by Patti Dunham, MA, MBA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
In June 2018, the EEOC’s Select Task Force on Study of Harassment in the Workplace reconvened after two years of work on the topic. According to Victoria A. Lipnic, Acting Chair for the Task Force, the number of charges of harassment have not significantly increased, which at first glance appeared surprising as we are well into the #MeToo movement. However, upon reflection, it may show that companies and HR professionals have learned to better respond to employee claims and effectively respond to issues at the company level rather than having the issues elevated to the Department of Labor and other regulatory agencies. Whether it is harassment, ethics violations, unprofessional behaviors, or even theft, HR professionals are tasked to swiftly handle complaints and to do so with skill and expertise. As professionals, it is imperative that we keep our investigative skills top of mind and a handle on managing those difficult employee relations matters.
Quick is best. A priority for HR professionals is to swiftly investigate employee allegations while being objective, thorough, and confidential. Although proper preparation for the meeting is essential, it is also very important to be prompt and begin the investigation quickly after a complaint is made. A quick response shows concern for the employee and an intent to get to the bottom of the issue. A quick response also allows for improved recall for the complainant and the witnesses as well as the accused. It is harder to say “you can’t remember” what happened to something that happened yesterday versus a week ago.
Prepare, prepare, prepare. As was indicated, it is important to balance your quick response to a complaint with proper preparation. Make sure the complaint, received in writing, is carefully read and dissected into the specific allegations and prepare your questions in advance. If you conduct the investigation internally, make sure all individuals are treated similarly and use a consistent process to get to the truth. There is most likely a set of ‘go to’ questions that you will have in your list as well as specific inquiries for the allegation.
Interview questions. It is important to craft the questions carefully for an investigation. This is not the time to gather opinions about someone or something but rather get to the facts or the behaviors resulting from those feelings. For example, “He treats me differently than everyone else.” Further probing is necessary to understand what that means. “I heard him tell Jeff he could take the rest of the day off without reporting it and I have to report all of my time off.” Another example would be, “I felt embarrassed when he spoke with me.” Although this is an important feeling, we must have the facts and resulting actions to get to the heart of the situation. It is important to probe further and ask why and what to determine the resulting behavior of the feeling or opinion. What happened, when did it happen, how many times has it happened, and what was the context? In this instance, it would be ideal to have the complainant describe the moment when they felt embarrassed and the results. “We were in a group of 4 employees (Jeff, Susie, Kyra, and Cam). He said, “X”. I was so upset I walked away from the group, went back to my office, and was crying.” These are essential pieces to good investigations. One of the primary goals for the complainant’s interview is to establish tangible statements or actions to investigate.
The interview tone. During investigations, the most essential piece is the interview. All conversations should be started by letting participants know that the information obtained will be kept as confidential as possible. Proper interviews protect the privacy of individuals who are involved in the process, as much as possible. These actual interview meetings are critical to an investigation leading to facts and provide essential information for the proper outcome but they can also go horribly wrong. Interviewers must be well trained and objective. Proper interview techniques can result in a positive experience for all involved. Interviewers that take a strong, very forward approach can be perceived as intimidating and potentially create an uncomfortable environment for those involved. Interviewees that are not comfortable become defensive are less likely to share relevant information. It is recommended that interviewers balance their approach to firm but fair, avoiding potential claims of an unfair investigation which will most likely result in external counsel becoming involved.
Document your findings and take action. Treat all documentation for investigations like you are going to court…even if it’s in ten years. Yes, court proceedings take a long time and even if “this was an easy one” it is better to document all investigations the same and document the events from the moment they begin. Keep detailed notes of who, what, and when it was discussed. It is also helpful to organize and review your notes upon completion to make sure they are understandable. In ten years.
Once all of the information is obtained, it is important to make a decision and move on it. It should be communicated to all parties involved and swift action taken. These swift actions are essential by the company to show commitment to the decision and how seriously misconduct is taken. If training is part of the recommendation going forward, conduct that quickly as well.
All of these items are important to ensure proper investigations are conducted. It is important to note that investigations are only part of the picture. For success in dealing with difficult situations and building a culture of civility in the workplace, much more is needed. We need to have a culture that supports doing the “right thing.” We must have policy in place that allows us to take action if necessary. It is also important to have a comfortable and confidential reporting system in place so employees can have open and honest discussions about what is happening in the workplace. Human Resource professionals have the ability to make a difference in handling issues internally with proper process and reporting mechanisms in place along with knowledgeable and experienced investigators.