All too often, once a workplace investigation is over, parties (and at times, their leaders) are only told whether or not a complaint has been substantiated. A brief letter is issued saying “The complaint/allegation is allowed” or “The complaint/allegation is denied”. Nothing more. This leaves parties, leaders and representatives with no choice but to speculate as to why. Did the investigator think someone was lying? Did the investigator think the comments were acceptable? Those involved end up filling in these blanks on their own, often inaccurately.
Knowing very little more than they did prior to the investigation, many individuals will continue to believe in their own narrative and file and defend future complaints based on their limited understanding.
In fairness to the parties – and to mitigate risks and costs related to repetitive harassment investigations, it is critical for organizations to explain the basis for the outcome of any workplace investigation. As part of this, individuals should be provided clarity over what is and is not expected moving forward.
Here are some examples:
- If one person’s version of events was found to be more credible than the other, let both know. Participants need to learn that simply saying that something happened – or denying that it did – is not the end of the story. Their narrative will be closely examined to determine – objectively – what most likely happened given all the circumstances.
- If someone was found to have done nothing wrong, then tell them (as well as the person who thought otherwise). For example, if a supervisor was accused of harassment, and the complaint was dismissed because their decisions and conduct were consistent with their role and responsibilities as a supervisor (e.g. performance management, assignment of work, coaching, discipline); and the evidence demonstrated that they performed their role in a professional and respectful manner, let both parties know. Doing so prevents the supervisor from second-guessing themselves and lets the employee know that reasonable supervision, operational changes, disappointing decisions, and critical feedback are part of any workplace and are not, by definition, harassment.
- If someone was found to have violated the respectful workplace policy (or otherwise), let the parties know exactly why. Using the example set out above, if a supervisor gave legitimate critical feedback to an employee but delivered the message in a disrespectful manner (e.g., in front of others, using a condescending or threatening tone or engaging in gossip or name-calling in relation to the incident), then it’s important to clarify – for both parties – that while the supervisor had a right and responsibility to bring such concerns to the employee’s attention, their delivery of that concern was found to have been disrespectful. In being specific about what was acceptable and what was not, both parties are left with a clearer understanding of what they can – and cannot – expect in the future.
- If someone was found to have done something wrong but not to have violated the policy, explain this clearly. This is one area that, in my view, causes the greatest confusion. Too many individuals who engage in disrespectful behavior assume otherwise when a complaint against them has been dismissed. If an employee or supervisor has engaged in disrespectful communication or conduct but the nature or severity of that conduct was not sufficient to meet the high threshold of bullying and harassment, explain this to those involved. That is, advise them that the behavior in question is neither acceptable nor tolerated in the workplace and caution them that repeating such behavior in the future may well constitute harassment at that time. (It is also important to remember that individuals should be held accountable for disrespectful communication even if it does not meet the definition of bullying.)
There are far more outcomes than those set out above. However, these are some of the most common examples that I encounter. Remember, as with many other workplace issues, critical information arising out of these investigations is only helpful when shared in a transparent and educational manner. Secrecy gets us nowhere but back into the boardroom for another investigation. Let’s be sure to convert investigations about the past into teachable moments for the future.