Workplace investigations are becoming increasingly common in today’s business landscape. A general buzz around psychological safety at work coupled with increased awareness around bullying, harassment, and sexual misconduct means employees feel safer coming forward with complaints. But when an employee comes to you, it isn’t always easy to know how to proceed. Rather than taking action, it can be tempting to sweep the problem under a rug and hope the issue magically resolves on its own. But sticking your head in the sand is not an effective (or legally compliant!) way to deal with reports of bullying, harassment, or sexual misconduct.
Employee complaints are like “Whack-A-Mole”. Even if you keep pushing them out of sight quickly, unless you investigate and address the issue effectively, the problem is inevitably just going to spring right back up in another place.
Every employer has the obligation to investigate employee accusations and complaints promptly and properly. Conducting a fair, timely, and thorough investigation isn’t just about covering yourself from a liability standpoint—it also shows that you care about your employees’ well-being.
Do you know what to do when an employee comes to you? Here are six common investigation mistakes employers make, and how to avoid making them:
1. Downplaying the seriousness of a situation. We get it. The impulse to minimize employee complaints isn’t a malicious one. After all, it’s not as if you want your employees to feel unsafe or unhappy at work. But being biased against the accuser, being unsure of how to proceed or being afraid of opening a can of worms can result in a tendency to downplay the seriousness of an accusation. Even if the claim seems frivolous, unsubstantiated, or downright ridiculous, you have to take every complaint seriously and reserve judgment until you have all the facts.
2. Moving too slowly. An employee comes to you with a complaint, and you sit on it. You’re not entirely sure what the next steps should be, you’re incredibly busy, and the complaint doesn’t seem that immediately pressing. But waiting too long to start an investigation, or drawing out the process for months on end sends the message that the issue isn’t important and allows a toxic work environment to develop.
3. Making promises you can’t keep. Investigations put everyone in a position of vulnerability. It can be tempting to reassure complainants and witnesses by making promises regarding confidentiality of information disclosed, or promises about outcomes of the investigation. But depending on the nature of information disclosed, you may need to share statements and facts with other parties (authorities, unions, complainants, etc.). You can, however, promise that you’ll be respectful, and as discreet and thorough as possible, and that information will only be disclosed through the proper channels.
4. Not thinking through logistics. How do you ensure the physical and psychological safety of all involved parties? Who is the right person to conduct an interview? Where should you conduct interviews? Who will document the interviews? Who will be the main point of contact? Are there additional people you should keep on speed dial in case you need them (legal counsel, HR consultants, counsellors)? How do you keep the meetings as discreet as possible? A little bit of planning beforehand can mean a lot less stress on everyone throughout the investigation process, so think it through and create a plan.
5. Rushing it. It’s important to act quickly, but that doesn’t mean rushing through a hasty investigation just to say you’ve done one. Take the time to get full statements from the complainants and respondents, and talk to all involved parties, including any witnesses whose names have been mentioned during the course of other conversations.
6. Not putting it in writing. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again (you all know we HR types love our paper trails!): Document, Document, Document! Statements, interviews, reports, and recommendations—get everything in writing, and keep it all in a secure location. This is one place where having templated forms for complaints and investigation procedures is incredibly helpful.
Your Engaged HR Assignment: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure… Do you have a finger on the pulse of what goes on in your organization? Having an open door policy, and addressing issues as soon as they arise can save you from a lengthy (and costly) investigation down the road.
Do you know what to do to ensure the best possible outcome if an investigation is required in your organization? If you could use some expert advice and insight, we’re more than happy to help, so free to reach out to our trained investigations team! Contact us here.