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The impact of perceptual variances in investigations

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I recently watched a video presentation by Kain Ramsay, teacher of applied psychology, on the topic of perceptual variances in the context of cognitive behavioural therapy. He started the presentation with a demonstration. He showed how the number “8” could be interpreted or perceived differently by multiple persons. He demonstrated that the image could be viewed by some as exactly what it is, the number 8. Others may interpret it as the infinity sign; to others it may just look like a pretzel; while to another person, it may be the symbol for DNA. The point he was making was that multiple persons can look at the same image and have varying perceptions and interpretations. The question is, who is wrong and who is right? This is perhaps the root of most conflicts from time immemorial and the modern-day workplace is no exception. In the context of workplace investigators, it raises the question – how does the concept of perceptual variance impact the making of factual findings and the assessment of credibility in workplace investigations? Should it have any impact at all?

Our job, as investigators, is usually to make findings as to whether, on a balance of probabilities, what is alleged to have occurred likely occurred or not. In conducting that assessment, we often listen to different persons give their perspective on the same event or occurrence and, in our experience, a complainant and a respondent (and even witnesses), very rarely have the same interpretation. What we find is that they can, at times, agree on the facts but they disagree on how those facts should be perceived or interpreted. For example, the parties agree that the respondent said, “I need this done by 2pm.” However, the complainant says that the respondent was demeaning while the respondent maintains that they were merely communicating the urgency of the matter in their capacity as a manager. As an investigator, what do you do with that kind of information? Sometimes the conflicting evidence can be resolved with witness evidence or an assessment of credibility. However, the resolution of the issue is not always that straightforward or simple.

In order to be effective, we have to be mindful of the possibility that neither of the parties are necessarily being dishonest, but perhaps may be genuinely describing their perception of the events (for example that the conduct complained of is demeaning or not demeaning). A further consideration is the fact that a party’s subjective description of an occurrence is sometimes indicative of their emotional response to that occurrence, which may be influenced by any number of factors such as their culture, experiences and even their mental health. All of that being said, you still have to make a factual finding. This can be difficult in any case but approaching an investigation with this kind of mindfulness will likely allow for a more fair, thorough and objective investigation.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula or investigation rule that can be applied to every investigation in which you face this challenge. The approach taken in each case is informed by what you may be investigating in that particular case and the information that is available to you. What I can say is that the aim is generally to look beyond a person’s subjective description and focus on the facts. The “who, what, why, where, when” questions are always pertinent because they address the facts as opposed to the perception or feelings. For example, you may want to ask why the conduct was viewed as demeaning; inquire as to what the person would have been doing at the time that the comment was made; was anything else happening at that time etc. – get the specifics.

Investigations are very rarely straightforward, and we cannot afford to approach them with blindfolds. We ought to be mindful of perceptual variances and consider in each case how any conflict caused by those variances can be objectively resolved in each investigation.

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