The Board of Regents for the University of Minnesota has made headlines relating to the recent conclusion of a significant investigation into its Athletics Department. Unlike many of its peers, however, the Board received fairly good news about sexual misconduct in its workplace. The report, which can be found here, offers many learning opportunities for managing “blind spots” in schools and in workplaces.
Today, I kick-off a blog series featuring the reactions of lawyers to the 743 page investigation report with a guest blog from Jennifer Keaton, Esq., an attorney who is regularly retained by employers as Investigation Counsel and is the Vice President of Workplace Investigations Group.
How the University handled anonymous complaints of sexual harassment and/or misconduct highlights a bright spot for the University. Here are three things they did right…which most employers do wrong!
Thing One: Pursue It!
The University has multiple ways that individuals can report suspected misconduct, including a means to make anonymous complaints or reports of concerns. Many employers and schools have these options, too. The University here did something with those anonymous complaints that others don’t: they pursue the complaint!
For each anonymous complaint, the Report here explains when it was received, how detailed the complaint was, and how they actively pursued more information. Many employers and schools simply discard anonymous reports or give short shrift to their veracity before taking active steps and documenting those steps to gain more information. Skipping the “pursuit of knowledge” not only is cowardly, but it also contributes to the potential for an ever-growing blind spot for the organization.
The external report’s treatment of these anonymous complaints (pages 69 to74) reads like a sheet of music. The investigators document when the complaint was received, a general characterization of the concerns included in it, and then what steps (plural!) the investigators pursued to find out more. These steps included:
- Attempting to contact the anonymous reporter with questions for more information through the reporting system;
- Attempting to contact the anonymous reporter with an invitation to contact specific individuals more directly;
- Following up with individuals who might have some knowledge of the allegations made anonymously (for example, an employee who worked in close proximity to the place an event was alleged to have occurred)
- Following up with entities and individuals outside of the school/workplace – including former students, prior employers, etc.
- Consult/Implement a “Climate Survey” that is relevant to generalized or “environmental” concerns.
Thing Two: Document It!
A common refrain from some employers regarding anonymous complaints is that they are a waste of time. The Report here shows the other side of that coin: the time spent may be minimal and priceless!
In the Report, the processing of anonymous complaints was well documented. In those instances where the efforts resulted in little or no further information that could be pursued, that result was noted. And, the entire dispatch of the matter was captured in three short paragraphs.
So, in documenting the efforts and the results, which in some instances was confirming that the complaint was a dead-end, the Report demonstrated quickly and very effectively something that is priceless: Integrity.
By documenting even the dead-end investigations, the University not only demonstrated concern, but demonstrated actions behind the words. This also demonstrated an organization that is not fearful of “bad news,” but rather an organization that actively wants to be the FIRST to know and the FIRST to resolve problems in its midst. That kind of responsiveness also bolsters the credibility of the process itself, not just its integrity.
Thing Three: Even-Handedness
In this Report, the results include good news and bad news. The tone of the delivery of both kinds of news, however, is the same. Objective. Direct. Matter-of-Fact. Why is this important?
While some may call this “even-handed,” what it really demonstrates is that the people behind the investigation are impartial. There is no obvious “shading” or “sugar-coating” in the report of results. It reads like an IKEA instructions manual. The wrongs are obvious. The rights are obvious. And, the “needs improvements” are obvious without fanfare.
For the University, the report will have a life of its own for years to come. It is tangible proof to future “whistleblowers,” victims, and shareholders of what they can expect if they raise their hand. It should encourage individuals within the community to have trust in the process and to USE the process in the future.
Well done, Investigation Counsel (Karen Schanfield, Esq. and Joseph Dixon, Esq.), well done.
Workplace Investigations Group offers a National Directory of well-qualified attorneys who conduct impartial internal investigations. All of its workplace investigators have 10+ years of employment law experience and have agreed to support their responsibilities to the professional and impartial workplace investigations process and the parties that they serve. It also delivers training to in-house counsel, risk managers, human resources professionals and others on how to conduct internal investigations that will withstand third-party scrutiny. Click here for information on upcoming training in Washington D.C., Miami, FL, Las Vegas, NV, Chicago, IL, Cincinnati, OH, St. Louis, MO, and Newton, MA.