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Cyber-stalkers, car accidents and bears – oh my! Safety tips for workplace investigators

While you’re here, you may wish to attend one of our upcoming training courses:

Basic Workplace Investigation Techniques
28 Jan - 30 Jan at Ontario Heritage Trust - Birkbeck Room
If a complaint of workplace harassment is made, do you know how to respond, investigate, and report on it — legally and correctly? If you don’t, you aren’t alone. This 3-day course is a crucial primer for today’s climate. Investigate mock complaints (inspired by our work across the country) from start to finish, build your investigation skills, and learn how to avoid costly pitfalls. The third day focuses on mastering report writing.
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As a workplace investigator, my job often requires me to consider how a person’s well-being might have been impacted as a result of a workplace incident. Something I occasionally neglect to do, however, is reflect on my own well-being and safety while at work. My colleague, Janice Rubin, wrote about the need for investigators to keep self care in mind but sometimes the dangers to our health are more immediate than stress or compassion fatigue. I asked my fellow investigators to share their experiences with safety issues while on the job, and below are some examples of hazards that investigators might encounter during the course of an investigation, and steps that can be taken to minimize the risk.

1) Close encounters

As my colleague Fiona Lee recently pointed out, a lot has to be considered when choosing an interview space, including whether the space is sufficiently private and quiet, whether it can be considered a neutral space, and whether it is accessible. Another important consideration is: Is it safe?

Keeping safety in mind while conducting interviews is a balancing act for workplace investigators, since – in order to maintain our neutrality – we generally don’t go into an interview assuming that the interviewee is going to harass or attack us. The reality, however, is that the people we are interviewing are likely under a bit (or sometimes a great deal) of stress and that in such a situation, tempers can flare. Every investigator who is conducting an interview in an enclosed space needs to keep safety in mind.

A way to protect yourself while not appearing biased against the interviewee is to ensure that your safety protocols are the same for every interview. That way, if questioned, you can honestly say that you did not actively protect your safety while meeting with a particular person because of a preconceived notion that the person was dangerous, but rather because you take the same safety precautions with every interview.

Top tips for interview safety:

  • Try to have co-workers nearby. When possible, conduct your interviews in a location that is private, but that has others not far away. If you work in a shared office that has a private boardroom, this is ideal.
  • Book a safe space. If you have to meet outside of your own office, make sure that the location is secure and that there are others around. Local libraries often have meeting rooms that can be booked by the hour, as do hotels and YMCAs. Shared workspaces, such as Regus or WeWork, can also be an option.
  • Look out for signs that an interviewee is becoming agitated. While some agitation can be expected, if an interviewee is yelling, swearing, name calling or pounding on the table, it may be time to end the interview and continue your information gathering in another way, such as on the phone or by video chat.
  • While conducting an interview, sit closest to the door. That way if anything occurs that makes you uncomfortable, you can leave without having to navigate around the interviewee.
  • Think hard before meeting in a home. There are very limited circumstances in which it would be appropriate to meet an interviewee at a residence. If there is no other option – for example if the interviewee is bed-ridden with a medical condition – consider whether the interview can be done by video chat instead of in person. If this is not possible, consider whether a colleague can attend the interview with you. At the very least, ensure that someone knows where you will be and when, and check in with them after the interview.

2) Travel Woes

Investigation interviews can take us to unfamiliar locales, which can be enjoyable but also stressful at times. This can be particularly true when traveling to more remote locations, and even more so for women traveling alone. Following a few safety precautions can help prevent a less-than-ideal travel situation from becoming a full-blown safety hazard.

Top tips for safe travel:

  • Make sure that someone knows where you are going, and when you are expecting to arrive. There are even apps that you can use for this purpose, such as Watch Over Me, which allows you to set an alarm while you walk home or to your car, and automatically sends a message to pre-determined contacts if you do not indicate that you arrived safely within a given time. Similarly, most phones are equipped with an SOS function to use in case of emergency. For Android users, you can activate a function that will send a distress message (as well as pictures, an audio clip, and your current coordinates) to an emergency contact when you press the side button three times.
  • Try to choose a hotel in a populated area, if possible. If you have to stay overnight in an area where you do not feel entirely comfortable, consider investing in a door knob alarm or a security bar to add some extra security to your room.
  • Keep an emergency kit in your car. If you live in a big city, like I do, the possibility of needing an emergency blanket or a road flare might seem remote, but in many areas of the country it is not unusual to find a stretch of road where there are no other vehicles for miles around. Often, these stretches of road are the same ones that have limited cellular service. If the worst happens and your car ends up in a ditch, keeping warm and attracting the attention of passing cars will be essential.
  • Watch out for moose (yes, seriously). For those of us who are used to avoiding jay walkers and swerving cabs but not the local wildlife, moose, deer and even bears can present a serious hazard when driving in more remote areas. Tips for avoiding these creatures include using your high beams at night, staying close to the speed limit, and constantly scanning your surroundings for movement. While honking your horn to scare the animal off might sound like a good idea, this can actually make animals more aggressive and more likely to charge the vehicle. Experts say that if hitting an animal is unavoidable, you should slam on the breaks and release them at the last minute, which will lift the nose of the vehicle and deflect the animal away from the windshield.

3) Cyber-stalkers

It’s an unfortunate reality for workplace investigators that – even when we do our job really well – one of the parties to an investigation is often not happy with us at the end of the process. This is not surprising given that the result of an investigation process could be that a person is disciplined or even terminated. The vast majority of the time the dissatisfaction that a party feels as a result of an investigator’s conclusions does not result in any kind of negative action. In rare cases, however, a party to an investigation may try to contact or even threaten an investigator after a report has been finalized. The risk of this can be reduced by minimizing the personal information that is readily available about you.

Top tips for protecting yourself online

  • Watch your social media presence. If you are active on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, consider not adding anyone as a contact unless you know them personally. Also consider not setting up your profile under your full name and be sure to check your privacy settings regularly. On Facebook, you can use the “view as” tool to see what information is available to members of the public who aren’t on your friends list. Keep in mind that anything you post publicly on Facebook – such as reviews, “check-ins” or posts in public groups – can provide information about where you live or what businesses you frequent. Also keep in mind that profile pictures on Facebook are always public; accordingly, a photo taken in front of your home or your child’s school might not be the best choice.
  • Never allow anyone to have access to your computer. If you take a break in the middle of an interview, consider taking your laptop and phone with you rather than leaving them in the room with an interviewee. If you do leave any electronics behind, ensure that they are locked and that your passwords are not easy to guess (hint: Password1 is too easy). In addition to the obvious concern that you want to keep information related to the investigation confidential, a tech-savvy person can glean a great deal of information about you from an unlocked computer in a short period of time.
  • Set a google alert for your name. In the age when any disgruntled individual can say anything on the internet, it can be helpful to know as soon as possible whether someone has mentioned you on a website or in their personal blog.

While most workplace investigators will hopefully never find themselves in a dangerous situation, it’s always better to be prepared. By engaging in a bit of advanced planning, you can give yourself a better chance of avoiding the hazards discussed above. Your loved ones, your clients – and even the moose – will thank you.