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Striking a balance: Hypersensitivity in crisis operations

October 2021: In the 1980s, there were 20 employment rights under which an employee could make a tribunal claim in the UK; now there are more than 60. This year, an employment tribunal ruled that veganism should be treated with the same sensitivity as a religious belief.

More staff are alert to the potential for discrimination, what’s appropriate and what’s not, and are more willing to share their experiences through social media. When it comes to working in crisis conditions – under constant high pressure and with threats to physical safety – management needs to be even more aware of the dangers of hypersensitivity among staff. It has become a situation where one thoughtless comment or a well-intentioned joke could be used as grounds for legal action. This has led to a culture where bosses, managers and staff are frozen by the need to be faultlessly ‘correct’ in everything said; where conversations feel monitored, becoming stilted and limited to the bare essentials.

Leaders and managers working in crisis response operations need to resist the slide into hypersensitivity if they are not to end up being caught in a tangle of personal issues.

Employment Tribunals have begun to recognise the problem formally. A recent case, for example, saw an employee at a legal firm making several complaints of harassment. The legal firm had offered her a role at their head office in Switzerland, which she had turned down for ‘personal reasons’. Bosses asked her why she had turned the position down, with one saying: “You are not married, you don’t have children and you do not have a boyfriend,” and went on to talk about ‘tolerance’ of a lesbian staff member in the Swiss office. Subsequently, when she sought promotion, she was turned down because it was argued she was: “Not performing at the same level as the group’s senior legal counsel.”
The employee complained that she had been subject to sex discrimination, sexual harassment or harassment related to sexual orientation by perception, along with age discrimination and age-related harassment.

The complaints were dismissed. The comments were said to be: “unfortunate and awkward,” but, it was argued, should not be seen as constituting discrimination. The verdict is generally accepted as being another example of how employers can defend themselves against claims of discrimination – but it is not yet considered to be a legal precedent. Meanwhile, does this mean managers can get away with occasional slips, with ‘careless talk’?

Employers need to demonstrate they are meeting their side of the deal, that they are trying to create a balance between being open in dealing with difficult situations, while at the same time having empathy for employees. The cultural climate is encouraging more awareness of grounds for discrimination and less tolerance to thoughtless use of language and humour: human resources departments have to be ready to prove they are being proactive and provide best practice.

That means moving beyond education on discrimination and cultural awareness. Understanding that there are sensitivities does not mean an ability to talk about them and deal with individual people and cases in professional ways. It means equipping managers in particular – but also staff in general – with the skills to deal with difficult conversations. It is about ensuring that people have the self-awareness and confidence to take part in sensitive and awkward conversations without becoming bullish, defensive or skirting around the core issues. This is what we call ‘conversational integrity’, the package of skills that leads to confidence and ability, including situational awareness, the essential practice of curiosity, reflective listening, empathy and self-awareness; in other words, not just listening outwardly but inwardly, to how your own inner state is affecting the flow of the conversation.

Policies should include clarification for staff on what would constitute a malicious or vexatious complaint. Managers themselves need to be aware of what constitutes a grievance and know how to record them. This is a difficult area. Because what is ‘bullying’ anyway? There is no legal definition, and there will always be a thin line between assertive management needed to deal with poor performance and an inappropriate and ugly use of power. 

What constitutes unacceptable behaviour can be very clear: physical intimidation, threats, sexual harassment. But these are relatively rare. The most common causes of bullying in the minds of employees, highlighted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, are subjective and open to interpretation. These include subtle undermining behaviour (which could just be seen as oversensitivity); excessive and unjustified criticism (which might also be an inability to accept or admit poor performance); and inappropriate use of fair procedures.

The best employers go even further. They look to the bigger picture of their workplace culture and the benefits are of openness, encouraging diversity of opinion and experience, of people who feel it is safe to speak out, to be both challenging and able to admit mistakes. A ‘clear air’ culture leads to more trust, honesty, innovation, support for diversity – and a better working environment for everyone.

Arran Heal, Managing Director, CMP
Arran is a workplace relationships expert at CMP, which has worked regularly over the past 25 years with the range of crisis and emergency operations including NGOs, charities, police forces, NHS Trusts and government departments.

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