Investigations: We need to get better at responding

Posted by on May 30, 2017

Put yourself in the shoes of a respondent in a workplace investigation.

There you are, working away in your role and most likely thinking you’re doing good work, and then someone complains about your conduct to HR. You’re called into a meeting and formally advised that an independent investigator – a lawyer even – has been engaged to investigate the complaint. You might be stood down pending the outcome. Your reporting lines might be changed. Whatever you were working on takes a back seat. You’ll worry about how to explain this to your partner at home, or maybe you’ll just keep it all to yourself.

The investigation process is well managed and conducted discreetly. Witnesses are asked to maintain confidentiality and refrain from idle gossip. But that doesn’t change the fact that those witnesses – your direct reports, managers or peers – are being interviewed for their evidence with respect to the allegations. In other words, they know there are allegations and are beginning to make their own assessments of your character and conduct. It’s like having your laundry put out to dry publicly – whether it’s clean or not, you’d rather no one saw it.

For respondents, an investigation process is like a nightmare performance review. The review goes on and on and the focus is on negative feedback. Nobody likes to receive negative feedback. It doesn’t really matter if the feedback is ultimately found to be lacking a proper basis, or if it is delivered ‘constructively’, it’s never easy to hear that someone believes you have failed to live up to an expected standard. Faced with negative feedback of the acute sort, most of us will instinctively put up defences, call in sympathisers and be ill-prepared to accept that we have done anything wrong. We will become stressed and anxious. We will feel under siege.

This is not a climate in which we are likely to do our best work, let alone respond constructively to criticism. And yet when you think about it, isn’t that exactly what we want respondents to do?

If you were to imagine the ‘ideal’ respondent, you would hope that he or she would respond calmly to the negative feedback, acknowledge the complainant’s concern, adapt his or her behaviour and carry on. An ideal respondent would take it all on board – regardless of the outcome of the investigation – and be a better workplace citizen for it. That’s a lot to expect.

I do not suggest that we lower our expectations – far from it – but I do think we need to focus more attention on the skill of receiving ‘hard to hear’ messages in the workplace and, just as importantly, on the careful art of delivering them. Practising these difficult conversations at least gives employees a chance at resolving conflict early and a framework with which to ‘self-manage’ complaints.

The problem with not investing in these skills is that complainants are more likely to jump ahead to the formal stages of a complaints process. Jumping ahead inevitably means involving more people and raising the stakes. That’s when it gets harder for respondents to live up to expectations. It’s so much easier to respond constructively when the negative feedback is delivered in an informal setting without too much fuss. Once the matter escalates above that level, when HR or mediators or investigators become involved, very few people have the resilience and confident humility required to turn the experience of receiving negative feedback into something positive.

Laura Douglas is Special Counsel at Justitia. To view Laura’s profile, click here.