A few weeks ago, I met with a number of people who are in charge of retaining external investigators and who conduct internal investigations in their own organization. In my discussions with them, they asked me what our group of investigators does to take care of themselves. We have been talking about this for some time internally, but this was the first time that a potential client asked. I provided an answer in our meeting, but their question did give me continued food for thought.
Over the years, as our work and our group have expanded, we have come to learn that workplace investigators must take conscious steps to take care of themselves as a matter of creating a practice that is sustainable. We regularly hear painful stories from parties and witnesses, and in extreme cases, the people we interview are traumatized. In the assessment work we do, it is not unusual to interview large groups of people who are working in a toxic environment. Taking in all of this information, and then translating it back for the institutions that retain us, can take an emotional, physical and spiritual toll. We have found that keeping an even keel requires effort and discipline. All of us have learned to take steps, quite mindfully, to counteract the effects of conducting one workplace investigation after another. In the hopes that our experience can be helpful to other workplace investigators out there, here are some things we have found to be effective:
- Work in a team This is by far the best antidote to the challenges of conducting workplace investigations. Our team meets every two weeks, and we discuss not only what is on our plate, but also specific challenges on a file. Conducting investigations can be lonely work, and meeting this way regularly reminds us that we have supportive and knowledgeable colleagues on which to lean. I believe that working in a team is so powerful that I have concluded that working alone when you are doing this work is actually hazardous. By the way, we are absolutely convinced that working in a team also improves the quality of the processes we undertake, as we have the benefit of the entire brain trust.
- Talk it through Some investigations are deeply distressing and you can never “unhear” what you’ve been told, or “unsee” evidence you have been presented with. We recognize that we are human and are likely to be affected by the work that we do. Sometimes the impact of this work is temporary, but sometimes what you are asked to do, the process you have engaged in, or even the results you have reached may get well and truly under your skin. We talk through our experiences with our colleagues, and on occasion, with a professional if the need arises.
- Sleep on it This is a related concept. During a workplace investigation, you can often find yourself at a fork in the road – where do I go next in this process – or facing a problem or dilemma that seems unsolvable. Our best practical advice is sleep on it, and allow your brain to work on the problem while you are asleep. Almost inevitably, you will wake up the next morning with a solution. Trust us. This really works. The other thing we try to do when we find ourselves trying to sort out what to do next is to slow the process down a bit so that we can really reflect on what we are hearing. If you are running from task to task that deep thinking can sometimes be sacrificed.
- Increase your knowledge In the last year we have all had trauma and unconscious bias training. Some of us have had mediation training, restorative justice training, and leadership training. This not only increases our skill level, but it adds useful perspective to the tasks we are asked to undertake. In addition, you must leave your office, and that of your client, to do this type of training. This is a great “breather” from the day-to-day stresses of the practice. It’s also fun.
- Other Diversions Find something other than workplace investigations to do. Not only will it make you a more interesting person, and easier to live with at home and at the office, it will make you more resilient, so that you can move from project to project. Among the activities members of our team undertake include running, spinning, meditating, reading (our group has a proclivity for fiction for whatever reason), cooking, and walking the dog (not all at the same time).
- Don’t work on the weekends This is sometimes unavoidable when facing a deadline, but if you can manage it, don’t work on the weekends, and if you are super advanced, don’t think about work on the weekends. We have found that we need periods of time when we are not thinking about our workplace investigations, to make sense of them. This is particularly true when we are about to write a report. You need down time to reflect and think deeply. See point 3 above.
- Take breaks in between In my perfect workplace investigation world, I would conduct only one investigation at a time, and then take a “recalibration break” in between. Alas, our practice does not allow my colleagues and me to do this as a rule, but we do try and inject breaks where we can. The perfect tempo for me, and I suspect for others doing this work is a period of intense activity, followed by a reprieve, and then repeat.
- Say no when you are at your limit I will admit that this one is particularly difficult for me. It is hard to say no to a longstanding client, or a lawyer who has been a great referral source over the years, or even a colleague who really wants you to take on something because their plate is full. This is especially hard when you love what you are doing, as I do, and when the case presented to you is compelling. Nevertheless, what I have learned and relearned and am still learning is that you must say no if you are at your limit and you must realistically assess what your limit is, which changes over time. And, as a member of a group, you need to respect when your colleagues say no too.
As a team of lawyers and workplace investigators, we are highly motivated to do this work, because we believe that in the end, it is helpful to workplaces. We have learned that in order to do our best work we must keep healthy ourselves.
About the Author: Toronto Employment Lawyer, Janice Rubin, is a co-founder and co-managing partner at Rubin Thomlinson LLP. Janice regularly appears on Best Lawyers and Leading Practioners lists in Canada and is considered one of the country’s foremost experts on employment law.