Workplace Harassment Investigation lawyer/investigator and SCS instructor Jennifer Wootton shares tips for gaining the trust of all parties in an investigation.
Workplace harassment investigators have a mandate to investigate complaints, make factual determinations about what likely happened, and decide whether those facts add up to a violation of the company’s harassment policy. It’s an important job with serious ramifications. After all, at the end of the investigation, the investigator will decide whether one employee likely harassed another, and significant consequences will attach to whatever conclusion the investigator reaches.
The success of such a high-stakes process depends in large part on the investigator gaining trust and establishing rapport with participants. Research shows that people provide more detail when the interviewer is encouraging, and people actually remember events better when they feel comfortable with their interviewer. Here are 5 top investigator strategies for doing just that:
- Be respectful to every investigation participant throughout the process. Workplace harassment investigations are not criminal investigations and the investigator’s job isn’t to browbeat someone into a confession, cross-examine or make moral judgments. Not only is the old adage about honey and flies appropriate here but, even when harassment is found to have occurred, parties often have to work together again later. This will already be a difficult ask without adding the indignities of being treated poorly by the investigator into the mix.
- Check your neutrality, check it again, and keep checking it throughout. It’s essential that the investigator is neutral. This means a range of things. It means that the investigator should never be in a conflict of interest as it relates to the investigation and the people it involves. It also means that the investigator must not be biased, nor should there be a reasonable apprehension of bias. This includes hidden prejudices and unconscious and psychological biases. If a participant doesn’t experience and perceive the investigator as neutral, they may be less forthcoming and detailed, negatively impacting the quality and reliability of the information the investigator gathers.
- Create safety. Investigations are hard on all participants. They are stressful, sometimes trauma-triggering and scary. By starting interviews with a polite greeting using a pleasant tone of voice, eye contact, leaning in and open body language – whether in person or in virtual interviews – investigators can create a sense of safety and comfort for participants.
- Demonstrate active listening during interviews. Investigators can do this with their body language, including maintaining eye contact, as well as with their questions. Periodically repeating back to the participant what the investigator has heard them say in order to confirm understanding also shows active listening.
- Be transparent throughout. Most participants have never been through a harassment investigation before and have no idea what they are in for. Investigators who spell out the process clearly and transparently throughout, provide status updates to the parties, and check in with them during the course of the investigation build rapport and trust. Investigators should carefully introduce themselves, their role and mandate, and clearly explain the investigation process. Investigators with excellent training and/or fulsome experience can anticipate the likely questions that the parties will ask at an interview. By pre-empting those questions and supplying clear answers in advance, the investigator demonstrates their knowledge, experience and commitment to process; provides an opportunity for the party to settle in; helps put participants at ease, and improves the overall process.
Jennifer Wootton is a lawyer, workplace investigator and speaker. She has more than 28 years of experience in the workplace human rights law field in Canada. Jennifer’s law practice focuses on the proactive and compassionate resolution of internal workplace complaints through investigations, assessments, training and policy development. She is a pioneer in the field of workplace harassment investigations in Canada and has investigated thousands of workplace harassment, bullying and violence allegations as an external investigator since 2000.
Learn more about how to successfully conduct workplace harassment investigations in her upcoming course, Conducting Workplace Harassment Investigations.