Developing a Fair and Transparent Workplace Investigation Process

Recent events have put a brighter spotlight on sexual harassment allegations and the defenses against such complaints. Long before the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the #MeToo movement raised questions about how people in subordinate roles could voice complaints against supervisors and still maintain their careers.

Normally, when people dare to come forward, actions or resolutions will come about after an investigation. But every corporation has a different investigation process and the methods used to uncover harassment, discrimination, or retaliation may be deeply flawed.

Stating that an “investigation” will occur may not build confidence that real fact-finding and analysis will take place. Yes, companies are required by law to conduct some type of investigation amid harassment or discrimination claims, but this does not mean they’ve created and implemented a fair process that not only supports employee concerns but can hold up as evidence should the company need to defend itself in litigation.

Actions to consider with workplace investigations include:

  1. Put it in writing.The employee handbook should include a comprehensive, step-by-step explanation of what an investigation will entail. Define what will trigger an investigation, outline the process, detail how management will get involved, and explain the protections that are in place for the employee reporting the problem or incidents. Clearly communicating all aspects of the investigation is good for the corporation as well as the employees.
  2. Seek outside guidance in structuring the investigatory process and scope.Whether you hire legal counsel or specific consulting services, it is wise to seek advice from experts when developing your plan. The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) states that good investigations are based on a fully vetted plan. The plan should include who will be interviewed, what kind of evidence will be collected, and who will develop a written report and be responsible for follow-up.
  3. Be timely but thoughtful.By acting quickly, the company sends a message that the event is of significant importance. During interviews, being sensitive to all parties and their concerns is critical. Always find ways to protect employees who may be in fear or in harm’s way.
  4. Prepare a written report and follow-up.The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides best practices on how to assess and finalize an investigation. Again, seeking outside guidance may be needed if transferring or terminating an employee.
  5. Audit your results and modify your processes as needed.Your investigation methods should be continually improving. Learn from your mistakes and take a hard look at your company’s culture and the leaders who are advancing fairness versus those who are unwilling to change. Create committees who can elicit feedback and report back to management concerning employee attitudes about culture, fairness, and transparency.

It is crucial to understand that investigations cannot be one-sided. Sadly, as a group, human resources professionals have developed a reputation for protecting the powerful. Because many human resources professionals also report to leadership, they may not feel comfortable in combatting serious complaints against high-profile employees. This behavior is no longer acceptable and can create tremendous risks for employers. Times are changing, and so should your corporation’s policies.