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Traffic Lights, Documentation and Workplace Investigations

Apr 26, 2016
Deb Muller


Remember the childhood playground game, Red Light–Green Light? One person gets to be the traffic light and stand at the front with his/her back facing the others. Everyone else lines up in a row a few yards away. When the person who is playing the traffic light shouts, “green light,” everyone runs towards the front as fast as possible hoping to tag the traffic light first. If the traffic light shouts, “red light” and turns around, everyone that is running must come to a screeching halt and try not to move, which takes them out of the game.

Because of its sheer simplicity, Red Light–Green Light is a children’s game played generation after generation. The notion that a red light means “stop” and green light indicates “go” is remarkably simple too. It’s why HR Acuity® adopted a traffic light metaphor to help employee relations practitioners understand when documentation or a potential workplace investigation are required. Employees often deviate from expected workplace norms, a yellow light so to speak, but understanding the point at which misconduct requires an investigation and moves into red light category can be a challenge.

Here’s how a simple traffic light analogy can help human resources (HR) with the protocol behind consistent documentation and workplace investigations:

GREEN LIGHT: day-to-day employee behaviors are within workplace norms

Employee relations refers to how an organization manages the relationship between employer and employee. Often, organizations will try to capture the essence of key policies, programs, and expectations in a company handbook; and on any given day, human resources or employee relations practitioners will be involved in issues that span the entirety of the employee lifecycle, including:

  • Hiring, onboarding, retention and termination
  • Compensation and benefits
  • Performance and corrective actions
  • Conduct
  • Accommodations
  • Documentation and workplace investigations

When an employee’s behavior falls within expected company norms, it is considered in the green light category. From the perspective of employee relations, there is no action above and beyond the normal scope of activity that HR engages in which must be done.

Within any organization, there are occasions when employees will deviate from the expected norms or policies.

There are many types of employee behaviors that fall into the yellow light category, and human resources should document this conduct even though it does not warrant a workplace investigation. Yellow light employee-related events or behaviors are outside of the expectations established by clear company guidelines.

HR Acuity® created a popular infographic, “50 Employee Issues You Should Be Documenting,” to highlight the numerous examples of events that should be documented and fall into the yellow light category. Many of these problems do not require fact-finding investigations but can be the basis for disciplinary action by an employer. The types of issues can range from simple time and attendance problems to more intangible ones such as “lack of respect” or constant gossiping.

It is essential that yellow light incidents be documented. Because the behavior is outside of workplace norms, HR should also monitor it. It could be the start of a more pervasive pattern of behavior.

Red light employee-related events necessitate thorough fact-finding and a workplace investigation. Federal laws and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines require some allegations such as harassment, retaliation, safety concerns or discrimination be investigated. In addition, organizations should also conduct investigations not just when required by regulations but when claims or circumstances indicate a violation of company policy may have occurred. Some employee misconduct in the red light category, substance abuse or theft as examples, may be relatively straightforward to identify and investigate, while other red light behaviors such as conflict of interest may be thornier.

Investigations are tools used to uncover the facts surrounding an allegation, determine the involved parties and analyze behavior relative to company policies and laws. Some investigations will require interviews of employees and managers and even bring in outside investigators. Therefore, it is critical for HR practitioners to have a thorough understanding of when an employee-related event is categorized as red light.

In terms of employee relations, the most important takeaway from our traffic light construct is that documentation is critical for both yellow light and red light employee-related events. It can flag patterns of misconduct and become the basis of an investigation case file.

I would never suggest employee relations is child’s play, but the simplicity of Red Light-Green Light or the visual of a changing traffic signal may be useful HR touchstones nonetheless.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.

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