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Trauma-informed approach to discrimination investigations

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In the world of workplace investigations, we often hear of adopting a trauma-informed approach in sexual harassment cases. We especially heard this during the #MeToo movement, and, indeed, it was necessary. However, despite the growing social awareness around discrimination, particularly racial discrimination, we have not heard or seen a similar call for a trauma-informed approach when dealing with these types of situations. This is quite surprising and unfortunate because, in our investigation work, we see that a trauma-informed approach is very important in discrimination cases. This is because persons who believe that they have been discriminated against can be, and often are, traumatized by what they perceive to have been their experience. It does not matter what our ultimate findings might turn out to be at the end of an investigation. The fact is their perception of their experience is their reality. For that reason, it is imperative that our investigation process does not inadvertently retraumatize individuals who believe that they have been discriminated against. If we are not careful to adopt a trauma-informed approach in these investigations, we run the risk of our process potentially causing more harm than the incidents complained of – we can become part of the problem.

When I conduct our RT training on Investigating Race-based Cases,1 and I discuss this issue, one of the common questions that I get is, “What does a trauma-informed approach to a race-based investigation look like?” I can imagine that the same question would be asked regarding any other type of discrimination case, and not just race based. So, here are three tips on how to conduct a trauma-informed discrimination investigation.

    1. Acknowledge the person’s perceived experience
    2. Do not react when they react – their frustration is not about you
    3. Recognize that their trauma may impact how they give evidence

Acknowledge the person’s perceived experience

Very often, persons who believe that they have been discriminated against feel unheard, disbelieved, and disregarded, and that is perhaps because that has generally been the experience of people who are discriminated against. This causes a potential lack of trust in any process that is said to be a response to their concerns. What we can do as investigators is acknowledge their experience. This should not be confused with indicating to them that you agree with them or that you have accepted what they have said as true. You should not do that. As investigators, we must maintain our neutrality and be very clear about that. Acknowledging simply means recognizing what they feel they have experienced and the impact that it has had on them. For example, saying, “I acknowledge what you are saying has been your experience and I recognize the impact that it has had on you.” This acknowledgment communicates that their concerns have not been disregarded and sets the pathway for you to now ask for the particulars that you need.

Do not react when they react

Persons who feel that they have been discriminated against, particularly those who feel that they have been subjected to this treatment over a period of time, may be frustrated and angry, and that can come across in the investigation. The anger and frustration may be directed at the person(s) accused of the behaviour, or it may even be directed at you as the investigator. When this happens, resist the urge to react. Maintain your composure and maintain your neutrality. While you should by no means remain in an environment where you do not feel safe, if there is no safety concern, then do not take their reactions of anger or frustration personally. It is not about you. In my experience, sometimes it is okay to just let them express how they feel (provided there is no disrespect to you) because once they do that, they are better able to give you the information that you need to conduct the investigation.

Recognize that their trauma may impact their evidence

When someone is traumatized, their ability to give their evidence coherently and chronologically may be impacted. Similarly, they may not even be as straightforward because they may be hesitant to speak. It is unreasonable to expect a traumatized individual to communicate with you and share their evidence in the same way that someone who has not been traumatized would. For that reason, be careful not to assess their credibility adversely or incorrectly because of the manner in which they give their evidence. Instead, be flexible enough in your process to let them tell their story how they feel most comfortable. By this I mean, let them tell it how they recall it at the pace that works for them. What is important is that you understand the evidence that you receive. You ensure this by practising active listening. That is, relay your understanding of the information that they give and have them confirm if your understanding is correct. Then, use this as an opportunity to ask questions to fill any gaps in the evidence caused by the lack of coherency or chronology. This is a technique to maintain control of the interview while still allowing them to share in a way that feels safe to them.

Discrimination investigations are complex by nature and the complexity is heightened by the trauma that individuals experience. Our responsibility as investigators, when doing our work, is to not add to that traumatic experience. We must be thorough in what we do, but we must also be human. That is ultimately what makes us good investigators.

1 For more information on RT’s training on Investigation Race-based Cases, see here: https://rubinthomlinson.com/arlo/events/97-investigating-race-based-cases/

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