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A grievance from an employee is a tough lesson in resilient leadership

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In our latest anonymous feature, everywomanIncognito, a senior manager shares her experience of being accused of bullying in the workplace - and the resultant lessons she learnt...

'Discovering that a direct report had accused me of bullying was a devastating blow. The ensuing investigation was an emotional rollercoaster, which tested me to my limits. It also taught me valuable lessons about what it is to be a leader.

My path to senior management was unconventional. I came to the corporate world late, having been in a consultancy business of my own for many years. When I sold up and took my first forays into employment, my goal was simply to support myself financially. But not long after starting on the factory floor, I knew I wanted more. I raised my hand at every opportunity, and succeeded – after one failed attempt – in securing a place on the management trainee programme. Within six months of starting on the production line, I was at head office, and determined to prove myself.

Fast-forward twenty years and my career was going from strength to strength.

My accomplishments were recognised in the most fantastic way possible, by winning an award for my contributions to the manufacturing industry. With that came wider recognition both internally and externally, and many more requests to coach those coming up behind me – mentoring is something I love to do.

Within days of receiving the accolade, I was called to a meeting with HR. I was told that someone on my team had walked out of their role and lodged a formal complaint about my conduct. It was a shattering discovery.

I’d had an inkling something was up.

The employee in question had been unhappy for some time. We’d discussed her issues in our regular meetings and taken steps to rectify them. I considered our relationship solid and I spent a lot of time trying to help her. We ate lunch together most days; and on occasion she would borrow personal cash loans and I would give her advice about family issues. The fact of our friendship made the blow even greater.

I felt intuitively that the false accusations were a strategy to enable her to leave the company without serving the obligatory notice period. I couldn’t prove it, and had to put my faith in the process I knew HR were obligated to go through.

Despite knowing I was innocent, I was so afraid the process wouldn’t go my way, and that everything I’d worked for would be in vain. The reputation I’d spent years building would crumble in an instant. The award was a fantastic confidence booster to fall back on, but also a reminder that now, more than ever, I had a responsibility to be a good role model. I worried that peers would doubt my worthiness of the accolade, and that the many mentees I’d coached over the years would question my value.

While the investigation was going on, it was business as usual as far as work was concerned. In fact, it was one of the busiest times of my life as I dealt with the added workload of the employee who’d left and yet another who was on long-term sick leave. I’m proud of what was achieved over this period; I think I gained more respect from colleagues who could see what I was continuing to produce while those around me were being questioned as to my integrity.

The emotional impact of the situation felt overwhelming at times.

At work I had to contain it but at home I could show my distress. My children helped me see the situation in a very matter-of-fact light. ‘You haven’t done anything wrong,’ they told me, ‘so what’s the point of worrying?’ It wasn’t always easy to apply that philosophy, but its black and whiteness was something I came back to time and time again.

Good nights’ sleeps were few and far between, and with the added workload pressures, I knew I had to really up my game. I coordinated my to-do lists with my calendar and was strict about saying “no” to non-essentials. I’d always been a “yes” person. Learning the value of “no” was powerful, and, furthermore, threw up some crucial lessons for the entire team, our processes and the way we worked.

After three long, painful months, I was found to be free of any wrongdoing.

Though it had been a difficult period, there were some life-changing lessons learned.

The first was that as a people manager, it’s vitally important to document all of your communications with a direct report. During my management scheme days I’d spent time in HR, where I learned the value of keeping good records. I’d saved vital emails with the employee, as well as documented detailed breakdowns of every 121, however informal. Without this recorded history, it could have been a case of one word against another; but thankfully the evidence was there to back up everything I said. I say to all managers now, if you haven’t been documenting your relationships: start! I’m even more fastidious about my records now; you simply never know when you might need to call on their evidence.

My records had pointed at the negativity coming from the employee in question, but what I’d failed to do was talk this through with anyone, choosing instead to deal with the problem on my own. Had I shared the problem, my own manager may have stepped in sooner and helped nip it in the bud.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing though, and perhaps the biggest lesson of all was the importance of drawing clear boundaries with direct reports. Being friendly with your employees is one thing, being friends is another. As a manager I was not the best person to offer advice on personal matters. It blurred the lines of our professional relationship, making it more difficult for me to give critical feedback on her performance – and for the employee to accept it graciously. 

As leaders it’s essential we look for silver linings in dark clouds. Being cleared of wrongdoing was an enormous relief, but I was very down about the situation and resentful that my accuser, having done such damage, got off scot-free. I remember my manager urging me to remember the fantastic feedback the HR investigation had uncovered about me, and I began to see that my reputation had in fact strengthened through the ordeal. I see now that finding the positives and learning from the worst of times is the mark of a truly resilient leader.'

More everywomanIncognito:

Being forced out of a business I’d built from scratch was the best thing that ever happened to me

Losing two jobs to mental illness saved me & inspired my life mission

The 60-second phonecall which turned me into a great leader

The everywomanIncognito series allows women to discuss personal aspects of their career development in complete anonymity. We welcome submissions from everywomanNetwork members on a range of topics. Get in touch if you'd like to find out more about Incognito or would like to suggest a story.