WASHINGTON — The term "workplace investigation" can set off alarm bells for anyone in an office, but none more so, perhaps, than HR professionals. HR's anxieties about the process rang through the audience during a session at the Society for Human Resource Management's Employment Law and Legislative Conference Tuesday.
"You think you'll start with one issue and you end up with 20," one attendee said.
Another noted: "If you've been at a company for awhile, you have the chronic complainers and people who cry wolf. It can be frustrating."
"For us, it's a challenge of keeping the information close to the vest and confidential," a third said. "Information gets skewed."
Speaker Dana Barbato, CEO at InvestiPro, assured the crowd they're not alone in their stress, but countered that workplace investigations don't have to be a source of anxiety — not for HR and not for the parties involved.
"Ninety-eight percent of the time, it's a good thing. And it's a good thing because it gives you the opportunity to fix the problem before it festers," she said. "If one person comes forward, usually you have a group of people experiencing the same thing."
Moreover, investigations can be a chance to earn employees' trust and build a stronger culture, Barbato said. Though HR professionals might vary their approaches, keeping three key ideas in mind can vastly improve investigations and, potentially, prevent the need for them in the future.
#1: Standardize the process — and maybe rename it
It's a tall order to maintain employees' confidentiality and be as transparent as legally possible about an investigation — and it's hard to hear workers out in good faith while scrutinizing claims presented as fact by both sides. However, inking a formal investigation procedure, as an employer might for its onboarding or training procedures, will help guide HR through the most difficult investigations, Barbato said in her talk. Knowing exactly what an investigation entails, she said, will also embolden employees to come forward.
"Employees just don't know," Barbato said of the investigation process. "We're empowering them [to come forward], but I want you to ask yourself, do they really know what they're going to get?"
An inconsistent process makes it harder for HR to do its due diligence and could lead to information slipping through the cracks. Establishing a process and applying it to everything — from harassment claims to reports of theft or discrimination — can keep employers accountable and put employees at ease, she said.
Even the term "investigation" can send employees hiding in their cars instead of seeking help from HR when things go wrong at work.
"The law does not require you to call it that," Barbato said. She suggested instead calling it a "resolution process" to remind employees that their claims will be heard and resolved.
#2: Listen actively, and ask for accuracy
Listening is HR's strong suit, and it's integral to the success of any workplace investigation. But to get more from those conversations, HR professionals must also know what to say to employees who come forward and what to do with the details they uncover.
In her talk, Barbato solicited ideas for approaching these tough conversations from her audience of HR professionals. Many said showing kindness is key, either by thanking the employee for coming forward or reminding them that their conversation with HR is a "safe space" to express their concerns. Barbato agreed and noted that seeming distracted can make an employee feel like they're not being heard and damage trust.
Note-taking can be another way to ensure accuracy and show employees that HR takes their claims seriously. One audience member suggested repeating portions of their account back to the employee afterwards, then asking: "I want to make sure I understand you correctly, is this what you meant?" With accuracy and transparency in mind, another recommended sending the official notes to the employee electronically to review and add more comments to, if necessary.
"Attorneys used to discourage this, but as long as we're writing what we hear and not opinions about what we hear, then that's fine," Barbato said in response to the suggestion.
#3: For the sake of retention, always resolve it
End the investigation. It sounds simple on paper, but taking corrective action and concluding the ordeal is the hardest part.
"It's just as important to end the investigation as it is to start the investigation, otherwise you might as well not do any investigation at all," Barbato said. "If it hasn't been taken care of in a timely fashion, then it tells the employees that it isn't important."
Letting an investigation linger in limbo damages trust between HR and the employee, and so do cryptic generalizations about the progress of the investigation, Barbato said. As far as she's concerned, HR professionals should always provide notice to the involved parties if they do uncover inappropriate behavior, and they should tell those parties about any future corrective actions they plan to take.
One attendee of Barbato's talk said she does this in person. "We have close-out meetings to provide more details around what's happening," the attendee said, which helps her make sure everyone is fully aware of the final decision and has an opportunity to ask questions.
"That right there will save you from getting [U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] calls — if they have a chance to talk to you," Barbato said. "I go one step further on that and ask them, 'How did you feel about the investigation process?' They're able to tell you rather than pick up the phone and tell the EEOC if they feel like they weren't heard."
Why should HR open Pandora's box?
As unpleasant as workplace investigations can be, they're still a tool that HR can wield for good, Barbato said. In a time when #MeToo and other worker movements have emboldened employees to speak up when they feel their rights are violated at work, HR must be prepared to listen and act on any injustices it uncovers, she said. If HR professionals shirk, it could cost them in turnover and lawsuits.
"They are less likely to stay quiet and behind the scenes," Barbato said of employees today. "We have empowered them to come forward and talk about when they're uncomfortable, and if we don't fix it, they're going to leave."
If HR can gain employees' trust and keep it throughout the process, then a workplace investigation might even echo positively throughout an organization.
"Employees talk. Instead of going, 'Oh no, you don't want to go there,'" Barbato said, referring to HR, "then they're telling each other, 'You know what, it's not that bad.'"