Dealing with a human resource issue involving a high profile employee or situation is not easy – just ask Roger Goodell. The recent NFL abuse case is an extreme, but accurate example of how large personalities and high profile issues can impact public opinion, and make investigating an allegation of wrongdoing a challenge. Your organization might not be the NFL, but you may need to investigate a high profile employee or high-risk claim that puts your organization at risk. Pressure to resolve the issue quickly to reduce exposure, notoriety of the persons involved and preconceived notions may be part of the environment surrounding an investigation, but they should not affect how you approach your investigation.
In all workplace investigations, discretion is important; for high-profile investigations, discretion is crucial. While you might not be able to guarantee complete confidentiality while conducting a workplace investigation, you can guarantee discretion. Curiosity is contagious, and you may become very popular once fellow employees find out you are working on a high profile workplace investigation.
People will be interested in what you are researching so remember to remain professional and share information as needed only with those directly involved with the investigation. This way you can mitigate the risk that your investigation becomes suspect due to gossip or even the sense of impropriety. As an HR professional you will also gain the trust of your fellow employees who will see the manner in which you conduct yourself and your investigation, which may make them feel more comfortable bringing other issues to you in the future.
A high profile person may often have a reputation that precedes them – you may never have met the person, but you sure have heard stories about them. If left unchecked, these preconceived notions may affect how you approach and question the parties involved in your investigation.
They can also affect how others view the decisions and recommendations you reach so you will want to make sure that you remain unbiased and fair, documenting all findings thoroughly. Rely on an unbiased methodology to obtain facts about the case and let those facts drive your conclusions and recommendations. Don’t assume that a person is wrong or right based on their position or presence in your organization. This will help to avoid sending the wrong message that your organization views one involved party as more (or less) important than the other.
There can be pressure to “hurry things along” and “wrap things up” to reduce exposure to your organization or parties involved in a high profile case. A feeling of “the quicker I get this out of sight, the quicker people will stop talking about it” can certainly pervade the atmosphere. Although this might seem desirable, the reality is that rushing through an investigation simply to get it out of the public eye can be damaging and costly.
Conducting a hasty investigation can lead to decisions based on panic or damage control rather than facts. You don’t just want a conclusion to be reached; you want the RIGHT conclusion to be reached. An employer has a responsibility to investigate completely and compliantly any complaint that an employee brings forward, and that means taking the time to do so. Taking the time to follow a consistent investigatory plan will enable you to reach valid and substantiated conclusions.
That being said, it is also important to see progression in high profile cases. Both the involved parties and other employees at your company will want to see that the issue is being dealt with in a timely manner, and that the investigation, although methodical and unrushed, is moving toward a conclusion.
When an investigation has the potential for high risk, it needs to be appropriately expedited, handled with discretion and investigated without bias in order to both mitigate litigation risks, and safeguard the employer brand. A company’s reputation and good standing can take years to build, but can be devastated with the mishandling of just one high profile investigation.
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Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, a technology solution that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world. Be proactive. Manage risk. Create a safer workplace.