It's not 'business as usual' after harassment investigations

'What can be challenging is dealing with the aftermath': Expert
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/08/2019
investigations
If there is an allegation against a leader who is ultimately vindicated and reinstated, it can be difficult for that individual to take the reins again, says Laura Williams. Shutterstock

By Sarah Dobson

There has been plenty of coverage around the importance of conducting an investigation when claims of any type of harassment arise in the workplace. Employers are increasingly aware of the importance of following through with employees, no matter how small an allegation.

But what happens after the investigation is done? The whole process can cause quite the disruption, and employers should be prepared, according to Laura Williams, founder and principal of Williams HR Law Professional and Williams HR Consulting in Markham, Ont. 

“What can be challenging these days is not so much conducting the investigation but dealing with the aftermath… it’s not back to business as usual.”

The process itself

For one, there are inherent issues when it comes to the investigation process, said Williams, speaking at the annual conference of the Human Resources Professionals Association in Toronto on Jan. 30.

For example, the secrecy and confidentiality involved can cause problems for employees, since organizations are restrained with respect to what they can say.

“There’s limited communication during that process and that can feel… a lack of transparency on leadership’s part. And, of course, that can create uncertainty and a number of negative impacts,” she said.

Employers may claim privilege over the findings report, which can exacerbate the feeling of poor transparency, said Williams.

“Employers don’t always take the steps they ought to, to bring closure to the process.”

Internal investigators may also have relationships with the individuals involved, which can make things uncomfortable. And the investigations can take a long time — months even, she said.

“That is quite some time to live in the uncertainty of the result.”

The scope of the investigation can also be limited to one or two people, or expand to several — especially if leadership is involved, said Williams.

“Some prejudgment typically creeps in if not properly managed by the organization.”

Impact on organization, employees

All of this uncertainty can lead to increased conflict if it’s not properly addressed or resolved, she said.

“Oftentimes, there are further and future escalations that could lead to additional investigations.”

And other issues arise, such as reduced productivity, increased absenteeism and lost leader credibility.

“If there is an allegation against somebody that is in a leadership capacity, and that person leaves the workplace (but) is ultimately vindicated and reinstated, it can be very difficult for that individual as a leader to take the reins again,” said Williams.

If the investigation isn’t properly managed with as much transparency as possible, there can be a negative impact on the corporate culture, too.

“When there are allegations internally against any individual, that can lead to factions and camps and dissension and disruption, and it can inevitably impact the employer brand which leads to difficulty in attracting and retaining talent,” she said.

If not properly contained, employers may face increased costs related to the process, such as escalations and liabilities.

“When you have a culture that’s been impacted by an investigation process… there’s lost opportunities, lost innovation, and lost efficiencies,” said Williams. “If the employer doesn’t take proactive and pre-emptive steps from even a PR perspective, they can really have an uphill battle in restoring credibility with competitors and, most importantly, with their clients and customers.”

For employees, the impact of a harassment investigation can include decreases in job satisfaction, morale, productivity, motivation, focus and self-esteem, along with a reduced sense of well-being and psychological safety, she said.

There may also be feelings of powerlessness, a lack of control, vulnerability, diminished value, anxiety, shame, guilt, isolation, loss of credibility and disengagement or attrition.

Employers may also see a greater sense of entitlement from employees, especially if a dominant, domineering, bullying leader is exited from the company, said Williams.

“There’s employees that (may) feel like ‘OK, now we can take the reins, and we feel like we’ve been vindicated and we’re not going to put up with this anymore.’ So it makes it very difficult for the organization to bring in new leadership to that team or department.”

Individuals facing allegations or others who may be considered implicit could also take a reputational hit, she said.

Strategies, best practices

However, there are proactive steps employers can take to prepare for what can be the ugly aftermath of investigations, said Williams.

For one, acknowledge that investigations are on the rise.

“The fallout can be contemplated,” she said. “Obviously, the worst time to plan for a crisis is when you’re in a crisis — that’s when you’re in sheer reactive mode, and you oftentimes create additional liabilities and risk by mis-stepping — so you want to get ahead of this.”

Ideally, employers should assess the risks and impact and conduct a post-incident assessment, looking at who’s involved, who’s impacted and how significant the impact is.

It’s also important to assign management accountability, said Williams.

“In the midst of the situation, you want to make sure the roles and responsibilities are clear and the individuals who will be responding are trained.”

That’s especially true when it comes to the communication strategy, both internally and externally, particularly if there are any risks of the situation seeing the light of day and causing a PR issue, she said.

One professional services firm, for example, developed a very transparent post-investigation communication after a long-serving but domineering director, who was friends with the CEO, left the company after a harassment investigation, said Williams.

“They effectively fell on their sword, the CEO did, recognizing the organization’s complicity in allowing the situation to exist for years.”

Employee wellness should also be addressed, she said.

“It’s very important for employees to really feel that the employer has their wellness issues in mind, and that could be referring employees to an EAP or other vendors to ensure employees feel psychologically safe.”

Restorative activities are also a must, such as holding town halls, conducting training, and realigning teams with organizational and team objectives, said Williams.

Revisiting policies is another step to consider, such as introducing pre-emptive themes that can help after an investigation, she said. For example, reiterating that people are innocent until proven otherwise, and dispelling the human inclination to prejudge.

“Investigation leaves are part of the process and not determinative of the findings, so socialize the workplace to the reality that, by virtue of the nature of certain allegations, you may have to separate parties or certain individuals who may have to be on a leave,” said Williams.

That same professional services firm, for example, bolstered its bystander-reporting mechanisms so everybody was coming at issues with a “We’re all in this together” attitude, she said.

At another company, a female employee claimed harassment against a male employee, and he was dismissed. So the unionized employer took several steps post-investigation — including an admission it had deficient harassment policies, said Williams.

“There was impaired employer credibility because as they were going through the process, that’s when it really came to the fore that they didn’t have an adequate policy framework to guide the process,” she said.

Employers can also let employees know that confidentiality obligations don’t mean the organization is skirting transparency opportunities.

“(Employers) can pre-socialize that by understanding the inherent nature of the investigation process, the leaders and those involved in the process have to maintain confidence. If they don’t, that could compromise the process itself, and certainly the outcome,” said Williams.

Employers should also dictate what’s appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, such as gossiping and rumour milling, and “make sure it’s understood that’s speaking about what’s said in interview can certainly undermine the process,” she said.

Leadership is also important through the whole investigation process.

“Leaders should be trained to respond to subversive or disruptive behaviours… and detect engagement,” said Williams.

That can mean monitoring productivity and team performance measures, and gathering feedback properly, she said.

“It should be happening anyways, but there should be some hypervigilance after an investigation process or anything that could be culture shifting.”

One company that saw an executive falsely accused of harassment worked hard to restore order after the investigation. That included a strong communication strategy showing the company’s inclusive practices around women, and board involvement, said Williams.

“The board took a very active role — it really was part of the communication strategy. (It) was very front and centre in terms of restoring the esteem of that leader to run a very sizeable organization.”

It’s also important to focus on boosting team morale, which means giving proper feedback to employees and “more coddling” if necessary, she said.

Employers might also want to include external interventions, particularly if they now have a poisoned work environment.

And they should consider whether behaviours can be rehabilitated, said Williams.

“Out of tragedy comes opportunity, and that should not be overlooked. So, organizations should definitely debrief, deduce the lessons learned: ‘What can we take away from this? What can we do differently to make sure we don’t face this situation again?’”

It’s a chance for employers to gain some wins operationally, in terms of creating efficiencies, making changes around credibility or boosting the employer brand, she said.

“Take advantage of the opportunity.”

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