3 Timely Considerations for Conducting HR Investigations

Investigations are one of the least-loved aspects of employee relations, yet if HR leaders took more time to properly plan and carry out investigations, it would dramatically improve results and performance. Failing to approach investigations strategically leads to missed opportunities, reducing effectiveness and increasing risk.

If you need an example, look no further than Uber. Recent reports have painted a less-than-stellar picture of the company’s reception of, and response to, harassment claims. In addition, high-level employees are leaving amid the flurry of claims. This makes it pretty clear that investigative processes and outcomes have a profound impact on an organization and its people, and should therefore be done properly. Here are a few timely reminders for employers when it comes to investigations.

Delayed Action is Delayed Protection

Delaying action, whether because of mixed priorities or procrastination, is inadvisable. It’s human nature to want to avoid conflict, but it’s the responsibility of HR professionals to protect employees by carrying out an investigation sooner rather than later. Many companies find that “sweeping it under the rug” or hoping that an issue goes away on its own actually brings more headaches, so it’s important to make investigations a top priority.

In February 2017, a blog post by former Uber employee Susan Fowler ignited a firestorm of controversy. In it, she alleged, “When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment … they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to.”

When it comes down to it, talking with a manager or senior executive and having them understand why investigation is a priority should not be a challenge. This is especially crucial when the issue is one concerning the immediate safety or well-being of an employee.

Lack of Follow-up

Investigations can touch the lives of a number of people — namely, the complainant, the accused and any witnesses. It’s easy to find stories of instances where companies failed to follow up and close the loop, leaving complainants feeling like they didn’t get a fair shake.

Investigations are the front line against litigation, so it’s critical to let complainants know if and how the process can help to address their concerns. That doesn’t mean explaining all of the results and planned outcomes of the process, but anything that affects the person and their job should be examined. In the case of Uber, one employee claimed, “Nothing changed even after multiple meetings with my manager and HR. It was simply brushed aside and swept under the carpet of collective Uber suffering.”

Even if change isn’t immediate, employees want to know that they have been heard above all else. HR professionals often find that actively listening to a claim and providing clear expectations about the process go a long way toward putting the employee at ease and gaining their acceptance of the outcome.

Objectivity Issues

A lack of objectivity can also derail an employee relations investigation. Let’s say a supervisor is accused of harassment. How does the investigator respond? What if the supervisor in question is high-performing – does that influence the investigation proceedings, or is that information separated from the process to ensure a fair, objective viewpoint?

In the case of the Uber claims, the manager’s performance seemingly protected him from any repercussions, with each of the female complainants recounting the HR department’s protest that it was his “first offense,” despite numerous claims to the contrary. As Fowler recounts in her blog, “Some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager I had reported, and had reported inappropriate interactions with him long before I had even joined the company.”

There are also times when leaders may need to excuse themselves from the process and find another investigator if it’s not possible to emotionally separate themselves from the particular circumstances; it is of the utmost importance that each case is approached without preconceived notions or bias. The best practice here is to focus on the relevant facts and information, then make a decision. Just as investigators have to put hearsay aside, they also have to make sure that only the pertinent details are considered.

While these are not the only things to consider when conducting an investigation, recent events have shed light on their importance. Getting these components under control will go a long way toward improving investigation processes and results, as well as ensuring a strong foundation of credibility when it comes time to make the tough decisions that come along.

Ben Eubanks
Ben Eubanks

Ben Eubanks is the Principal Analyst at Lighthouse Research. He also founded upstartHR.com and hosts We're Only Human, a podcast focused on the intersection of people and technology in the workplace.