The Consultant's Desk

The Consultant's Desk
Poring over the details on your behalf

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Perspectives on the Incident

Over the past several weeks to two months, it's been my privilege to watch the various reactions as people rush to judgment without investigating. It's amazing what people will do when they hear only one side of an issue and do not hold up to contrast the other person's side of the story and then compare those to what onlookers saw, heard, experienced, and felt. What's also interesting is what comes out when there is no investigation, when there is little investigation, and when there is documented protocol on how to handle things.

No Investigation

What a horrid state of affairs this begets. There's the "victim's" version of what happened. There's the "actor's" version of what they did. Mind you, either of these two roles in many instances can be reversed with regard to the identity of the very same two people. It just depends on who you're talking with first and at what point in time.

Let this situation go on with no investigation and what results is usually called "a mess." There are the hurt feelings of the one who could have been damaged (or was). The shock they endured from either having their privacy invaded or from an actual blow cannot be undone and the redress they seek and do not receive only makes things worse.

Let word of this incident get out (plus the fact that it's gone without resolution) and you've got one humdinger of a gossip mill. The tensions and ill will can mushroom from the gossip alone.

It's imperative that the incident be thoroughly investigated in order to crush the rumor mill and keep the healthy office morale that existed – or else determine what to do now to improve it.

Too Little Investigation

There can be an investigation. Unfortunately, some of these peremptory examinations are biased because the examiner knows one of the parties and is biased toward them in one way or another. The danger is when the examination is conducted without regard to pre-existing relationships. Make certain the potential conflict of interest is minimal to non-existent.

There is a tendency to try to find the most favorable reasoning for the actions of the actor. Very little due diligence is given with regard to the victim's version of what happened. In fact, the victim will be found at fault and very little research into the matter will be attempted.

There’s very little attempt to see the situation from a blank slate nor to reason through some of the explanation in order to see the holes. There is no checklist to remind the investigator of matters that should be check, photographs (or recordings) that should be taken, nor other forms of evidence that should be collected and preserved. Did anyone keep a journal or look for memos and emails that led up to the situation? Also remember the accounts of witnesses who were involved in the situation either marginally or were directly at the scene when something occurred.

Also remember to record whether the witness(es) have some type of pre-existing relationship with either of the parties. When the statements of your witnesses all seem to follow precisely the same theme, consider what the witnesses have in common.

What usually happens in this scenario is that the victim is found at fault. No one follows up with them and they are left in the dark with regard to whether the investigation is ongoing, completed, or whether new questions have been raised and need to be resolved in order to get closer to the truth of what happened.

This can prove to be costly in the long run. The actor will continue on their merry way, feeling completely vindicated and justified in repeating what they've done. They have the impression that they have license to act in the same manner with anyone to the same degree (or more). They have no remorse for their actions because it was not made manifest that they were the source of the wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, the victim is growing increasingly irate because their issues have not been addressed (nor will they ever be). In their estimation, they're being ignored and lessened as both a person and an employee of the company. They will hear only one side of the matter if anything was investigated and begin to wonder when exactly they began losing their mind in regard to seeing black and white because the "wanting" facts of the investigation are so inaccurate and slanted.

The company loses twice on this situation. It loses credibility with those who saw the situation for what it was and realize there was no thorough investigation. It also loses credibility with the victim who will ultimately decide to go to another firm. We will not consider the quality of work product nor goodwill that is lost.

Using Standard Protocol

An up-to-the-minute HR department has the tools it needs to make a thorough investigation. The examiner needs to be astute and thoughtful in regard to human nature (sometimes even psychology) as well as the laws that affect workplace security and safety. It is important to have a checklist of matters that should be discussed and investigated. This checklist has the desirability of leaving nothing to memory as far as what to ask of whom, what still needs to be investigated, as well as periodic (important) reminders of what is being investigated and the significance of what the parties are telling you as you work through the investigation.

This may have been a long-term situation that hit a boiling point. Did either of the parties keep some type of log of their interactions or a paper trail of them? If so, make certain to collect a copy of that log. An ideal situation is when both parties kept such a log or responded to the emails so that there is a record of both voices. Why is it ideal? Over and above the obvious, the log will show the communication styles of both parties. It will also show nuances of speech that can be misinterpreted and where misinterpretations were made, by which party, and when.

Remember the Follow-Up and Closure

There’s nothing quite like having someone square their shoulders to finally make a complaint about a situation and then find they’re getting zero feedback in regard to the progress of the investigation or whether anything at all is being done. It leaves them in a void. With the taint of the old fashioned version of HR (management’s henchman in nice clothing and honey coated voices) is still implanted in the minds of even those in their 30s. It will be quite understandable that when they are living and working in the cone of silence, there will be a sense that everyone in the office is annoyed with their work performance and complaining about it behind their back.

How much isn’t too much? Allow the person filing the complaint to know that the investigation is ongoing. Some additional information has come to light that still needs to be investigated to determine whether it is relevant to the situation and to what degree. If there’s need for additional information from the person who filed the complaint, they will be contacted.

Also provide the person with information about who to contact if they have questions about their performance review. Trust me, they’re wondering and their anxieties are causing their once productive and fertile mind to leap baseball fields with notions of what’s happening.

You may now be wondering where you can find resources to lead you through the clear path to success on this topic. Well, it just happens that I can provide a few for you (and I’d be more than willing to provide a presentation for your company).


Violence in the Workplace (General) - This policy statement article requires membership to the Business & Legal Reports site. I know the content you can expect from this site. It will pay off several times because of the range of information available through them.

Violence Prevention Checklist - From HR Tools, this will require registration with the site in order to access this excellent list of things to consider for workplace violence and many methods to prevent it.

Workplace Violence Checklist - Although it doesn’t directly address the topic of investigating some type of assault, this checklist from Louisiana State University is quite useful. - Produced by Knowledge Point, this press release provides access to some of the resources available on workplace violence, its impact in various terms, and information on how to handle and prevent it. You should check the other resources available on the site.