Why there has been an influx in staff making discrimination claims

With a three-fold increase in investigations relating to ’complex’ sex and race discrimination allegations, Gary Rogers discusses how firms can ‘lower the temperature’ as staff return to the workplace

Why has there been an increase in complex cases? This was a question that was asked at our regular investigations review meeting recently by one of the team. It was supported by our own observations, particularly over the last several months, where we had encountered an influx of clients asking for our support in investigations that were considered ‘complex’.

But that wasn’t all, I began to notice a rise in complaints from staff around discrimination, predominantly related to race and sex – which often involve allegations of bullying and bad behaviour.

As we discussed these cases, the views from our investigators mirrored my own observations, and so we began to ask ourselves ‘why’? On further investigation this rapid rise in complaints appeared to have coincided with the clarification of a lifting of restrictions on 19 July – when all workplaces were encouraged to return to the office.

The topic in itself – the return to workplaces and lifting of restrictions – appears to have triggered an increase in complaints, but why? Consider the situation; for the last 18-months, people have adapted their lifestyles and this included:

  • Working from home;
  • Spending more time with their families and surrounding themselves with a strong support network;
  • Not having to spend time in the office with work colleagues;
  • Not having to endure the potential conflict with others where relations may not be as they could;
  • Not facing that colleague who bullies, discriminates or undermines them;
  • Feeling safe in their own environment and their only interaction with work colleagues was by an image on a screen that can be switched off or terminated as they choose.

Now consider the current scenario, which could involve:

  • A return to the workplace;
  • Meeting colleagues face-to-face for the first time in over a year;
  • A fear of travelling;
  • A fear of reigniting old emotions of encounters with colleagues that were at best fragile and at worst toxic;
  • Not having the support of their family around them;
  • The stress of ‘fitting in’ again and trying to rebuild the working relationships and culture.

Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? And it is to those who have these deep-rooted fears and experiences of any form of inappropriate behaviours, particularly when it relates to race or sex discrimination, it is daunting.

So, while they are still in their ‘safe space’ they raise their concerns, submit their complaints, in the hope that something will be done so that they can feel comfortable and reassured when they return and won’t have to face that toxic relationship again.

But is that the right approach? Can we do something different to help reassure staff? Of course, organisations should follow two simple actions.

  1. Provide reassurances regarding returning to the workplace  

    This can be as simple as reinforcing to staff of the company ‘speak up’ policy, that it will not tolerate any form of discrimination, bullying or harassment and that staff should treat each other with respect and empathy as they begin to return to the workplace.

    Demonstrating a commitment to maintain a ‘psychologically safe’ working environment will help provide staff with the reassurance that, when they do speak up, when they see or experience poor behaviours, they will be taken seriously by the organisation and that they will be supported.

  2. Plan now to provide some activities to re-build and re-introduce the working relationships

    Placing an importance on rebuilding your working relationships is key to providing the reassurance and support that staff will need to help them readjust after almost two years of isolation.

    Ideally, before you begin the process of returning to the workplace, you can engage in team activities, much like the online team days many organisations followed to maintain a working relationship.

    Once in the workplace, hold regular sessions with the team, show a presence and continue to reassure staff that support is available if needed.

Maybe, if these simple steps are introduced, we will see a gradual reduction in the number of complaints and investigations. And what were once fractured relationships, can now help create a happy and healthy workplace for all in the wake of the last 18-months.

Gary Rogers is head of investigations at conflict resolution consultancy TCM