Workplace relationships can be tinder dry after an investigation. What happens next is very important for the parties, the investigator, the witnesses and the whole team or organisation. Post investigation work can be as intensive as investigative work. Worklogic Senior Investigator, Lisa Klug recommends the steps you should take to restore, rebuild and renew teams following the conclusion of a workplace investigation.
1. Don’t delay informing the parties of the outcome
Although reporting the findings of your investigation to the respondent and/or the complainant may involve giving bad news, having difficult conversations or managing conflict, do not delay giving the news. The respondent and the complainant will be highly anxious about the outcome and their future.
2. Provide enough information so that the parties can understand and accept the outcome
If the parties have any concerns about the investigation process and outcomes, be ready to reassure them about your process and the information (in broad terms) used to substantiate the allegations and decision making. Do not provide copies of the investigation report to the parties unless your policy requires this. A high level summary of the outcomes is best to avoid creating further tension in the workplace and to reduce the risk of victimization of witnesses. Focus on next steps, such as what the organisation is going to do in response to the findings and what support the participants need to work together.
3. Manage unhappy parties
If both parties remain in the workplace (or even if only one does), the fact that one has been proven “right” and the other “wrong”, will do little to improve their working relationship or their relationship with the friends or supporters of the party who has left the organisation. These seeds for long term conflict must be managed very carefully to support the employees and affirm the behavioural standards and desired workplace culture for everyone. Mediation or other restorative process between parties will usually be a minimum requirement. This process can enable the parties to explore their future working relationship and agree some “ground rules” about how they will work together.
4. Thank participants and address any fears about their involvement
Thank participants including witnesses individually for their participation and remind them that victimisation or retribution for their involvement is not tolerated.
Address fears, spoken and unspoken, witnesses may have about their involvement and how their evidence was used against either party. Explain as much as you can without breaking confidentiality. For example, tell them that the investigation has concluded, that findings of fact based on evidence from a number of sources have been reached and that the organisation will now take appropriate (confidential) disciplinary or other action that is required to address the behavioural issues.
Secrecy about any disciplinary outcome is justified for confidentiality reasons, but that vacuum of information may encourage staff to talk amongst themselves or create an impression that “nothing happened” or it was “swept under the carpet”. If the organisation is going to take steps as a result of the complaint that will involve the team or the organisation, let them know and make sure you follow through. This will build confidence in the complaints process and demonstrate the organisation’s commitment to addressing the issues.
5. Not proven does not always mean no problem
If the allegations were not substantiated, don’t put the report in the bottom drawer and assume that all is well. It is possible that the complainant did not understand the behavioural standard required for substantiation and requires some training about this. They may have made a vexatious complaint which will now need to be addressed as a separate behavioural issue. Or, if the allegations were not proven, but it was line-ball, it is possible that there is a behavioural problem emerging or the complaint may be reflective of a deeper cultural issue or problems with workplace dynamics, reporting structures, which have impacted on how the team is working together.
6. Use the investigation as a learning and growing opportunity
The allegations you have investigated may just be the tip of the iceberg. Use the investigation as an opportunity to reflect on why did this occur, what is really going on in this team, in this organisation? Is it really about failure to set and manage behavioural standards, unaccepted change or other organisational stresses such as a punitive or destructive work culture? If the issues are systemic, they have the potential to affect many employees and require a systemic response.
Consider also how did the complaints process and procedure work, why did it reach formal investigation rather than being resolved early and informally? Were managers equipped to act early, if not, why not? If an investigation has exposed gaps in the skills of the manager to handle conflict, hold others accountable or have difficult conversations, use this opportunity to review their training and coaching needs.
In summary, using the completion of each investigation as an opportunity to reflect, at a higher level, what is really going on and to put in place support for all participants so they can work effectively and productively together ensures you have used what can be a destructive and challenging workplace process, to make a positive contribution to the health and safety of your workplace.
About Lisa Klug
With an outstanding reputation in litigation, research and management, Lisa Klug joined Worklogic from legal practice. Lisa has conducted more than 100 investigations into workplace misconduct for a diverse range of employers spanning government, business and non-profits.
If you would like advice or help with restoring, rebuilding and renewing your team post-investigation, please contact Lisa Klug via email or give her a call on 03 9981 6557 for an obligation free, confidential conversation.
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