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Part 2: Restoring the workplace after a harassment or discrimination investigation

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In my last blog, I discussed “Restoring the workplace before a harassment or discrimination investigation.” However, what if the horse is already out of the barn? An investigation has been conducted; relationships in the workplace are broken; the environment has become toxic because of the situation, the investigation, or both; there is a lack of trust; productivity is low; and/or communication is poor. How do you restore the workplace now?

This is a challenge faced by a lot, if not all, organizations and it is a very difficult situation to deal with. For example, an employee complains of gender discrimination, the complaint is investigated and found to be unsubstantiated, and the individuals involved now have to go back to working together. Yes, the organization has fulfilled its obligation to investigate, but now what?

In these situations, the approach has to be very thoughtful. Here are a few things to consider when attempting to restore the workplace after an investigation:

1.Explain the investigation findings –The findings of an investigation are usually shared with the parties involved, but often at a surface level. Where there is a desire to engage the parties in a process of restoration, I find that it may not be enough just to share the core findings of the investigation; they may need to be explained to the parties. Invariably, following an investigation, one party (and sometimes all parties) are unsatisfied with the outcome. What this means is that a likely obstacle in any restorative process will be a lack of trust. If a party feels that they were slighted or done a disservice by virtue of the investigation process, it is unlikely that they will have any faith in a restorative process and may therefore choose not to participate. Similarly, there are instances where steps taken following an investigation, may need to be explained to other employees in the organization. This is usually the case where the fact of the investigation is widely known, and the impact of the decisions made (for example, a termination) are widely felt. I am not suggesting that confidential information from the investigation be disclosed but consider if there needs to be some form of communication or explanation to preface a restorative process. Tangential to that question is deciding the appropriate person(s) to explain the findings of the investigation to the parties and the person(s) who will undertake the restorative process.

2.Understand the goal of the restorative process – There needs to be an understanding that the results of the investigation are not the primary focus in a restorative process. In other words, it is not about who was found to be right or wrong. The focus is on rebuilding and, in order to rebuild, it usually requires a genuine acknowledgement of how people feel. For example, the fact that an allegation of discrimination or harassment is unsubstantiated, does not change how someone feels. Similarly, even where the allegation is substantiated, the focus is not on casting blame or punishing. There is a distinction between a punitive process and a restorative process. The goal of a punitive process is punishment, while the goal of a restorative process is to rebuild and restore. They ought not to be confused. If they are, it could undermine the entire restorative process.

3.Include all impacted groups in the restorative process – The issues identified in an investigation usually inform the restoration process that follows. Consequently, the restorative process is usually geared towards addressing the conflict between those who were involved in the investigation. However, in our experience the parties to an investigation are sometimes not the only people impacted by the investigation. For example, employees who were called as witnesses in the investigation may struggle to interact with their colleagues after the investigation; battle lines may have been drawn between colleagues who supported one colleague or another in the dispute; if the investigation resulted in a termination, this may cause anger, anxiety, and frustration for those colleagues who remain at the organization. The potential impacts are far reaching. Therefore, in designing a restoration process, you want to ensure that you adopt measures that include all potentially impacted groups.

4.Use the information obtained to select the appropriate interventions – When restoration is attempted before an investigation, we usually need to design a process which involves collecting information about the problem at hand. However, if an investigation has already been conducted, much if not all of this information has already been collected through the investigation process. Based on the issues identified in the investigation, you can determine the appropriate interventions or combination of interventions. For example, if the investigation revealed that there is a problem with communication, then training and coaching on communication may be beneficial, or if there is a need for the parties to understand each other, mediation may be appropriate.

5.Recognize that restoration is an ongoing process – Whether the restorative process takes place before or after an investigation, it is an ongoing process. Following the implementation of any interventions, it will be important to monitor the organization to see if there is improvement and if that improvement is sustained.

Although a difficult endeavour, restoring the workplace after an investigation is possible and we encourage employers not to shy away from trying to do so. Whether it is before or after an investigation, workplace restoration is a process that should be given high priority in any organization because it has the potential to impact the overall success of the organization. The approach in either case may vary slightly, but the general benefit is the same.

This is part two of a two part series on “Restoring the workplace before and after a workplace investigation“. You can read part one here.

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