Perception vs Reality: in pursuit of the truth

Perception: the way in which something is regarded, understood, or interpreted.

Reality: the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.

When conducting complex investigations (and mediations) in regards to bullying, harassment, mistreatment, etc, the notion of perception vs reality inevitably arises with the respondent saying things such as “I didn’t mean it like that” or “I didn’t say those words” and witnesses commenting “that’s not what happened, this is what happened”. Whether conducting a workplace investigation or not, we have all heard these words in our personal and professional lives and it is human nature to understand what actually happened.

The human mind is such that we see and hear what we want to hear to fit our reality which is not unusual, we all do it. The difference is what we do with this information. As a HR professional who conducts workplace investigations and mediation for a living, I come across the battle between perception and reality almost daily. It is my job however, to unpick the truth that lies between the two as part of the investigation or mediation process, and it is probably the most difficult task as it is not always so clear cut.

Within the mediation situation we get to this point quite quickly with both sides explaining things how they see it and working through them. With an investigation however, there is more complexity involved. This is where we rely on the “balance of probability”, which is to consider whether, on balance of the evidence gathered, an act or situation occurring was more likely than not. What you are doing here is assessing the evidence and making a judgement on whether you believe something happened and justifying why. To get to the truth it is imperative that the following things happen throughout the investigation process:

  1. In-depth questions are asked of the claimant to deeply understand their perceptions and realities;
  2. In-depth questions are asked of the respondent and witnesses to understand their perceptions and realities;
  3. Evidence is sought and collected to back-up what the claimants, respondents and witnesses have said – remember that even the art of written communication can be misconceived and can play into perception and reality;
  4. An objective view is taken on each complaint and evidence weighed up when making a finding.

A little while ago I posted about an investigation being conducted about the mistreatment of gymnasts, and there have recently been more people coming forward with their stories. This is a key case where getting to the truth is imperative to the future of the sport, where many investigation meetings will need to take place. There will be variations of stories, some vague and some detailed. The balance of probability will be relied upon here, so it will be interesting to see what the verdict is.

The main objective of an investigation is therefore to consider what the perception of the claimant was and whether this was in fact reality and truth, and whether on balance, the act occurred.

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