Where a complaint has been made by one staff member against another, and a workplace investigation takes place, all kinds of emotions can be running high.
People participating in a workplace investigation, whether as complainants, respondents or even witnesses, can suffer symptoms of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as emotional distress.
Respondents in particular can feel abandoned and cold-shouldered, especially in cases where HR departments decide to take a ‘hands-off’ approach while the investigation is being conducted. If a respondent is also suspended from work during the process, they may also feel prejudged and already declared guilty.
In light of this, it’s extremely important that employers ensure that investigations are handled fairly and impartially, and that all participants are supported.
Here’s how HR can help support participants throughout a workplace investigation.
THROUGH TRANSPARENCY AND COMMUNICATION
First and foremost, effective communication and transparency are vital from the outset. A failure to communicate can worsen distress and lead to participants thinking the worst.
Decide on being transparent from the beginning. This involves taking the complaint seriously, listening to all sides, and making sure all participants know how the complaint will be handled. It’s also important to check back that they have understood what was said and address any misunderstandings (something that can easily happen when emotions and tensions are high!)
SETTING OUT THE PROCESS
It’s important to get to work quickly, appoint an investigator, and make decisions regarding the scope of the investigation, the timeframe, and actions to be taken after completion. However, do be prepared for the process possibly taking longer than anticipated.
Once you’ve decided on the process, make sure to keep everyone informed of how the investigation will be conducted and what they can expect, and aim to keep communication lines open throughout. Also reassure the respondent that they are not in any way being prejudged, even if they have been suspended for a time during the investigation.
APPOINTING A SUPPORT PERSON
Participants need to know they have someone to go to for emotional support, who can also explain the process and answer any questions they may have.
One thing to note here is that employees may not necessarily show their emotions at work and this could lead you to think they are fine and don’t need assistance, when in fact the opposite is true.
Appoint a support person whose role it is to regularly check up on the person and provide support without taking sides.
CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS WITH RESPECT
Interviews need to be conducted fairly and withe respect and non-partiality.
It’s important to avoid acting like an interrogator; your job is to uncover the facts and truth of the matter and not to extract a ‘confession’. This means all participants should be treated with respect and empathy, and given breaks during interviews if required.
OFFERING POST-INVESTIGATION SUPPORT
An investigation can affect everyone and can reduce morale and trust in a workplace. It may in some cases even lead to employees seeking work elsewhere after feeling demoralised by the whole experience.
In a case where the respondent has been restored to duty, it may be hard for them to simply go back to ‘business as usual’. The same may also apply to complainers, particularly if the investigation did not go the way they wanted.
Be prepared for it to take some time for trust and morale to be restored, and offer mentoring and support after the process to anyone who needs it. Be proactive in rebuilding trust and positive relationships.
Lastly, we can provide expert assistance with workplace investigations. Feel free to contact us for more information.