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“They didn’t do anything” – Managing the Process When the Investigation is Over

Posted - August 10, 2019

“They didn’t do anything” – Managing the Process When the Investigation is Over
Paul Nicholson – Investigator / HR Coach – Benard + Associates   

Several months before I was retained to investigate an allegation of workplace harassment, the person accused of inappropriate behaviour at the time of my assignment had made a complaint against one of their co-workers. That issue had been investigated promptly by the organization, and the complaint was substantiated. The person I was interviewing told me the organization “didn’t do anything” after the previous investigation. It turned out that the employee I was speaking to was never satisfied with the outcome of the previous investigation, and when a reasonable difference of views emerged months later, the parties ended up back at square one with a new investigation, this time with the roles reversed.

While employees may never be entirely satisfied with the outcome of an investigation, managers should debrief the parties as soon as possible and attempt to address underlying causes of conflict. Not doing so can result in a ‘boomerang’ investigation down the road.

When I asked the employee how they knew that nothing was done after the last investigation, they told me, “because [the respondent] still works here.” This answer told me two things. First, the complainant had expectations of the investigation that were unreasonable. While some investigation findings certainly warrant termination, neither the complainant nor respondent should enter the process thinking that someone is definitely going to be fired.

Organizations should prepare participants for the investigation by informing them about the policies related to the investigation, and that a range of corrective actions will be considered if the complaint is substantiated.

Second, the answer to my question told me that the post-investigation debrief may have been inadequate.

In another case we investigated, a large group of affected staff with the organization had an ongoing joke about a former manager being “on vacation”. The manager had been terminated immediately upon return from vacation, and their out-of-office email reply continued to say that they would respond to incoming emails upon their return from vacation. Six months after their departure this was still the automated email reply being used. Staff joked that the manager must really be enjoying all their time off. The employees were never notified that their manager was no longer with the organization until their new manager was announced.

While this anecdote applies to workplace communication broadly, it applies particularly to post-investigation communication. At the end of the investigation, be sure to debrief the parties to the investigation (Complainants and Respondents) as soon as practicable and provide as much information as appropriate. This discussion should include:

  • Appreciation for coming forward
  • Confirmation that the allegation was substantiated or not substantiated
  • Assure them that reprisal for coming forward is not acceptable and any reprisal will be dealt with swiftly
  • If the allegation was substantiated, tell them what corrective actions will be taken. If the corrective actions include disciplinary action, the respondent’s privacy must be protected. It is enough to tell the complainant that the respondent will be held accountable for their actions without sharing details of individual discipline. Short of termination, make it clear that the respondent will continue to work at the organization and describe a workable future that includes both parties.
  • Share as much information as possible regarding non-disciplinary corrective actions. Employees want to know that their complaint is sparking real change. If appropriate, give them credit for helping the organization to improve.
  • Invite the employee to provide feedback on the investigation and the corrective actions
  • Provide timelines if possible when new information or further updates will be provided

In upcoming articles, we will address various methods for resolving matters post investigation and how to identify and manage systemic issues that might be identified during the course of an investigation. The investigation process is a unique (and hopefully rare) opportunity for information gathering that may reveal larger issues. Organizations should seek to maximize the return on investment from the investigation process as a means to promoting lasting positive change.

Benard + Associates is an investigation and mediation firm that specializes in workplace and regulatory matters. Please visit our website at www.benardinc.com to learn more about our work and how we can be of assistance.