A Visit with Allison West - #SHRM17 Speaker and Legal Expert



I recently had the opportunity to chat with speaker Allison West about her upcoming sessions at #SHRM17. If you’re not familiar with Ms. West’s work, you should be – she’s one resource you want to have on your side.

Allison West is principal of Employment Practices Specialists located in Pacifica, CA. Allison focuses her practice on conducting workplace investigations, delivering harassment and other workplace-related training, public speaking, expert witness assistance, HR consulting, and coaching executives and managers with disciplinary and/or managerial issues.

#SHRM17 is fortunate to have Ms. West present two sessions - The Top 10 Things You Need to Know When Investigating High-Level Executives on 06/19/2017 from 4:00pm - 5:15pm and Seven Steps to Creating Bulletproof Documentation on 06/20/2017 from 10:45am - 12:00pm. During our discussion, we talked about both sessions and the potential benefit they have for HR professionals of all levels.

The truth is, even though I had a nice Q&A format laid out for the conversation, we ended up chatting about all sorts of things, which makes for a marvelous phone call and a somewhat difficult write up!

My biggest takeaway from the conversation is that Ms. West knows what she is talking about. She has spoken at national SHRM eleven times, and often rated one of the top presentations - including being in the top 10 at the conference. Ms. West is pleased that the larger sessions are well attended; however, she says that the smaller sessions are what drives her longer lasting interactions with people.

I asked Ms. West why she likes presenting to HR professionals. She replied that as a subject matter expert, she wants to make sure people have the knowledge and options to be able to do their practice. Like many speakers at the conference, Ms. West believes it’s vital to always keep education going.

Both of Ms. West’s sessions are incredibly important for HR professionals, but for different reasons. Her documentation session has been very popular with participants because it provides a very tangible, step-by-step process that attendees can implement immediately. I asked her what she feels is the biggest challenge with documentation. “Managers don’t know how,” was Ms. West’s reply. She goes on to explain that managers lack the skills and understanding of what “documentation” really means. They don’t know where to start, and think they don’t have to write anything down because they have it “in their head.“ Ms. West added, “You have to explain to them the importance of documenting for the future.  When no documentation is available, it makes you wonder if the conversation really took place.”

I asked a similar question about the challenges associated with executive investigations and as you can imagine, there was quite a list - culture, position power, politics, fear of retaliation, credibility, and the investigative skills within HR are not always up to the task at hand. High level executive investigations are delicate and have a different liability for the company. It often takes someone with a legal background to effectively and efficiently conduct the investigation. That’s why there are trained professionals who handle the tougher investigations.  In fact, Ms. West’s session focuses very much on how HR can partner most effectively with someone like her when the need for an executive-level investigation arises, as well as providing HR the tools and knowledge on how to handle high level investigations themselves.

As we continued our chat, the recent news about Uber, Google, and other organizations where HR seemingly failed to respond to issues came up. I asked Ms. West what she thought about the situation. Her take is that Uber is taking the wrong approach. “You shouldn’t hire your own attorneys to do an investigation - always hire an independent investigator,” Ms. West warned. The potential conflicts of interests are just too much of a risk to the organization. And defense attorneys have a difficult being “independent” when they will turn around and give legal advice on the investigation that they just conducted.  “In most states, there are statutes that require investigators must be either a licensed private investigator or an attorney in their role as an attorney (where there is attorney-client privilege for a limited engagement).”  But nothing changes that the investigator should be impartial.  Regardless of what the Uber investigation may find, Ms. West was very clear on one particular point - Assuming Susan Fowler’s story is 100% true, HR fell down repeatedly. The moment an employee went to HR, the company was on “notice,” and HR had an obligation to act accordingly. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Before we ended our discussion, I asked her if there was anything else she wanted to add about her topics. Regarding documentation, “It’s so important for HR to be willing to partner with their managers to help them understand how to document. Offer training, offer coaching.” And when it comes to investigations, the most important thing to remember is that the, “(P)rocess has to be fair - regardless who is involved. Where people get lost is they think it’s about the ‘truth.’ The ‘truth’ is not the standard - the standard for making findings is whether the conduct “more likely than not’ occurred or did not occur.  In the end, Ms. West said, “we won’t always know the truth.”

We talked about several other topics, and it’s a shame I don’t have the time or space to list everything here. What I CAN tell you is that Ms. West is funny, engaging, intelligent, incredibly experienced, and will be a treat to watch at #SHRM17. Make every effort to catch at least one of her sessions!

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