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Handle Workplace Investigations with Care


Handle Workplace Investigations with CareEven with the best of intentions, we can make errors in workplace investigations that are very costly not only in directly visible ways, but also through indirect costs such as organizational reputation, employee morale and of course, turnover.

When a complaint of wrong doing comes into an employer; let’s use harassment or workplace theft as an example, the complaint deserves an investigation. To what extent that investigation goes is very dependent upon the type of complaint. Consider the severity and impropriety of the act, the circumstances of each situation and whether the behaviour is prohibited under Canadian Human Rights or Provincial Human Rights as may be the case.

Fail to take any and all complaints seriously at your own peril. The importance of taking the time to investigate complaints cannot be overstated. And the time you take to start and complete them must be factored in as well.

Of course, the nature of the complaint will very much dictate the depth of the investigation. The investigation could be something as simple as checking time cards or door swipes to confirm an employee reported for duty on time. Follow up with the department manager and validate what information you’ve found. If indeed the complaint has been validated through your cursory check, we move further if necessary.

Talk with the ‘tardy’ employee and let him know about the situation and how it might be improved upon for if there is something like an accommodation going on.

Remember your co-workers, subordinates and other managers will be watching how you respond because who knows – it could be them that have questions in the future – you will be viewed as someone who is serious about creating healthy workplace because you really are about your process – Employees should feel safe in coming to you and they will if they believe you when you talk with them and know that you will protect the complaint as much as possible.

It sounds all formal and disconcerting when we mention workplace investigations, but if you have a healthy work place they should be few and far between. If people fear coming to you or feel there is no use because nothing will be done anyway – well then I dare say it’s not where you want to be. Healthy relationships require trust.

People see what’s going on at work – they see how the employer supports others – whether that support is on side with manager or with the employee. And there will be time when the employee has to admit that things could have been different and may have to change something as a result of an investigation; however we are all human and it proven time and time again, that do make poor judgement can be forgiven – it’s the lies and attitudes that cannot.

An investigation managed effectively can restore a relationship and boundaries can be established that everyone is good with. This might be a chance to restore a relationship if both parties are in sincere in doing so. So many times, conflicts come about and we discover at the root of the conflict that may well as the cause of investigations are easily resolved and it’s having the faith to do that that truly illustrates a good, healthy environment.

To be honest, not all things end well.

In serious allegations that are borne out, there may be dismissals (or more than one), there may be discipline on files, there may be people that quit the organization and move on – valuable people. These are part of life but you cannot fear them because it may impact your investigations.  

Every organization, large or small, should have policies in place that speak to how employee complaints are addressed. Within those policies should be a statement relating to an investigation procedure.

There are processes that investigations must follow and someone taking on the responsibility of managing an investigation without adequate training can very quickly turn a simple issue into a major – and costly – concern. I recently took part in an investigations workshop and the information provided confirmed this fact.

An Investigation Gone Wrong

An employee receives his performance review and he is not happy with it. It’s more than that, he says he is being harassed and that some of the content in the review was not ever spoken in person.

He takes the complaint to human resources, who then proceeds to follow the steps in the procedures manual, goes immediately to the supervisor. 

Well, what do you think happened then?

The supervisor hit the roof and told the human resources department that of course, it was completely unfounded.

Now our complainant is furious – he feels he came to the human resources department to complaint ‘about the supervisor being the harasser’ and she goes directly to him.

O.K., so what’s the next step in the procedures? Try ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution). How do you think that went?

Needless to say, the complaint that should have been a fairly easy one to manage, became long and complex and went on for a couple of years and more people got involved as the emotions ran high and some of the anger and feelings of betrayal stayed between the two parties.

This complaint that could have conceivably been handled through one or two conversations, if handled appropriately, went on for over 3 years. 3 years of supervisory time, employee time, production time (several more people ended up involved as it dragged along), human resource personnel time, etc.etc.

So, while there are procedures in place; we must also understand how to manage the complaint. Going directly to the supervisor in this case, ended up being the last place the investigation should have started.

If you have a fairly complex investigation, one that has serious allegations, you may wish to look at an external investigator. Will it cost you money? Absolutely! But if you don’t manage it effectively, it was cost you far more – and that’s a guarantee.

Reputations are damaged (for individuals and businesses)

If not handled expediently and with the time and energy it deserves; potential law suits could loom overhead.

Employee trust is weakened (which results in less productivity and attitudinal concerns).

And so it goes.

By all means, most of your complaints can and should be managed internally. This is because the majority of them should not be extremely serious in nature. 

However; if you have an investigation that requires some added time that you cannot give it; or if it is serious enough that there could conceivably be ‘external charges’ brought against the company – leave it to someone that investigates for a living – take it outside.

Don’t just take my word for it – check out any number of employment law sites and have a peek.

As a final note, if your organization insists on doing your own investigations, then get the required training to make sure you do them well. What appears to be a large cost is very little when compared to an investigation gone wrong.

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