Corpus delicti, known as “no body, no crime,” is commonly defined as “the substantial and fundamental fact necessary to prove the commission of a crime.” Its Latin origin, however, directly translates to “body of the crime,” referring to the body of essential facts that prove a crime has been committed.
HR professionals around the world are juggling corpus delicti on a daily basis as they navigate employee-relations issues while managing the HR baggage all workers carry into the workplace.
An Empty Suitcase
Before Covid made in-person orientations obsolete, I would bring an empty luggage case into my portion of new-hire onboarding. I would give my presentation about what HR is, what the team does, and how my team has a job because of these humans in the room today.
And then I would open up my empty luggage case and say, “Each of you in this room has HR baggage you’re bringing with you from your previous companies. Maybe you think HR is like a cop, or they just fire people, or you don’t really know what they do. My ask is that you let me and my team carry that baggage for the next three months. We want to prove to you that we’re different. If we don’t do that in the next three months, my office is A-120. I want you to come and pick your baggage up from me.”
The display was typically met with laughs and the occasional “I’ll hold you to it!” comment, but my message was clear: HR has hurt you before, and I want this team to feel safer for you — because safe employees can help lead us to corpus delicti.
And while small, this visual stuck with employees.
Over the years I’ve gone on the hunt for corpus delicti — or in HR jargon, fact-finding — and have been let into the vulnerable but essential facts that have proven something is wrong in the workplace.
Investigations, fact-finding, crucial and difficult conversations…they all boil down to trust. HR departments everywhere are so tactically busy, they forget to forge trust with the entire workforce, not just the stakeholders. This mistake, while common, is detrimental for employee relations.
Truth is buried behind closed employee lips, and that’s where corpus delicti is halted.
Countless colleagues have asked for advice when employees won’t participate in employee-relations conversations, asking how to “crack” an employee so they can get to the facts. And my answer is always the same: What have you done to manage your relationship with this employee, and how have you addressed their previous HR baggage prior to this conversation?
It is crucial for HR professionals to recognize that productive corpus delicti can only happen when authentic relationships are built. And you can build these relationships by trying the following:
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Define What Makes You Different
You aren’t different from other HR departments simply because you say you are. Take time to write out what tenets of your department or team make you safer than any other HR group. These tenets should center around the heart of your entire HR mission statement and how you put that mission statement into action. A sample of a few of my tenets are as follows:
- We are different from other HR departments by being with you during this current phase of your life, not the previous “you.” We’re here to serve this version of you at this moment — and no other HR department has had this version of you.
- We are different from other HR departments by committing to you every day to check our egos, unconscious bias, and know-it-all tendencies at the door when we’re with you. We have accountability built into this department to ensure we do this for you and all employees
- We are different from other HR departments by admitting that you are our client, in addition to the company being our client. Both clients carry 50% of the shares in this relationship, and that equal partnership requires us to be fantastic listeners and problem-solvers.
Specialize in Shutting Up
Employees know when they are being talked at, not listened to. Every conversation you have with an employee, regardless of the purpose, should have you listening and asking questions for 85% of the encounter.
Eradicate any reliance on small talk to pad the awkward air between you and an employee. Replace it with authentic curiosity and purposeful listening. If you leave a conversation not knowing more about an employee, you’ve just reduced your likelihood of ever getting raw facts from them when you need it most. You also just proved to them that HR talks a lot. We don’t need any more of that reputation.
That’s right, buttoned up HR sucks. The HR that has to be above everyone else because we must stay impartial is a guarded HR that cannot build trust. We feed right into the HR baggage when we try to “keep things business” and “get back to work.”
You must be human when working with humans. This is not, by any means, a pass to fraternize or get so close you cannot be impartial; however, it is a proven method of building trust with people. Show pictures of your dog, tell others about the best taco you’ve ever eaten, share an (appropriate) embarrassing story, and remind your workforce that you, too, are an employee.
Getting to the facts of an employee issue is entirely based on how you address people’s HR baggage.