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Tips for Handling Difficult People in Workplace Investigations

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

Basic Workplace Investigation Techniques
28 May - 30 May at Ontario Heritage Trust - Birkbeck Room
If a complaint of workplace harassment is made, do you know how to respond, investigate, and report on it — legally and correctly? If you don’t, you aren’t alone. This 3-day course is a crucial primer for today’s climate. Investigate mock complaints (inspired by our work across the country) from start to finish, build your investigation skills, and learn how to avoid costly pitfalls. The third day focuses on mastering report writing.
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Special note to BC readers:
If this subject is of interest to you, you may wish to attend our related workshop. Some spots are still open for the following sessions – we recommend registering soon. We hope to see you there.Conducting Sexual Harassment and Violence Investigations
November 27-28, 2018 in Vancouver, BC
This advanced-level training is a must for any staff who may respond to and/or investigate sexual harassment or sexual assault complaints.Workplace Investigations in the University and College Context
November 29, 2018 in Vancouver, BC
This training examines the demands and challenges that investigations present in the university and college context, and allows for a deep dive into possible solutions.

Tips for Handling Difficult People in Workplace Investigations

The hostile respondent. The complainant who answers every question with dripping sarcasm. The witness who, for whatever reason, is getting on your last nerve. Almost every workplace investigation has a difficult personality (or two, or three). Learning to handle difficult people with professionalism is a critical skill for any investigator.

Below are seven practical tips you can use to deal with even the most difficult personalities.

  1. Acknowledge the difficulty. It’s surprising how setting your own expectations appropriately can take the sting out of abrasive personalities. Before you interview the complainant, respondent or witnesses acknowledge that everyone is in a difficult situation. From the complainant’s perspective, something upsetting, or even traumatic, has happened. The respondent may believe he or she is being wrongly accused, or may be embarrassed at his or her behaviour. Witnesses might feel torn between both sides, or could feel a strong sense of loyalty to one party or the other. With emotions running high, you can expect that the people you’re dealing with aren’t going to be at their best. In fact, stress could make their worst qualities come out, which leads to the next tip:
  2. Don’t take it personally. Remember that rude or hostile behaviour you might encounter in the course of a workplace investigation isn’t a reflection on you or your skills and abilities. What you’re seeing is a reaction to a stressful situation, not to you as a person. So, remind yourself that this isn’t personal.
  3. Keep your role in mind. Your responsibility is to conduct a neutral investigation. Keeping this at the forefront of your mind can help guide you in your interactions with difficult parties. Your job is not to argue with the respondent or convince a witness of one view or another. You don’t need to correct, or even engage with, argumentative or antagonistic behaviour. This kind of behaviour might influence your credibility assessment, but it doesn’t have to affect your work beyond that.

Now that you have the right mindset, what actions should you take when you’re interacting with people who push your buttons?

  1. Be straightforward. Tempting as it may be, don’t shy away from asking the difficult question or bringing up the awkward topic because you’re worried about the reaction you’re going to get. Avoidance is only going to hurt your investigation, either by failing to deal with crucial issues or by causing confusion and uncertainty on the part of the parties and the employer. Asking directly about the sexual comment or racist slur when it’s required is best for everyone involved: you get the answers (or non-answers) you need to carry out your responsibility, and the parties get a chance to have their say without wondering what you’re really asking about.
  2. Stay calm. Don’t respond in kind to angry or hostile behaviour. Losing your professional cool will undermine your credibility and leaves you open to allegations that you weren’t an objective investigator. Of course, staying calm is often easier said than done. Work on noticing when your emotions are ratcheting up. Do you start to breathe more quickly? Do you lose your focus? Do you raise your voice? Then, when you feel yourself getting upset, do something to stop yourself from acting on those feelings. Take a break, breathe deeply, remind yourself of the bigger picture of the investigation and the importance of remaining professional; whatever you find allows you to regain your calm and continue with your investigation.
  3. Acknowledge the difficulty, out loud. Diffusing a difficult situation can sometimes be as simple as naming the difficulty. Telling a complainant, respondent or witness that you
    understand he or she is in a tough spot can make the party feel more comfortable and therefore less likely to lash out. While they may not totally erase bad feelings, phrases like “I understand that this is a difficult situation,” “I know this is hard to talk about,” and “I see that you’re upset about this” can go a long way to making your interviewee feel like you see where he or she is coming from and are going to give him or her a fair shake.

You’ve made it through the tough interview! What now?

  1. Take care of yourself. Burnout is a real problem, and it’s aggravated by dealing with difficult people. So, remember to take some time to decompress after a challenging interview or investigation. Plan an outing with your loved ones, watch some quality Netflix, go to a yoga class – continuing to effectively conduct tricky workplace investigations means learning to manage your own stress levels.