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Taking care of the people who take care of your people: How employers can support HR staff through workplace investigations

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

Investigating Complex Cases
11 Jul at
in Online
What do you do when your investigation takes an unexpected turn? Have you struggled with how to proceed when the normal steps don’t seem to apply? In this advanced course, we tackle the complexities that can complicate an otherwise traditional investigation. This course includes in-depth discussion of handling anonymous complaints, counter-complaints, complaints of reprisal, and more!
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Anyone who works in human resources will tell you that they wear a lot of hats. On a given day, an HR generalist might meet with employees to provide guidance on compensation and benefits, organize training for new hires, meet with legal counsel on an employment litigation issue, and give advice to senior managers on how to recruit the best employees. In many organizations, human resources is also tasked with reviewing and investigating complaints of workplace bullying and harassment.

We all know there has been a recent cultural shift partially driven by the Harvey Weinstein harassment allegations and the #metoo movement, which has resulted in more people coming forward to report workplace harassment, and complaints being investigated more thoroughly than ever. This increase in investigation work can put a strain on HR staff, who may already be feeling stretched to cover all of their job duties. Employers should consider how they can support their human resources staff in handling an increase in complaints, and be aware of what the consequences can be if that support isn’t given.

Some things for employers to keep in mind when considering institutional capacity to investigate harassment complaints in-house:

Workplace investigations can be time consuming

Every investigation is different and there is no concrete answer on how long an investigation can take. A complex investigation with multiple allegations and several witnesses can easily take 20 hours or more to complete. If there are two or three of these investigations happening at once, juggling other job duties can become increasingly difficult.

Workplace investigations can be disturbing

While all of us can be kept awake by work issues, studies have shown that HR professionals are particularly likely to succumb to work worries, with over 90 percent saying they lose sleep over work. Burnout is the second-most common cause of attrition for HR business partners, which is not surprising given the number of roles they fill, and the sensitivity of the issues they deal with on a daily basis. Workplace investigations can involve relatively minor complaints, but they can also encompass more serious issues of sexual harassment or sexual assault, physical violence, or psychological bullying. Hearing the details of these interactions, especially when they involve coworkers, can be very distressing.

Investigations can damage relationships with staff

Related to the above concern is that workplace investigations, particularly when they are very sensitive or involve very serious allegations, can damage the relationship between HR staff and the parties to the investigation.  Any workplace investigator is going to have to ask difficult and sometimes embarrassing questions; even when done with sensitivity and tact, the result can still be awkwardness, resentment, or even extreme anger, directed at the investigator. A recent article in the Toronto Star argued that, for this reason, human resources is not a good fit for workplace investigations. It can be a struggle for HR professionals to balance their role as an employee advocate who maintains a safe space to address employee concerns, while also delving into allegations of harassment between those same employees.

An additional layer of difficulty is added when one of the parties is particularly senior in the organization. For example, employers should consider the fairness of asking HR staff to investigate allegations against a VP or CEO, to whom they may have to report after the investigation is complete.

There is a lot of pressure to get investigations right

Now more than ever, employers are under a microscope when it comes to the handling of their workplace harassment complaints. The consequences of failing to appropriately investigate a complaint can be dire, including negative media attention, costly litigation, or human rights claims. Even if an investigator ultimately comes to the right conclusion, an employer can still face consequences if the investigation takes too long. Extraordinarily high damages awards have been given in cases where there were inexcusable delays in investigating harassment allegations.  If an employer plans to handle harassment investigations in-house, they must make sure the staff member charged with conducting the investigation has both the knowledge to do it correctly, and the capacity to complete it in a timely fashion.

What can employers do to help their HR staff get it right?

  • Make sure they have the required knowledge to conduct fair, thorough investigations by providing comprehensive training;
  • Check in with HR staff and encourage them to be honest about their capacity to handle a workplace investigation, and about any difficulties they foresee;
  • Be aware of the factors that make a workplace investigation especially difficult (i.e. investigations involving senior staff, number of parties and witnesses, seriousness of allegations);
  • Consider seeking the assistance of a third-party investigator when appropriate.


About the Author: Michelle Bird conducts workplace investigations into allegations of harassment, bullying, poisoned work environments, and other problematic workplace behaviour. Michelle also provides workplace investigation and human rights training to staff at all levels.