Harassment and discrimination complaints in the workplace have become increasingly common in recent years. As such, most employers will face such a complaint by one of their employee at some point during the operation of their business. How the employer responds may be critical to the potential imposition of liability (and to the employer’s legal defense).
Almost invariably, the employer will be best served by taking the complaint seriously and conducting an objective, thorough investigation into the allegations. Although the specific allegations at issue will dictate the precise nature of the ensuing investigation, employers would be well served following some general guidance for workplace investigations:
- Respond promptly. Rather than allowing the complaint to languish or delaying the response, employers should initiate an investigation promptly after receiving the complaint, and inform the complainant that it is doing so. A timely response suggests the employer takes the complaint seriously and keeping the complainant informed of the process may build better good will or minimize animosity toward the company itself.
- Confidentiality. To the extent possible, the employer should keep the allegations and the investigation confidential. Undoubtedly, word will spread that something is going on, but the employer should do its best to keep a lid on the investigation, its subject matter, and material learned.
- Objectivity. The employer should conduct an objective, unbiased investigation. To that end, consideration should be given to retaining a neutral third-party like a lawyer or HR consultant to conduct the investigation rather than another employee. Otherwise, the employer may face criticism that the investigation was a sham with a desired outcome already in mind or that it was necessarily unfair because of the investigator’s connection to the company and/or employees involved.
- No-Conflicts Authority. The investigator should have the authority to fully investigate the complaint and report accordingly on his/her findings and be free from conflicts of interest with respect to the complainant and/or others involved in the complaint. The employer should not, for example, have an investigator investigating claims against his/her supervisor or someone in his/her direct line of supervision.
- Competence. The employer should ensure that the investigation is conducted by a competent investigator. Whether the person has been formally trained in workplace investigations or HR practices, the investigator should be experienced in the field and have the skills and ability to conduct a meaningful, informed investigation.
- Thorough. The investigation should be thorough in exploring the validity (or lack thereof) of the complaint. This means, at a minimum, interviewing key people (complainant, alleged harasser, witnesses) and reviewing relevant documentation. In many instances, for example, it is not enough to simply interview the complainant and alleged harasser, and leave it at that. The employer must ensure that a real investigation is conducted that actually attempts to determine the merit, if any, to the complaint.
- Follow Policy. Oftentimes, employers have written policies with respect to discrimination, harassment, complaints, and appropriate responses. In conducting the investigation, the employer should ensure that the investigator follows and applies company policy.
Although a diligent, prompt investigation may not absolutely prevent the filing of a formal charge of discrimination or lawsuit, it may ultimately provide an affirmative defense curtailing liability.