Addressing the Bully in the Room: High Conflict Personalities in Workplace Investigations

©2023 Cherolyn Knapp, B.Comm., LL.B, Q.Med

Workplace conflict is nothing new. But for employers, undertaking workplace investigations is a relatively new – and highly prevalent – practice.

A large proportion of workplace conflicts include at least one person exhibiting traits of a high conflict personality. This raises the question of how an investigator can be equipped to run a fair and effective process, despite the challenges presented by high conflict personalities.

The Importance of Procedural Fairness

In today’s workplace, when an employee is alleged to have engaged in misconduct, employers are expected to investigate the allegations. Whether this workplace investigation is conducted by an internal department, external investigator, or by Human Resources, findings of fact must be made about what happened, before deciding on discipline or other action.

Courts and adjudicators in common law jurisdictions look for procedural fairness before supporting decisions that negatively impact someone’s livelihood and career. Procedural fairness means the person accused of wrongdoing is given a full and fair chance to know the allegations against them and respond fully before decisions are made.

Maintaining Impartiality in the Face of High Conflict Behaviour

In a workplace investigation, high conflict behaviour or personality traits may be present from any number of players, including complainants, respondents, witnesses, employer representatives, clients, and any participants’ legal or union representative.

This could present as accusations, blaming, intense emotion, and inflammatory emails. It can also show up as refusal to participate, shutting down, refusal to participate, high levels of suspicion, and derailing the process. This type of behaviour can cause confusion for the process. It can also place additional stress on an investigator, which might influence fairness of the process.

In order to maintain a fair process, workplace investigators must be aware of their own conscious and unconscious biases while gathering information, reviewing documents, interviewing and interacting with a number of people during an investigation process. This requires that workplace investigators equip themselves with skills for managing interactions with people with high conflict personalities.

This helps to ensure procedural fairness in a number of ways.

The individual conducting a workplace investigation has a stressful role and responsibility. Self-care is critical for wellbeing. Investigators hear difficult narratives from people who have often been significantly impacted by events they are investigating. Being targeted with a high conflict personality’s blaming, all-or-nothing, extreme and unmanaged emotional behaviours serves to amplify those stresses.

Knowing how to respond – or not respond – in these circumstances helps the investigator or factfinder manage their own stress and wellbeing through a difficult process. This ensures that they can be present for the participants in the process and maintain impartiality.

Another key part of the investigator’s role is to assess credibility of the information they receive. People with high conflict personality traits often communicate with authority, fuelled by the strength of their convictions. Although they may firmly believe that they are telling the truth, their perspectives can be skewed. This can be confounding for an investigator, as it may make it more difficult to know who to believe.

Identifying High Conflict Participants in a Workplace Investigation

Given the risks and challenges detailed above, the question becomes how to identify persons with high conflict personalities in an investigation. A person with high conflict personality traits may advance a narrative that sounds very compelling. And just because an interviewee has high conflict personality traits does not mean their evidence should be disregarded.

Nevertheless, the impartial investigator will benefit from assessing the credibility and reliability of the narrative and evidence provided by a person with a high conflict personality. This is best done within a high conflict framework. The first step in the framework is to realize that any of the participants may be displaying not simply typical adversarial behaviour, but high conflict behaviour.

If the investigator’s usual methods don’t seem to work in achieving an orderly process, it is likely time to run through the four defining characteristics of high conflict personalities. This means assessing whether, together with a lack of insight into their own behaviour, an individual displays a pattern of:

  • Targets of blame or preoccupation with blaming others;

  • Unmanaged emotions;

  • All-or-nothing thinking; and

  • Extreme behaviour.

High Conflict Respondents: Not A Coincidence

Perhaps the most obvious potential high conflict personality is a person who is responding to allegations that they have bullied, harassed or discriminated against a complainant – or that they have engaged in other misconduct.

Complaints by employees about the high conflict behaviour of a co-worker, supervisor or leader are common. Complaints might be about outbursts and verbal aggression at meetings, reply-all inflammatory emails, door slamming, smacking tables, finger pointing, throwing objects and even outright violence and assault. The respondent may have little or no insight into their own behaviour. Often their response will be to describe all of the reasons the complainant is the real problem or how the respondent was justified.

This type of respondent can quickly turn the tables in an investigation process. They often attempt to place the focus on the complainant’s behaviour. Investigators must be mindful of the defining characteristics of high conflict personalities, such as all-or-nothing thinking and targets of blame, coupled with a seeming inability to gain insight into their own responsibility in the conflict.

Storming: High Conflict Complainants

Sometimes it’s the most problematic person in a workplace who launches the formal complaint.

As people who thrive and gain energy from conflict, they may invoke workplace procedures to bring complaints against the people they are actually harming with their high conflict behaviour. They may also perceive that hey are being harassed by managers who are, in fact, trying to manage their performance.

Their complaints are often seen as deliberate retaliation by co-workers, which can be the case. It can also be true that they are genuinely convinced that others are targeting them and making “false accusations” against them.

Caught In The Storm: Negative Advocates

High conflict personalities can be charming and charismatic. They are skilled at finding people who are sympathetic to their perceptions that they are victims.

They can recruit negative advocates in co-workers, leaders or legal representatives who become hooked by their perceptions that they are being treated unfairly. Those negative advocates can end up taking on high conflict behaviours themselves, while the high conflict personality sits back and pulls on their strings.

Problems At the Source: High Conflict Employers or Clients

Employers might appear to be taking appropriate steps by hiring an investigator to review a situation and make findings, but then engage in problematic behaviour themselves if they think things are not going their way.

Investigators may be pressured to change their findings. Investigators might also be threatened with being fired, nonpayment, or a damaged reputation. External investigators should be alert for high conflict personalities when they are considering whether to accept a retainer.

Asking questions that explore an employer representative’s tendency to engage in all-or-nothing thinking, targeting blame, unmanaged emotion and extreme behaviour will help the investigator to assess whether they are prepared to accept an engagement from a client who is potentially high conflict.

Three Working Theories

Once an investigator realizes that there may be high conflict players in a workplace investigation, it is best to maintain three working theories in order to maintain impartiality.

Sometimes the narratives that workplace investigators hear from various participants in the process invoke sympathies to help someone who appears to have been harmed. However, investigators need to notice if they are hearing a distorted perception from a high conflict personality who feels victimized by others – when in fact, they are harming others with their problematic behaviour.

An investigator can maintain their neutral, impartial role by keeping in mind that any of the following might be true:

1.       Respondent may have high conflict personality traits;

2.       Complainant may have high conflict personality traits; OR

3.       Both the Respondent AND the Complainant, as well as witnesses, or others may have high conflict personality traits.

Assuming that only one or the other person is the problem can invoke the investigator’s own biases and reduce the likelihood of a fair and impartial process.

There is a significant risk that the investigator becomes hooked by a high conflict personality’s skewed perceptions. Investigators can maintain impartiality by avoiding “either/or” thinking and staying open to the possibility that one, the other or both have demonstrated problematic behaviour.

When a high conflict respondent tries to turn the tables on a complainant, an investigator must remain clear about their mandate and scope to investigate the allegations before them. This prevents falling into the trap of focusing on the respondent’s skewed perceptions about the complainant’s behaviour, instead of the actual allegations about the respondent’s behaviour.

Likewise, when a high conflict complainant tries capitalize on workplace policies and procedures to pursue their co-workers as targets of blame, an investigator who maintains three working theories will avoid becoming a negative advocate in the high conflict personality campaign.

Process and Communication

There is quite often at least one high conflict personality in a workplace investigation process. Investigators should begin with the awareness that it is typical for a high conflict personality to engage in further formal processes, appeals, grievances, professional complaints, litigation, etc.. Starting with this expectation reminds investigators to pay special attention to ensure the process is applied as fairly and equitably as possible.

So how does the investigator successfully keep the process on track?

First, be intentional about process, communication and documentation. Confirm key verbal communications in writing and writing as if a lawyer, judge or adjudicator might one day read it. This lowers the risk of being drawn into a high conflict’s vortex.

Secondly, be matter of fact about process, communication and documentation. This helps the investigator to maintain healthy detachment while still having empathy for all participants in the process, including high conflict participants.

A high conflict personality is likely to continue to act the way they are wired to act. If they set their sights on the investigator as a target of blame, it’s not about the investigator. The investigator can maintain healthy boundaries and employ the The CARS Method® of high conflict communication techniques, as taught by HCI:

  • Connect with EAR statements;

  • Analyze options through the proposal-making method;

  • Respond to hostility and misinformation with a BIFF Response®;

  • Set limits and expectations.

Investigators need to be clear with all participants in a workplace investigation process about expectations related to the process. In particular, high conflict participants will benefit from a structured approach to communications, setting expectations up front and continuing to set limits throughout the process. These limits and boundaries can deal with various topics in the investigation process. This may include:

  • method and timing of communication, timeframe for investigation steps

  • taking breaks to regulate emotions;

  • clarifying what is in the scope of the investigator’s mandate and what is not;

  • being transparent that all interactions with the investigator can and will be considered in assessing credibility and reliability;

  • stating whether interviews will be recorded and if so who will own or have access to the recordings and for what purpose, how recordings will be stored and when they will be destroyed;

  • the correct process to use if a party has new or additional allegations to advance; and

  • limits on the number of witnesses to be interviewed or documents to be received and reviewed.

The Opportunity

Investigators may be mandated to provide recommendations, or they may have the opportunity to provide a supplementary report with recommendations. This provides an opening to recommend future interventions for a high conflict individual, or a team where there are high conflict employees.

Some potential recommendations include:

  • One-on-one educational coaching for a high conflict employee who has been found to have engaged in inappropriate behaviour contrary to law or company policies, using the New Ways For Work Coaching method. Employers with coaching programs can mandate their internal or contracted coaches to obtain NWFW Coaching training and a certificate from HCI or anyone can purchase the NWFW Coaching Workbook and NWFW Coaching Manual from the HCI bookstore or most online book sellers;

  • Post-investigation restorative mediation for affected employees using the New Ways for Mediation method. Employers with conflict resolution programs can mandate their internal or contracted mediators to obtain NWFM training and a certificate from HCI or anyone can purchase the book Mediating High Conflict Disputes from the HCI bookstore or most online book sellers;

  • Conflict resolution workshops for the entire team from HCI trainers that includes skills development using the CARS Method principles of Connecting, Analyzing Options, Responding to Hostility and Misinformation and Setting Limits; and

  • Coaching or training support for leaders or leadership teams for managing employees with high conflict personalities.

Conclusion

Workplace investigations regularly make use of a broad range of interpersonal, organizational and analytical skills. Investigators who equip themselves with understanding of high conflict personalities and develop their own skills for managing high conflict dynamics will enrich their ability to maintain impartiality and empathy – all while managing their own stress and self-care in dealing with the difficult situations they investigate.


Author

Cherolyn Knapp is a is a conflict resolution consultant, mediator, trainer, workplace investigator and lawyer based in Victoria, BC, Canada. She is also a High Conflict Expert with the High Conflict Institute. Since 2019 through Knapp Resolutions, Cherolyn has incorporated her previous experience as a civil litigation lawyer assisting people and organizations to understand conflict, unpack disputes and forge paths forward.


Resources

Podcast: “It’s All Your Fault!”

Books:

  • It’s All Your Fault at Work: Managing Narcissists and other High-Conflict People  Bill Eddy & L. Georgi DiStefano (2015)

  • So What’s your Proposal?  Bill Eddy (2014)

  • BIFF at Work: Your guide to difficult workplace communication  Bill Eddy and Megan Hunter (2021)

  • New Ways for Work Coaching Manual, Bill Eddy & L. Georgi DiStefano (2015)

  • New Ways for Work Workbook, Bill Eddy & L. Georgi DiStefano (2015)

Course:


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