Oprah Winfrey’s primetime television interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, revealed deep issues within the workings of a historic institution, one we only read about in books or watch on fictional shows like “The Crown.” While the former senior members of the royal family were talking about their feelings and treatment under the backdrop of family dynamics, they were also discussing a monarchy with an institutional framework that can best be compared to a corporate workplace. References to their family as “the firm” and “going to HR” for assistance were phrases used by Harry and Meghan when discussing the institution.
Meghan and Harry’s very real trauma should make all organizations take an introspective look at how they handle workplace complaints, and it raises many questions:
- Would your company have dealt with a workplace complaint better than the palace did?
- Do you have employees who are feeling “trapped” or who are suffering in silence from workplace traumas?
- More specifically, does your organization have a true and real complaint resolution system for allegations of racism or sexism in the workplace?
- Do your existing policies and procedures make employees feel silenced, or does your workplace culture empower employees to seek assistance for mental health concerns?
- Would requests for assistance be addressed or go unanswered?
The failure to listen to, acknowledge, and address issues of racism, inequitable treatment, and repeated requests for mental health treatment resulted in a damaging public interview the palace is scrambling to clean up. On balance, for most companies, the failure to properly address these and other issues at work results in the departure of good employees, decreased productivity and morale, and a reputational nightmare. For others, these issues may also lead to costly litigation and the risk of an economic settlement or verdict against the company.
To get it right, a company should have an employee assistance program that provides access to mental health professionals for all employees. A company should also have internal policies that clearly outline a process for making and resolving complaints of inequitable treatment, racial or sexual discrimination, and harassment.
Companies must provide training at regular intervals so that all employees understand what behavior is expected of them and how to avoid or report harassment or discrimination of any kind. This training should be interactive, dynamic, and engaging and incorporate realistic hypothetical scenarios in which individuals can reason through the hypothetical and their responses.
It is paramount that employees feel confident that their complaints will be viewed seriously and evaluated and investigated in a confidential manner, free from judgment and retaliation. Great care should be exercised to ensure that those conducting the investigation are neutral and unbiased and have received training in interviewing techniques for various victim types and fact-witnesses.
In some instances, allegations may arise that require a company to hire a law firm to conduct a fair and neutral investigation. The decision to engage a law firm rather than conduct the investigation in-house is a nuanced, fact-based business decision hinging on a number of factors, including the gravity of the allegation and the institutional knowledge, training, and bandwidth to do so. Specific scenarios that merit consideration for hiring outside counsel include, but are not limited to:
- Multiple accusations involving a pattern of behavior or the same or similar facts
- The accused is a senior or high ranking individual within the organization
- Allegations involving HR personnel, legal staff, or board of directors
- Real or perceived conflict of interest, bias, friendships, or connections to the accused
- Allegations involving fraud, theft, or financial impropriety
The lawyers at Cohen Seglias can help your company establish or review existing policies, procedures, or training modules to prevent workplace discrimination and harassment. If needed, we can help develop an investigative plan to allow your company to get to the bottom of what happened and provide a path forward for all involved.