More Questions: Investigative Interviewing

1.  What suggestions do you have for employees that use the “buzzwords,” such as “hostile environment,” or “harassment, when (the complaint is ) really about a manager that is dealing with performance issues.  When I have told the employee that what I heard wasn’t a hostile work environment or harassment, they ask for the definition and then change their story.

It is probably not prudent or helpful to debate with a complainant about what the legal definition of an employee’s issue might be.  Employees know, rightfully so that by invoking certain words, they will get your attention, and so they say “harassment,” or “hostile environment.”  Regardless of whether they are technically correct, their concerns should be taken seriously.  Rather than concluding that their issues are based in proper performance management, it would be appropriate to ask about the behaviors they are experiencing, why they feel harassed, or why they feel their environment is hostile.  While what they describe might not fall within your harassment policy, it might call for some coaching or consulting with the managers involved to discuss ways to improve the way things are happening.    Taking complaints seriously, listening carefully to what is going on, taking a neutral and balanced look at the situation and responding fairly will serve you well, and certainly far better than debating the legal, technical aspect of the complaint.

2. What can/should we tell claimant and alleged perpetrator at the end of the investigation?

You’ve unintentionally given me the opportunity to address an issue I often fail to mention — and that is the labelling of parties in an investigation.  I don’t believe “perpetrator,” alleged or not is a term that is likely to make an employee feel he or she is likely to have a fair shot. From a popular culture standpoint, we tend to reserve that term for crimes, and mostly crimes of violence.  While harassment and discrimination may be damaging, let’s not find ourselves equating them with crimes of violence, but instead recognize them as workplace issues that must be addressed, remembering that only a small percentage of those who are found to violate harassment policies are terminated for doing so.  Thus, tomorrow, the “alleged perpetrator” may be one of the employees whose engagement you are seeking.

With apologies for the mini-rant, the answer to your questions is, “as little as possible if it involves anyone else.”  In other words, ” a complaint was made, an investigation was done, if the findings of the investigation called for action, such action was taken AND the bottom line is that if conduct was occuring that violated our policy, it is our expectation that they will not recur.

When do you ask if the complaining employee objected to the conduct? This is a question that should be asked in Stage 3 — reconstruction, and the question is best framed “What, if anything, did you do in response?”  Remember, an employee need not have directly protested the conduct for that conduct to still have been unwelcome.

(In response to my statement that managers, not HR people should be making decisions about the consequences or actions the business will take) How do you recommend we handle doing the investigation, having the manager make decisions on the next step AND manage consistency within the organization?

You give the manager a “decision package,” which includes how similar claims have been handled in the past, the range of options available and the costs and benefits (including deviating from past practice) of each option.


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