temp workers is somewhat unique, and it appears the jury is literally still out on how businesses should best handle them in this regard. But overall, organizations and managers are safe if they have certain items in place. First, they must have a robust, well-written anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy. This policy must have formal and informal complaint and investigation procedures and it should be accompanied by both supervisory and employee training. Periodic reminders of these policies and monitoring of their effectiveness should regularly follow all of this. If you study these types of cases, you’ll learn that the courts are fond of the word “reasonable.” Hollywood aside, being reasonable is usually good for both employees and employers.
One issue caught my eye in several of these cases: had company policies been effectively communicated? In some cases, organizations may have had great policies in place, but they faced serious liability because they could not show that these policies had made their way to employees. Especially notable were policies regarding how employees may register a concern or complaint.
I can imagine few things more frustrating than to have worked on a policy that reflected the latest in law and regulation, then be sued because a staff member was never told about it, or claims to have not been told.
A simple solution is to require signatures when issuing policy manuals, or record names at meetings. Electronic publications have other options such as online/digital signatures, but one way or another it’s always a good idea to record who has been given what and when. It’s like that old saying, “If it’s not in writing, then it isn’t.”
In other words, you as a manager/owner can’t have a failure to communicate.
Looking at these recent cases, it might also be a good idea to stress avenues of communication from employees to manager or owner. In other words, if a worker feels that he or she is being harassed, bullied or threatened, does that person know who they should talk to and is that avenue of communications reasonable?
There are some additional issues to consider. If the only person to whom an employee can report is the alleged abuser, then the policy may not be deemed reasonable. Other examples include when a “hostile environment” has become so pervasive that the victim doesn’t feel safe even making a complaint.
None of this is an absolute guarantee you won’t be sued, but given the courts’ appreciation for reasonableness and good record keeping on your part, it’s pretty close to an airtight defense. And yes, there are some people who try to exploit these systems with false accusations, but that’s another discussion!