How I Learned to Love Workplace Investigations
It is Friday afternoon. You are sitting at your desk, sending out a few final emails, finishing up the last of the reference calls on your list and using the remaining minutes to make a list of the candidates you want to call for phone interviews on Monday. The weekend is just moments away when an employee pops up in your doorway and says, “Can I talk to you for a few minutes about a harassment complaint?” Unfortunately, it’s never just a few minutes, and a harassment complaint is not usually the kind of thing that can be put off for later. The investigation needs to start right away.
A workplace investigation can easily derail your goal of completing a to-do list or getting an early start on your weekend. Complaints that demand investigation often require immediate action, are time consuming and often lead down unpredictable paths. For these reasons, many of us groan when we have to tackle a workplace investigation. Despite the overwhelming nature of investigations, they are an important part of what we do in HR. Here’s how I learned to love conducting workplace investigations.
Solving Problems at Ground Level
Workplace investigations are where we get our hands dirty—sometimes quite literally. I had one investigation that led to a coworker and I digging through the trash to find an inappropriate note written by a male supervisor accused of using the note to lure a female employee into a hallway that wasn’t often used. When she met him there, he tried to grab and kiss her. We found the note, and it ended up supporting the employee’s story and our decision to terminate the supervisor.
Of course, I did not want that story to be true. I did not want to think that someone we had trusted enough to promote to a supervisory position would do something like that. But it was also satisfying to be able to uncover enough information to take appropriate action against the supervisor. We relied on interviews, security footage showing the supervisor passing the note to the employee and the note itself to support our decision. When an investigation comes together that well, it feel good to take action on an employee’s behalf.
Of course, many investigations come down to one person’s word against another’s, and we have to determine the most likely version of events. I think this is another reason many of us shy away from investigations, but for me I like the challenge. I know that the end result is creating a better workplace.
Making a Better Workplace
When we follow through on an employee complaint by conducting an investigation, we are ultimately trying to improve the workplace for everyone. It is the part of HR where we are part detective and part superhero as we try to uncover wrongdoing and put the bad guys in their place. This is what I love about investigations.
In an ideal world, employees would all behave and get along well. There would be nothing to investigate. But that’s not the world we live in, so it is important that we keep our investigation skills sharp in order to remedy problems in a timely manner.
I have been involved in investigations that started as an isolated complaint but soon uncovered a pattern of bad behavior by a manager. Taking actions in such situations improves the workplace for everyone—something that aligns well with why I love being in HR.
Figuring Out How to Prevent Investigation-worthy Situations
One of the best ways to prevent situations that warrant investigation is through good training. It is not enough to throw a policy at your employees and tell them to read it. Take the extra effort to make sure they understand the policy.
For example, rather than simply handing out the anti-harassment policy and providing passive training, create an interactive training that incorporates real examples. Allow plenty of time for questions and give employees an avenue for talking to you privately if they have a specific concern.
I have also tried to use each investigation as a learning experience. I always ask myself, “How can we prevent this from happening again?” One of our top goals in HR is to create a safe work environment for employees, so ultimately we want to keep investigation-worthy situations from happening.
About the Author
Stephanie Hammerwold, PHR, is the owner of Hammerwold & Pershing Consulting and specializes in small business HR support. Stephanie is a regular contributor at Blogging4Jobs and The HR Gazette, and she gives presentations on a variety of job search and workplace topics. She specializes in training, employee relations, women’s issues and writing employment policy. Connect with Stephanie on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.