Let’s Just Go Back To Work — Or Can We?
Workplace investigations are tough! The stakes are high, even if the allegations don’t appear to be that serious. Everyone cares deeply about ensuring that concerns have been thoroughly investigated, that appropriate action has been taken and that it won’t happen again. After an investigation, we want everyone to just go back to work. But is this realistic?
Employees are left with bits and pieces of information gleaned from witness interviews, random observations and/or office gossip. From these “snapshots”, they create a story that may or may not be accurate. This is not out of any malicious intent on the part of team members. It’s just how our brains are wired. It’s how we make sense of the world — by creating a narrative that makes sense to us.
So, left with no other information, employees will come to a conclusion about what really happened. And it’s often just plain wrong, invites gossip and is damaging to morale, their sense of justice and fair treatment.
So, consider whether sharing a certain amount of information might actually be a better practice than the “best practice” of sharing nothing. Without disclosing details of the investigation, we can thank witnesses for participating, tell them the investigation is concluded and acknowledge some of the issues raised.
For example, you might consider simply stating to the involved work group, “As you know, some concerns were raised. We looked into them and found that there was some inappropriate conduct. We’ve taken appropriate action and we are confident it won’t happen again. As always, we urge you to raise any concerns you may have so that we can address them promptly.”
Of course, it’s going to depend on a number of factors and you’re going to have to use excellent judgment. You may even be taking some risk — but if it works — the return is a group of employees who believe you have been responsive, fair and that you’re committed to having a good workplace.
Following are some factors to consider when making this critical decision:
- How many people were involved? The more that were involved, the more you might consider sharing more information. If a small group is involved, we often recommend sharing the basic conclusions at the end of the investigation.The more serious the conduct, the more important it might be to share some information. You can be confident that most of the team that the alleged offender works with, and all of the team the complainant works with (if different) know the allegations. If nothing is shared, and the alleged offender is still there, people will tend to believe nothing was done.
- Evaluate the level of gossip that has surrounded the investigation. If it’s high, sharing some of the key facts can help calm things down.
- Perhaps one of the most important times to consider sharing conclusions from the investigation with witnesses and other stakeholders is when the investigation concluded that nothing inappropriate occurred. Witnesses have been asked about inappropriate conduct and without any additional information, will often conclude that the alleged conduct occurred. This is extremely unfortunate and unfair to the alleged offender, who is now more appropriately characterized as “the wrongfully accused.” Consider a statement such as, “We conducted an investigation into some concerns that were raised, and have concluded that there was simply a misunderstanding. The conduct does not appear to have occurred as originally perceived. This happens to all of us at times. In all cases, we really appreciate the concerns being raised since this is how we can get things resolved.”
Before you decide to share information after an investigation, we recommend you talk to legal counsel, weigh the benefits and risks of sharing information versus allowing the workforce to come to their own conclusions. While there is no easy answer, it is definitely worth a vigorous discussion and a real decision. Don’t just leave it to “best practice” and say nothing because you didn’t consider all of the options.