Responding to Uninvited Touch Claims – How to Handle Tricky Situations

Question:

Hello! I’ve been in the process of investigating a male employee that touched a female’s hair/head in the office without invitation. I found the video footage, and then several other female employees came forward about him, stating that he makes remarks such as they’re sexy or beautiful, etc.

He’s a former police officer who’s very arrogant, and when I brought the hair incident to his attention, he grew angry and made me uncomfortable (26F versus 41M). He kept leaning into my face and talking louder and louder. Any advice on termination and standing my ground? I’ve dealt with plenty of dismissals, but not with someone who’s physically aggressive.

Advice:

Safety First

 

First things first,  safety is paramount.  When faced with an employee who may have an aggressive reaction I recommend that you have another management or HR person be present for the conversation. If available invite security to be in proximity to the meeting. You can even ask a member of the HR team or security guard to call into the meeting and if feeling unsafe share, a code word for HELP, or for that matter text, email, or instant message for assistance.

Also, consider the location of the meeting and the seating arrangements. For example, meeting in a conference room not far from others, or setting up the meeting space where the person delivering the news sits closest to the door. Sitting nearest the door allows the person to exit quickly and call for assistance.

Another option is having the conversation virtually. In the case of a virtual discussion, HR can suspend the employee until there is an outcome to the investigation. HR would then communicate with the person using video conference software.

Above all, you must make sure that the person delivering this information never feels alone or isolated.

Starting a Difficult Conversation

People often become defensive when an allegation is made against them. When conducting the investigation interview, setting a neutral stage is critical. Start the meeting by greeting the person warmly and advise them that you’re interviewing them to gain their insight, observations, or interpretation of an event.

Since you have a video, show the video and ask the person to explain what is happening and why?

In case you don’t have a video, start the conversation by asking a broad indirect question. For example, how is your rapport with your co-workers? What are social topics discussed or social comments made by you or anyone in the group? You narrow down to the details of the event as the comments unfold.

Only when the person is unwilling to share information would I suggest that you frame the issue more directly; such as “would it surprise you that a co-worker has the perception that you invaded there private space and touched their hair?” or “have you heard this phrase used by anyone during a social conversation?” “Would it surprise you that others report hearing the phrase from you?”

Manage their Reaction

When they go high, you go low! Meaning, your tone gets softer, milder, quieter as theirs rises. In most cases, the person’s energy will decrease, because yours is chill and relaxed. Ultimately if your calm does not work and the employee continues to be angry, volatile, or aggressive stop the meeting and revisit on another day.

Making them Accountable

Should the person be held accountable for their behavior? Most certainly.

While HR is an office where employees can share emotions, everything must be within reason. Based on the description of the person in this example, I would issue a written corrective action and make a mandatory referral to the EAP for stress and anger management coaching.

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