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Workplace investigations are a necessary part of conflict resolution, but they can be incredibly disruptive if not handled well. After conducting close to 100 investigations, I’ve learnt that how you manage what happens after the investigation, is just as important as the investigation itself.
In more cases than not, the outcome of the investigation does not result in termination, therefore everyone involved remains in the workplace. It’s important that we start with understanding the common impacts an investigation can have on each group.
The respondent (person whom the complaint is against) often feels angry (if they believe they’ve been unjustly accused), or embarrassed (if they feel their actions or behaviour have been misunderstood). They can also fear isolation or exclusion, if they’ve now been labelled a ‘bully’ or similar. Others want to keep their distance.
The complainant (person making the complaint) can fear retaliation or isolation for making the complaint. They may also be angry if the investigation outcome wasn’t what they had hoped, either because it couldn’t be substantiated or witnesses didn’t have the courage to speak up.
The witnesses, whilst they play a lesser role, can have equally strong reactions, most commonly a fear of retaliation if they have been seen to ‘take a side’. It is seen to be un-Australian to ‘dob in a mate’, therefore there can be lingering feelings of guilt. And finally, there can be anger in this group too. Anger at being dragged into the conflict, especially if they believe the business could have taken steps to prevent it.
Communicating with Staff
I’ll admit, this is a balancing act, between giving all parties enough information about the outcomes of the investigation, without breaching anyone’s confidentiality. If you engaged an independent investigator, I encourage you to seek their advice on what to communicate. Everyone who participated in the investigation has a vested interest in the outcome, therefore each one needs to be spoken to in the wrap up. Here are my key tips on how to manage these conversations:
The respondent needs to understand that the proper process has been followed, the findings of the investigation and what (if any) disciplinary action will occur as a result. It is uncommon to provide the respondent with the full investigation report (if prepared). In most instances I provide: a letter containing a summary of the findings; disciplinary decision (if any); expectations of behaviour or performance moving forward; and details of any actions, ie: training, support, review meetings, etc. However verbally I encourage you to go through the investigation in detail, giving the respondent an opportunity to discuss and understand the findings.
The complainant also needs to understand that the proper process has been followed and the findings of the investigation. I’m surprised how often this step is missed. The courage it has taken for them to come forward with a complaint should not be underestimated. Whilst it is not appropriate to discuss any disciplinary action that may occur, you can talk to them about: your expectations (for the respondent and/or the team) regarding behaviour and/or performance; and what broader actions you are taking, such as training, policy changes, new Code of Conduct, etc. This would be a good time to remind them that retaliation (also known as victimisation) is unacceptable.
The witnesses are the group that are least likely to hear anything about the outcomes of the investigation and this is often where gossip starts. Firstly, thank them for their cooperation and continued confidentiality. Similarly to the complainant, you can explain your expectations (for the team only) regarding behaviour and/or performance; and the broader actions you are taking. I would also talk to them about victimisation being unacceptable.
At the very least, everyone involved is going to feel tense and uncomfortable around each other. Mostly likely stress levels and emotions will be far stronger than this and can easily result in long term animosity, stress claims and/or resignations, if not managed well.
The most successful outcomes occur when an experienced and equipped manager, coaches the parties into a new working relationship. This is done over a period of time, managing tensions and minor conflicts as they arise.
However, we don’t always have that skillset within our business, or in a role that works closely with all parties. Another option is a formal mediation process (often facilitated by an external provider), in which the participants work towards agreement on a set of ‘ground rules’ on how they’ll work and behave with each other. This still requires the business to enable and enforce the ground rules post mediation.
Regardless of what formal action you may take, it is imperative that interactions between the parties are monitored and managed over the coming weeks and months. Regular and consistent communication about expectations, feedback on progress and coaching will have far greater success, than leaving them to sort it out for themselves.
I’ll be frank, I am yet to complete an investigation where there weren’t learnings for the business. Were there early signs of misconduct that were missed or walked past? Are our expectations on behaviour or performance not clearly documented/communicated? Have we undertaken enough training? Did we let the conflict escalate because we didn’t know how to handle it? Do our policies or systems create tension or confusion? Did we not have a clear process on how to raise or manage a grievance?
Regardless of what the learnings might be, the key is to reflect on what the business could have done that might have lessened or avoided the issues that lead to the investigation. If you engaged an independent investigator, they will be a good source for identifying the learnings and potentially even providing ideas for improvement.
Workplace investigations bring with them a sense of uncertainty. As business owners or leaders, our role is to establish what the ‘new normal’ looks like. Everyone wants to be clear on what the expectations are, to ensure they avoid having to go through another investigation process. Workplace investigations can be turned into a positive experience, when the focus is on generating learnings and putting steps in place to provide a positive culture and work environment for all.
Claire Huntington has over 15 years’ experience in senior and executive level human resource management and strategic leadership positions. Claire learnt HR under the wings of great mentors and through trial and error. She has a very practical hands-on approach to HR and management, and isn’t afraid to look outside the box. Claire is also mum to three school aged firecrackers and is an avid photographer in her spare time.
Disclaimer: The material contained in this publication is of a general nature only. It is not, nor is intended to be, legal advice. If you wish to act based on the content of this publication, we recommend that you seek professional advice.