by Laura Pokrzywa
If you have a health concern, you want to see a doctor you can trust. One who is prepared to listen to you, take your concern seriously, investigate all possible diagnoses, offer effective treatments and communicate clearly through the whole process.
If one of your employees has a concern about harassment or discrimination, that’s the kind of attention they need. For their sake and for the sake of the company,
you must be prepared to listen, take the complaint seriously, investigate it thoroughly, offer reasonable recourse as needed, and communicate clearly through the whole process.
That kind of attention doesn’t just happen. It starts with a strong foundation laid long before any issues or accusations arise. The keystones of that foundation are carefully written, clearly communicated policies and supervisors who have been trained to understand and enforce those policies. In fact, if your policies are clear, well-communicated, and properly enforced, you are much less likely to have issues come up in the first place. However, since there is no way to safeguard against any and all issues, you need to be ready to conduct a thorough, fair workplace investigation.
Here are a few tips to help you reach your goals of determining the truth, restoring a healthy workplace, and avoiding costly legal claims down the road . . .
Consider who will investigate. This task is usually left to your Human Resources manager or another high-level manager. However, if this is a serious or especially sensitive issue, consider bringing in an outside party with legal expertise.
Interview everyone involved. Have the complainant write out a statement with all the facts spelled out. Present the facts to the accused, giving him/her a chance to explain and tell his/her side of the story. Don’t neglect any witness that may have been identified. If you are interviewing more than one witness, it is best to interview them separately and privately to allow them to speak freely. No matter who you are interviewing, be sure to take detailed notes, writing down facts and quotes. Avoid recording impressions or feelings.
Leave no stone unturned. Sometimes it just boils down to he-said-she-said. That leaves you to determine which version of the story is most plausible. Use your best judgment. Consider bringing in a neutral third party to review your findings and confirm that you haven’t missed anything.
Act quickly. Once you’ve concluded the investigation and made your determinations, waste no time acting on any wrongs you uncovered. Any discipline that follows should be in keeping with your company’s policies and any precedents already set.
Take care of the complainant. Regardless of the outcome, be sure to follow up with the complainant after the investigation is done. You don’t have to give them a lot of details. But you should assure them that the investigation was done, a determination was made and, if necessary, that the company is handling the situation appropriately. Regardless of the outcome, be careful to avoid any words or actions that could be considered retaliatory against the complainant.
Learn from the experience: Ask yourself: Do we need clearer policies? Do we need to do a better job communicating our policies to our employees? Do we need to do a better job enforcing our policies and following established company procedures? Are our supervisors adequately trained to understand and enforce our polices? Are they adequately trained to recognize discrimination or harassment? With those questions in mind . . .
Before your next investigation: Make sure your employee handbook includes policies that clearly define harassment, discrimination and the procedure for making a complaint of such. Employees need to know first that such conduct will not be tolerated. They also need to know that you expect them to report concerns or issues, and how to do it. Like any policy, if your organization doesn’t practice what it has printed in the handbook, you open yourself up to legal scrutiny. Make sure your supervisors and managers are thoroughly trained on all company policies, including the complaint procedures.
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