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Handling difficult people in workplace investigations

Building rapport, acknowledging stress among 5 ways HR can succeed
employment law
It’s important for anyone leading a workplace investigation to build rapport with whomever they’re interviewing as part of their probe. Shuttertstock/

By Stuart Rudner

In the world of HR, workplace investigations are a part of life and, more than ever, it’s important for human resources professionals to get those investigations right.

As we saw with the #MeToo movement, employers that fail to investigate workplace complaints face public backlash, or much worse. In Ontario, investigating suspected harassment is now the law. 

But what if you’re conducting a workplace investigation and dealing with difficult people? Sometimes, this is a reality. If this is your reality, here are five tips on what to do.

Build rapport: It’s important for anyone leading a workplace investigation to build rapport with whomever they’re interviewing as part of their probe — whether it’s a  witness, the complainant or the accused. If the person at the centre of the investigation is being difficult, remind them that it’s your job to perform a neutral inquiry and this is their opportunity to put forward their story.

Don’t rush to judgment: Part of building rapport means not rushing to judgment before an investigation is complete. If you’re an employer that has hired an independent third party to lead the investigation, give that person time to finish their work before taking action. This will give witnesses and others involved confidence in the investigation. 

Recognize it’s an emotional time: Employers may want to deal with the accused employee before they have all the facts. The employee at the centre of the investigation may be stressed about the outcome. The person who filed the complaint may be traumatized. It’s important for an investigator to recognize all of these emotions and to stay calm. Remind the employer it’s important not to rush to judgment. Remind the accused employee that you’re conducting an independent investigation and this is their chance to explain what happened.

Don’t respond to angry outbursts: It’s easy to get defensive and lash out when someone loses their cool with you in the middle of an investigation, but it’s important that you, as the investigator, keep your composure. As a professional, keeping cool reinforces to everyone involved that the investigation is objective and fair. Remember, emotions are running high so lashing out at an angry outburst could signal that the investigation may not be as impartial as suggested. 

Acknowledge the stress: Understanding that investigations are difficult is one thing, but telling those involved that you recognize the situation is stressful could ease some of the strain. If someone is angry and being difficult, calmly respond that you understand this isn’t an easy time. Give them some time to get their emotions in check, and then explain your role. You are carrying out an impartial investigation and the only thing you want is the truth. 

Dealing with difficult people in workplace investigations is never easy. But it’s critical for employers who find themselves in the midst of an inquiry take the time to get it right.

Courts have little patience for employers that “jump the gun” and rush to dismissal without a thorough understanding of the facts. They have even less tolerance for employers that conduct a prosecution, building evidence for dismissal, rather than an impartial investigation.

Dealing with a difficult person is no excuse to shortchange the investigation process. Use the tools outlined above to help you get it right.

Ultimately, your job is to gather the evidence, weigh it, and reach a conclusion. You need to use all tools available to gather the best evidence.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, HAB Press. All rights reserved.

Stuart Rudner

Stuart Rudner, Employment Lawyer and MediatorStuart Rudner is the founder of Rudner Law (RudnerLaw.ca), a firm specializing in Employment Law and Mediation. He can be reached at stuart@rudnerlaw.ca, (416) 864-8500 or (905) 209-6999, and you can follow on Twitter @RudnerLaw.
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