Jill Krumholz

Intent & Impact: Do You Know the Difference? Does It Matter?

By: Susan KreegerI didn’t mean to upset or offend anyone!

These and similar retorts are frequent responses when someone is the focus of a discrimination or harassment complaint. Sometimes, the individual in question does not understand what they did wrong, and attempt to defend their actions by explaining that others misconstrued what took place.  

Although the employee may be describing their state of mind accurately, that is not the measure of whether unlawful conduct occurred. Simply accepting this explanation does not address the complaining employee’s concerns nor fulfill the company’s obligations. 

In this blog, we explore the following topics to help you understand these concepts and how they affect your workplace and HR initiatives:

That is not what I meant!

Distinguishing Intent from Impact

Intent and impact are opposing perspectives. 

Intent lies within the mind of the actor. It is solely from their point of view and may or may not be apparent to anyone but that person. Impact focuses on the feelings and reactions of those present when a person utters certain words or engages in particular conduct. How others receive a message is the impact – the effect of those actions.

Often intent and impact do not align.The individual speaking or acting may have the best intentions but that does not necessarily translate to those around them. In some instances, unconscious biases can lead good intentions to go awry. 

If the message does not come across as planned or is misinterpreted, conflict can result. The reality is that someone may feel offended, degraded, or harassed. When an employee feels this way, they may believe they are the target of unlawful discrimination or harassment. 

For example, a supervisor makes a point of explaining everything in detail to an employee for whom English is not their primary language. The supervisor just wants to help and make sure the employee is not at a disadvantage. However, the employee does not need the added explanation and views the supervisor’s actions as condescending and demeaning. They report the supervisor to HR.

How your organization responds when someone raises questionable behavior will inform employees about your level of commitment to maintaining a welcoming, positive workplace and set the stage for any legal action that may follow.
 

The Injured Party’s Perception Is What Matters

Many individuals accused of discrimination or harassment do not see themselves as malicious or trying to mistreat others, but their opinion of the situation does not determine when improper conduct occurred. Bad intent is not required if the end result is a hostile work environment or adverse employment action.  

The law does apply a reasonable person standard when assessing if conduct rises to the level of legally actionable, but that does not mean that the recipient needs to accept unwelcome conduct just because others do. As long as the individual’s reaction to the comment or behavior is within reason, unlawful conduct may have taken place, warranting a company response.We were all just joking around!

Addressing Discrimination and Harassment in Your Workplace

Everyone perceives the world differently based on their unique backgrounds and experiences. To avoid miscommunication, we must sensitize ourselves to how others approach the world and understand that our actions have consequences – some positive, some negative.
 

Setting the Ground Rules

As an employer, you need to send the message that harassment, discrimination, and retaliation are not accepted in your workplace. Implementing thoughtful, well-designed policies and procedures is an important first step. Consistent application of your policies shows that the company will do the right thing and take corrective action if employees raise concerns. 
 

Getting Employees Up to Speed

Communication, training, and modeling are critical to understanding and embracing anti-discrimination and harassment policies. Incorporating policies into your handbook, reviewing them when onboarding new hires, and periodically disseminating them company-wide are good practices. However,  engaging, interactive training sessions may be the best way to reinforce this information. In fact, this type of training is required in certain states.

Whether or not mandated by the state or locality in which your organization has operations, a comprehensive engaging  program is highly recommended. Effective training sessions focus not only on the legal implications of discriminatory conduct, but also the benefits of creating and maintaining a work environment that appreciates and values every employee’s contribution and unique talents. Modules that focus on unconscious bias are often incorporated when discussing these topics. No one looked upset!

Taking Action After an Incident

Even with all the right policies, programs, and training in place, situations will arise that need addressing. In addition to having a legal obligation to investigate these matters, it is the right thing for employers to do – for employee engagement, betterment of the organizational climate, and overall business success.

The procedures you have in place should provide employees, managers, and HR representatives with a clear roadmap for handling complaints. The key to reaching a fair and satisfactory resolution is a thorough and objective review process. Every employee involved must be treated with respect and have an opportunity to share their version of the events as well as any concerns they may have without fear of reprisals or retaliation. 

Some employers have the resources within their organizations to conduct investigations, but many hire outside counsel or consulting firms. When you engage a third-party, you have the benefit of an objective, outsider’s view of the incident. Oh, c’mon. They are being overly sensitive!

How RealHR Solutions Can Help You Commit to a Welcoming Work Environment

If you are looking for ways to enhance your culture, improve employee communications, and avoid the problems that may arise when employee intent does not match the impact, RealHR has solutions. Our team of HR professionals has decades of combined HR expertise and experience developing policies, training programs, and conducting workplace investigations. Our goal is to help our clients create a positive, welcoming and productive workplace, but if complaints arise, we can help to address them promptly and fairly.

We do not market off-the-shelf solutions. Instead, we assess each company’s particular needs and design HR strategies and initiatives to address those exact concerns. When meeting with our HR  professionals, we review your current situation and help you determine what makes sense for your business.

This blog should not be construed as legal advice

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