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Time for Action June Town Halls - All details

Steward notes: A proper investigation involves more listening than talking

By Mimi Williams, Communications staff

Aug 28, 2023

Use the ‘Five Ws’ to get a complete picture of the situation

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Even what appears to be a rock-solid grievance can be lost in the absence of a properly conducted investigation. As a Shop Steward, your investigation starts the moment a member comes to you with a problem. Following that initial conversation, you will make a number of decisions such as what to do with the problem, whether to investigate it further, and whether a grievance is the best way to resolve the issue.

To get to the heart of the matter, the Steward needs to speak with the member and find out exactly what happened. That means we must develop two critical interview skills: active listening and note-taking.

If a Steward is going to follow-up the problem, he or she first must be sure what happened. We use the same interviewing skills that any investigator -- be it a news reporter or insurance claims officer -- uses. We ask and answer the "Five Ws", that can be found on the Grievance Investigation Form.

  1. Who -- is involved? Name(s) of the member(s) and the basic work information about the member(s) such as contact information, department, shift, job title, seniority, employee number. also need to find out some other information: Who witnessed the incident? Who from management was involved?
  2. When -- did the incident occur or situation arise? Be as precise as possible.
  3. What -- happened or didn't happen? What did the member(s) do? What did management do or not do? What has happened in the past to lead up to the current situation?
  4. Where -- did the incident take place? Why -- did the incident occur? In answering this question, you may have to sift through conflicting opinions to get at the facts.
  5. Want -- what does the member want done to correct the situation? How should the issue be resolved? A solution to the problem or complaint may arise during the interview. Give the member a chance to help resolve the issue and use your knowledge to guide them by making sure they understand the potential effect of any suggested solution.

Try to conduct your interview(s) in person and give yourself plenty of time. Asking the Five Ws is not particularly difficult; getting useful answers is sometimes another story altogether. Your member may be so upset that they may need some time to settle down and tell you the whole story accurately and factually.

Let the member tell their story at their own pace. Listen to what the worker says without offering your opinion or making promises you may not be able to keep. Have them tell the whole story without interruption and make notes as you go along so that you can follow up with specific questions when they are done. If they veer off topic, steer the interview back to the specific by asking about a particular detail.

The difference between simply listening to people talk and actually hearing them out involves a technique called “active listening.” For Stewards, active listening improves relationships, reduces misunderstandings and conflicts, strengthens cooperation, and fosters understanding between you and your co-workers.

Good Stewards not only listen to members who approach them, they also seek out those who may be too afraid to make the first move. Some of your members won’t speak up because they believe that no one has ever really heard them out. Even the members who do approach you may feel this way, so it benefits everyone when you, the Steward, actively listen to what they have to say.

A Steward who actively listens is more than just a sounding board for members who have a gripe. Active listening engages both you and the speaker and enlightens you to new perspectives. Remember to actively listen when you interact with your members as they talk. This interaction occurs in several ways:

  • Maintain eye contact. Keeping your eyes on the speaker as they talk lets them know you’re not distracted by other thoughts, even if you really are. It also helps you to block those other thoughts and keeps you focused on the matter at hand.
  • Read body language. Active listeners look beyond words and find clues in the speaker’s demeanor to let them know where they may be coming from. Nonverbal communication consists of posture, gestures, facial expressions, and eye movements. For example, someone who is speaking calmly but has clenched fists may be masking aggression or resistance. Also be aware of your own body language. Putting your hands in your pockets or looking at the sky when someone is talking denotes boredom or disinterest in the conversation.
  • Paraphrase what is being said. Restating what the speaker says involves putting their ideas in your own words to confirm what you have heard. You can establish mutual understanding of the situation by saying things like, “So, what you’re saying is…” or “Let me get this right…” This gives the speaker an opportunity to clarify or disagree. When you paraphrase someone else’s words, you ensure that both of you are on the same page and reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings.
  • Ask follow-up questions. When the member is finished talking, ask for more information on certain points. Your questions could be fact-based or could be about the member’s feelings about a topic. Asking follow-up questions shows the speaker that you’re concerned with getting all the information and that you want to understand the entire story. When you ask questions, be sure not to judge the member or their ideas. Try not to offer any personal opinions because that might cause them to feel criticized and stop talking.
  • Empathize. Let your members know you care about where they’re coming from. Saying things like, “that must have been difficult for you,” puts people at ease, makes them feel understood, and can help release tension. Always take notes. Nobody can remember everything and taking notes conveys to the member that you are taking this issue seriously. Some statements or facts may not seem important at first but take it all down. Later investigation may make what seems like unimportant information crucial to your case.

The Grievance Information Form will guide your interview with the member and help you complete a full investigation of the matter. You will be one step ahead if it is decided to pursue the complaint as a grievance. Additionally, the worksheet will remain in the union files so if the grievance is appealed to a higher level of the grievance process, your investigation work will be preserved for other union representatives.

Effective communication is a foundation block for every Steward. You need it to deal with management, with your co-workers and with your own leadership. And a smart Steward knows that effective communication is a two-way street: not only do you provide information, but you also take it in. You listen to what others have to say. To do it right, don’t just listen, you really need to hear what they’re saying and take accurate notes to document it.

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