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The impact of “cancel culture” on workplace investigations

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As a workplace investigator, I constantly have friends and family asking me for my advice or opinions when they hear that someone has engaged in some form of workplace misconduct. One story that stood out to me was when a friend told me that their co-worker was no longer employed at their organization because inappropriate pictures of another co-worker were found on their laptop. The first question that I asked my friend was, “Did [blank] admit that they put these photos on their laptop,” and my friend responded, “Well, no, it was on [blank’s] laptop.” I asked the following question, “Okay…, but was [blank] asked why the pictures were there?” My friend looked at me with a puzzled face, like I was an alien.  The workplace investigator in me came out, and I started to ask my friend a billion and one questions. Eventually, my friend sighed and said, “Who cares, [blank] is cancelled anyways.” I was somewhat concerned when my friend made that remark because I soon came to find out that the investigation was conducted poorly because there was pressure from “outsiders.” My workplace investigator senses started to tingle, and it made me think about the impact of “cancel culture” on the work that we do.

In our workplace investigation training sessions, we often talk about “the four pillars” of the investigation process — fairness, thoroughness, timeliness, and confidentiality — as the foundation of a solid investigation. Here, I briefly explain how “cancel culture” can impact fairness, thoroughness, and confidentiality.

What is “cancel culture”?

I have read many articles and blogs written about cancel culture in the past year or so. What it is and how to define it, I believe, are still in dispute and often subjective. Essentially, cancel culture can be defined as the practice of group shaming a person or entity as a result of a particular behaviour in which they were engaged (or accused of being engaged in) when that behaviour is deemed to be harmful or unfavourable by the accusers.1How I see it is that cancel culture can be understood as the idea that an individual should suffer some type of consequence, i.e., being “cancelled” or ostracized, because an allegation has been made against them publicly. The objective behind cancel culture is to deny or strip away the prestige, respect, or societal admiration of the individual who has allegedly engaged in the misconduct, especially for those who may be in the public eye. What I am focusing on is cancel culture in the context of workplace misconduct. A good example would be the recent allegations made publicly against Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The impact on fairness

When my friend told me that their co-worker was immediately terminated from their job without being given the full opportunity to respond to the allegations because there was pressure from “outsiders,” my mind automatically turned to, “Was this fair to the co-worker given the circumstance?” and, “How can a conclusion be fairly made, if the co-worker was not given the opportunity to respond?” It reminded me that the workplace investigation process should be fair for both the complainant and respondent overall, irrespective of the circumstances or what the “culture” says about the accused.  Fairness should be considered from the beginning to the end of the investigation process. In the case of my friend and their coworker, ensuring the co-worker was given the full opportunity to respond to the allegation made against them would help to meet the pillar of fairness.

The impact on thoroughness

I have heard of instances where “outsiders” (i.e., the public) have put pressure on employers to sanction or “punish” an employee for allegations made against them. The problem with this is that it can impact the thoroughness of the workplace investigation process. Suppose the employer only focuses on responding to outside pressure; how then is thoroughness met? It can lead to relevant information or evidence being missed or improperly assessed. The employer may be unable to check the thoroughness box on their “conducting a proper investigation” checklist. Employers may want to refrain from allowing “outside pressures” to indirectly dictate what information or evidence is relevant to the investigation just because “outsiders” want a quick response to the individual’s alleged misconduct. To meet the threshold of thoroughness in a workplace investigation, workplace investigators will want to gather all necessary information to assist them so that once they make a conclusion, it is adequately supported.

The impact on confidentiality

Unfortunately, we live in a reality where some workplace investigations are made public. I have been keeping up to date with the Governor Andrew Cuomo case. Although I do not know the entirety of the case or how the investigation is being conducted, I know some of the allegations. How? Well, I have read and watched one of the accusers or complainants talk about their alleged ordeals with Governor Cuomo.

My concern in circumstances such as this is that relevant evidence is sometimes released, or at times “leaked,” to the public before the investigation has even begun. What I have found is that once an allegation against an individual has been made public, people are quick to judge or “cancel” this person without knowing the entirety of the matter. As a result, it can make a neutral investigation more challenging. Reputations may be ruined, and parties may be publicly shamed, for alleged conduct that is ultimately found to be false. This type of consequence can be life changing for the parties involved. As an employer and a workplace investigator, be mindful of what information is shared and who is contacted for the purposes of an investigation.

As a workplace investigator, be careful of hopping aboard the cancel culture train. Instead, follow your internal procedures and conduct an investigation that balances the four pillars of a defensible process.

1 https://www.honestlymodern.com/cancel-culture-is-not-new/

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