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“We just don’t believe her”: Confronting “organizational bias” in workplace investigations

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Bias – whether conscious or unconscious – is a problem that workplace investigators grapple with in many forms. Perhaps bias is exactly what we’ve been asked to investigate: was the complainant treated differently at work on the basis of her gender, race or religion? Or, maybe we’re concerned that our own biases are affecting our investigation: do I believe the respondent’s evidence just because he looks and talks like me?

One source of bias that is often overlooked in a workplace investigation is bias on the part of the organization that initiated the investigation. In other words, the organization has decided to believe either the complainant or the respondent’s version of events before the investigation takes place. For internal and external investigators, this bias is typically expressed the person instructing them or directing their work, whether that is a client or an internal decision-maker.

The good news is that this “organizational bias” is often unsubtle and easy to spot. A client might give you a laundry list of performance problems the complainant has had, suggesting that his harassment complaint against his manager is really an attempt to deflect from his own issues. An internal decision-maker might emphasize the value of the respondent to the organization and express shock and disbelief about the allegations against her.

The bad news is that “organizational bias” has the potential to affect a workplace investigation, even if the investigator does not intend it to. To understand why, consider the cognitive biases known as observer effects, experimenter effects and priming. These are forms of bias where exposure to external information influences the observations of an ostensibly neutral observer¹. For example, in one psychological study, a researcher gave test booklets to teachers and asked the teachers to grade the tests. Each test booklet contained some background information about the student who had written the test, including his or her IQ score. The researcher found that teachers gave different grades to identical answers and that the differences in grades were correlated with the student’s IQ score².

In the same way that these teachers were influenced by knowledge of students’ IQ scores, workplace investigators could be influenced by extraneous information that the organization provides about the parties, such as their performance history, general reliability, pre-existing working relationship and their working relationships with other co-workers. So, how can workplace investigators avoid or minimize the influence of organizational bias? Below are tips to consider at each stage of the investigation:

1. At the beginning: Avoiding as much “organizational bias” as possible starts at the very beginning of the investigation. If you never hear extraneous information about the parties or the organization’s opinion of the parties and/or the complaint, you can’t be influenced by it. Often a client or internal decision-maker will want to provide the workplace investigator with “context” for a complaint. Be wary of any such discussions, as the “context” sometimes amounts to irrelevant information or opinions about the parties and the complaint. Before entering into a discussion of context, ask about the nature of the information that the client or internal decision-maker wishes to provide. If the information is irrelevant or potentially prejudicial, you can avoid the conversation entirely. Or, if you find yourself in a conversation where such information is being provided, don’t be afraid to put a stop to it and explain that such context isn’t relevant for your purposes.

2. As you go: Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid learning about the organization’s bias. The client might make their opinion known before you have the chance to tell them that it’s not relevant, for example. In these circumstances, awareness of the potential for this information to influence your decision-making is key. Throughout the investigation, ask yourself whether your decisions would be the same if you had never heard about the organization’s opinion of the parties or the complaint. As you draft your report, ask yourself the same question with respect to your findings.

3. At the end: If your findings contradict the organization’s pre-conceived ideas about the complaint, then reporting to the client or internal decision-maker can be difficult. You might receive pushback on your process or your findings. Where you anticipate this might be the case, take extra care in your report to make the reasons for your decision clear and explicitly address any shortcomings in the evidence.

Ultimately, we are all subject to various forms of cognitive biases, and so eliminating unconscious bias from workplace investigations altogether would be an impossible task. However, the more we are aware of the various forms and sources of cognitive bias, the better we will be able to identify and address them.

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¹Oppenheimer, A. (2012). The Psychology of Bias: Understanding and Eliminating Bias in Investigations. Retrieved from https://amyopp.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Psychology_of_Bias_May_2012.pdf.
²Risinger, D., Saks, M., Thompson, W. & Rosenthal, R. (2002). The Daubert/Kumho Implications of Observer Effects in Forensic Science: Hidden Problems of Expectation and Suggestion. California Law Review 90(1), 1-56. Retrieved from https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/3199069.