I’ve now conducted over 350 workplace investigations, and there are a few things I know:
- Whatever the problem was before I got there, it gets worse the moment I step through the door.
- I get to leave when the investigation is over. For the most part, the employees don’t unless there’s a transfer or termination – in which case that one employee leaves, but the others remain.
- When I investigate (i.e., ask lots of questions of lots of folks), I stir things up.
- Even though I ask employees not to discuss the situation, many likely do so, after the investigation is over – if not before.
- Even if employees don’t discuss the situation, it weighs heavily on many of them. Some even develop PTSD.
So, when the investigation ends, I leave. Then what happens in that workplace?
Usually, almost nothing intentional. Life goes on, and employees and management try to ‘get back to normal.’ But, as they say, there’s a new normal, and no one knows quite what to do with it. Management most often says nothing, which generates lots of chatter among employees. Rumors run rampant. What happened? Did Suzie get disciplined? Is Henrietta pouting because, as the complainant, she didn’t get what she wanted? How should I interact with Suzie or Henrietta? And I heard that Carl and Claude were witnesses. I’ll ask them what happened…and on and on.
The workplaces that are most successful in moving forward after an investigation take steps to make things better. Will it ever be like it was? No (and that may be a good thing!) You can’t turn back that clock. People won’t forget that Carl said bad things about them or Suzie trashed them or Henrietta only cared about herself or…Some people will be happier with the outcome (and gloat about it, obnoxiously), and others will be unhappy and feel the results were unjust and unfair (providing additional reasons to trash-talk about management and the employer). Still others will continue to be eternally curious (filling in the blanks where they don’t actually have information, and usually getting it wrong.)
What do to? In a recent HR Examiner article by Heather Bussing, she suggests that “No matter what the complaint or incident, you will never hear the whole story or understand what’s really going on because it is never about what people say it’s about. What it is always about is power, ego, resources, and if you’re lucky, neuroses.” Remember that. And yes, it may also be about other things…but it’s always about those. So, what to do to improve things after the investigation?
Conclude the investigation as quickly as possible. Know that the longer it drags on, the more space for uneasiness, rumor, negativity, rumor, anger, rumor…so, move as quickly as you can.
After the investigation, if at all possible, split up the complainant and respondent. The likelihood that they will have a successful working relationship after an investigation is very, very small. Keeping them together will hurt them, their coworkers, and their (and others’) productivity. It will hurt the whole organization.
If there’s no way to split them up, make a long-term commitment to coaching them to teach them skills for working together. Think about adjacent peoples that regularly fight (like the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Hatfields and McCoys…). If they continue under the same circumstances that created the problem, the problem will continue. Your employees are like that. If you expect them to improve their working relationship, you need to put a lot of effort into helping them do that, and you need to teach them how. You also need to regularly monitor the situation to ensure that it’s not sliding back to where it was, that no retaliation is taking place, and the complainant and respondent are doing what was expected of them.
And remember: if you move one of them, assuming that the complainant wants to stay put, moving the respondent (often the higher-level employee) may need to be an involuntary move. It will be hard, but make it anyway, because leaving the two together is likely the worst thing you can do for the organization. And NEVER involuntarily move the complainant. That’s asking for a retaliation complaint or, worse yet, a retaliation lawsuit – then you’ll be spending your time (and money) on lawyers, and all that goes with them. Decide to spend it wisely instead.
Once the situation is settled, examine and publicly (to your employees) acknowledge any fault on the part of the employer. That’s after the legal department and HR have closed the case. A good 75% of my investigations result in a finding of nothing illegal having happened. However, there’s poor management, poor communication, unworkable systems and structures. After the investigation, carefully look at all of these, and discuss them with your employees (who likely see them more clearly than you do.) Then fix them so you don’t have the same problem again.
I’ll have more tips for what to do after an investigation in my next blog post. Do you have some ideas? Please share them! ~Daphne Schneider