Regardless of how well an internal workplace investigation is handled, it is not unusual for the effects of the investigation to linger in the workplace. Rumors abound. Feelings are hurt. Productivity suffers.
Amy Stephson is an attorney in Seattle, Washington who regularly conducts not only impartial workplace investigations into allegations of misconduct, but also assists employers with post-investigation efforts to “normalize” the workplace. Amy is also a member of the Workplace Investigations Group, the only directory to provide a nationwide listing exclusively comprised of attorneys who also serve as workplace investigators.
In this first of a two-part guest post, Amy shares her insights and suggestions for proactively dealing with the aftermath of a workplace investigation.
Workplace Investigations — Dealing with the Aftermath
by Amy Stephson, Esq.
Investigations are a necessary and often beneficial part of the modern workplace. However, they can also be disruptive and leave bad feelings that may linger for a long time. After seeing the negative effects of investigations for more than 15 years, I have come up with a few ideas on how to reduce and potentially eliminate those effects.
First, it is important to understand the impact an investigation can have on the employees involved in it – regardless of whether the complaint was found to be meritorious or not.
- The complainant fears retaliation, ostracism, or just plain being disliked. He or she may be upset or angry if the investigation did not substantiate the complaint or the response to the complaint is seen as inadequate in some other way.
- The respondent may feel embarrassed, betrayed, or unjustly accused by the complainant. He or she may also fear being disliked or ostracized. If the respondent is the complainant’s supervisor or manager, he or she will have concerns about how to manage the complainant’s performance and behaviors without bringing on charges of retaliation.
- The witnesses also fear they may be retaliated against or disliked. They may feel guilty for informing on a colleague or for not disclosing key information. They may be angry at having to take sides or just at the workplace drama in general.
So what can be done to address all this? First, there’s some low hanging fruit:
- Inform the parties of the outcome. Certain decisions may be confidential, e.g., discipline, but it’s important to inform the complainant(s), those accused, and relevant managers/supervisors of the outcome of the investigation. Sounds obvious, but surprisingly often it doesn’t happen.
- Inform the witnesses the investigation is completed. Thank them for their cooperation, remind them it’s confidential, renew assurances of no retaliation, and urge them to come forward if additional incidents occur. Don’t just leave them hanging.
- Take the recommended steps. If discipline is warranted, do it. Investigations may highlight the need for training, coaching, conflict resolution and the like. If such actions are needed, do them. Strike while the iron is hot.
More difficult is how to address the continuing and future interactions of the key parties: the complainant, respondent, and possibly their manager. You can be sure that they feel acutely uncomfortable and tense around each other and wonder if things will ever be “normal” again.
Left to their own devices, they may figure out how to comfortably interact again, but it will take a long time. And they may never figure it out. In such cases, it is not uncommon for one or both of the parties to leave their jobs and possibly sue.
In this situation, it is well-worth the time and resources to employ a “normalization” process to help the parties’ relationship get back on track.
Lorene’s note: In Part 2 of Amy’s post, she’ll share her suggestions for employing a “normalization” process to help get your workplace back on track.