People who attend my investigative training are often in for something they did not expect — a lot of time spent on what happens before the decision to investigate is made. The process of “intake” or, literally, taking in the complaint is necessarily and properly decidedly different from investigation, and the quality of the intake will indisputably affect an investigator’s ability to find facts.
Sepler & Associate’s research has found a strong connection between how a complainant is treated when they make their first complaint — to a supervisor, manager, HR person, compliance line or other person — and whether they will ultimately bring a charge or lawsuit against the organization. Not surprisingly, these results arise out of anger, frustration and distrust in the organization’s willingness to, interest in or capability for managing the problem they have described. In essence, charges come when complainants believe they have not been listened to, have not been taken seriously, have been unfairly judged, or the organization has not been open and diligent. A charge is the weapon that a complainant has to tell their employer or educational institution — “if you won’t listen to me, I will find someone to make you.”
Assuming that organizations not only want to avoid lawsuits and charges, but also want real problems addressed, there is a strong imperative to provide solid training for those in a position to make a complaint. If we only ensure that our investigations are high quality and rigorous, we are bringing the right tools at the wrong time. In fact, conflating intake and investigation appears to be one of the biggest errors and organization can make; the direct questioning and skepticism appropriate for certain investigative stages can crush a complainant’s confidence in their employer. The goal of an intake is to allow a person to be fully heard and their feelings affirmed. As such,the intake should not involve interrogation or deep fact finding. It should involve the following:
- Thanking the person for coming forward and being willing to describe their concerns
- Listening attentively to what the person has to say
- Avoiding interrupting, expressing doubt or challenging the version provided.
- Determining the impact the complainant believes the situation or conduct is currently having and taking immediate steps to neutralize or counter them, where possible (this also may mean acting to preserve evidence or protect others, depending on the severity of allegations)
- Being appropriately empathetic, acknowledging the very real feelings being expressed, but not validating any facts
- Describing in detail steps that will be taken to pursue the matter. Will this matter be referred elsewhere? When, and what will happen next? Will there be an investigation? What will the complainant be expected to do?
- Expressing concern for the well being of the complainant and describing prohibitions against reprisal.
- Getting the basics, and only the basics from the complainant:
- What happened?
- Who was involved?
- Where and When?
- First Time or Similar events prior?
- Who saw it? Who may have heard it or seen something?
- Who did you tell about it ? When?
- What actions did you take?
- Do you have any electronic or written records that would be helpful in understanding or verifying this event?
- What prompted this report?
The intake should not include
- Extensive or intensive note-taking ( a preprinted form can be very helpful)
- Detailed questioning
- Pressing for details or challenging versions of events
- Questions or comments about the character of the complainant or any other employee
- Statements as to whether the person doing the intake believes what they are hearing.
- Asking the complainant what they did to create the situation (“what was your part in it?” may be the worst question one can ask in this situation)
- Trying to”trick” the complainant into a retraction
- Labelling the complainant as a “whiner”
- Implying that a “false complaint” could result in problems for the complainant, or making veiled statements about the reputation of any accused
Once the intake is complete, there should be a decision as to whether or not an investigation is needed (i.e. if everything the complainant has alleged is true, would it be a violation of policy? Are there facts which cannot be independently verified? etc.) and the investigative intake should commence. The time between the two may be minutes or hours, depending upon the investigative protocol of your organization. What should be clear, however, is when the process of investigation has begun, and what the difference is in the process and intent of an investigation from an intake.
By increasing organizational competence and role clarity regarding intake versus investigation, you predict a greater perception of fairness by employees, a lower rate of litigated matters, and a higher degree of cooperation when and if an investigation does begin.