September, 2023

Workplace Investigations: Gain Clarity as to Meaning

“It’s bullying,” “I’m being harassed,” or “this is creating a hostile work environment.” As a workplace investigator these are phrases that I hear on a daily basis from complainants and their colleagues, and even sometimes from the respondents accused of harassing behavior. “Harassment” and “hostile work environment” are actually legal terms, by which I mean they have been defined in the law and behaviors that meet those legal definitions may create liability for an organization. The definition of “bullying,” as I discussed in a prior post, is less clear under the law, at least in most jurisdictions. Beyond the law, most organizations have their own policies that specifically define harassment, hostile work environment, and often bullying as well. The role of a workplace investigator is to get past the language used by the interviewees, and understand whether behaviors themselves are occurring that violate the organization’s policies.

Gaining Clarity

The only way to effectively determine what behaviors are occurring is by gaining clarity, through interviews, and potentially review of relevant documentation. It requires continually asking for examples and explanations, and never assuming that the investigator has correctly inferred what the interviewee meant.

When a complainant asserts that the complainant is being subjected, for example, to a “hostile work environment“ the investigator needs to ask follow-up questions, such as:

  • What do you mean by that?
  • Can you tell me more?
  • Can you give me some examples?
  • What does that look like?
  • What does that sound like?
  • How often has it occurred?
  • Is it only directed at you or others as well? And if others, who, what happened with them, can you provide those examples?

Layers of an Onion

We often speak in generalizations, and use idioms, slang, and vague language in our conversation.  Perusing my notes from some recent investigation interviews I had conducted presented a range of such terminology, all cited as examples of “harassment” or a “hostile work environment”:

  • “has me on edge;”
  • X person “is targeted;”
  • “bad mouthing me;”
  • gave “illegal directives;”
  • it’s “gaslighting.”

With each of these phrases, it was not that I did not understand the literal words being used. But they provided no greater clarity as to the offending behaviors than the initial complaint of “harassment.”

Gaining clarity therefore requires digging deeper, almost like peeling back layers of an onion, to get to what the interviewee is actually experiencing or observing. We need to continuously ask ourselves whether we know what the interviewee means by the words being used or whether we are making inferences and assumptions.  If the latter, then we need to peel another layer back, with further questions, to seek specific examples of what the interviewee was experiencing:

  • What do you mean this person has you “on edge?”
  • How is this person “targeted”?
  • “Bad mouthing” you in what way?
  • What do you mean by “illegal directives?”
  • I have found people use the term “gaslighting” in different ways. What does that term mean to you?

Sometimes, the response provided to clarify a phrase is exactly consistent with my assumption. But there are plenty of times when it is not. Gaining clarity through further questioning provides an extra layer of detail, which enables the investigator to better understand the underlying behaviors at issue, question others to determine if those behaviors have occurred as initially described, and analyze the context to ultimately reach conclusions as to whether policies were violated.


In this periodic Workplace Investigations blog series, I will be exploring considerations that arise from our firm’s experience conducting workplace investigations and my work as an educator with Cornell University ILR school’s professional certificate programs on conducting effective workplace investigations.

By Tracey I. Levy


March, 2023

Workplace Investigations: Anticipate Cognitive Overload

Sometimes you just need to let things gel in your mind for a while. I came to this conclusion in my investigations practice years ago, but only recently recognized it as symptomatic of a far more universal phenomenon, what mental health professionals call “cognitive overload.” Cognitive overload refers to a situation in which we are given too much information at once, or too many simultaneous tasks, resulting in not being able to perform or process the information as we would under normal circumstances.

By way of example, a friend who is an accomplished scholar attended a cross-disciplinary conference with a multitude of presentations and small group discussions. When I asked her about it as she was heading back home, she described her head as “spinning.” She needed time to reflect before she could respond. Another friend, a leader in the community, went on a whirlwind tour as a representative with other community leaders to another country, where the agenda was packed with speakers and programs over just a few days. He too needed time to process the experience before speaking eloquently of it to the community a week later.

Any time we are presented with large amounts of information we need to give ourselves the time to mentally reflect and contextualize it. That is particularly true if the information provides a different perspective or if it is laden with shifts in emotional state. Those two elements – of different perspectives and emotional shifts – often arise when conducting workplace investigations. Our goal as investigators is to gather information, in whatever manner and quantity it is presented, and it is not uncommon to experience cognitive overload.

Information Gathering Can Overwhelm

During an investigation interview, information may be presented in all different ways. Sometimes information is delivered sequentially, sometimes the recounting of events jumps between time periods, sometimes events are recalled thematically across multiple time periods, and sometimes they seem to hop around pretty randomly. In my experience, it is rare that I am presented with an account that is comprised entirely of organized, neatly-stated segments. Rather, during the interview I may need to continuously clarify points and confirm my understanding. After the interview I then need to assume responsibility for organizing the information gathered in a logical, coherent format.

Emotions are at play as well in an interview. An interviewee may be recounting a traumatic experience, responding to allegations where the interviewee feels misconstrued, or managing personal challenges that impact how the individual comes across in an interview. An investigator needs to maintain calm, but still gather relevant information. Sometimes that requires asking uncomfortable questions. Sometimes it requires providing the interviewee with time and space to respond. Staying focused can be mentally and emotionally draining for the investigator.

Allow Time to Process

While not every investigation produces cognitive overload, an investigator needs to plan for that possibility from the outset. As a rule of thumb I almost never schedule interviews of anyone else on the same day as the complainant. I need to allow myself time to absorb what has been recounted, identify all the issues being raised, and plan the next steps in my investigation, which may be quite different from what was anticipated at the outset.

Other interviews may similarly warrant strategically placed breaks. Interviewing a respondent often is also best planned for a day separate from other interviews. While it is more feasible (and at times necessary) to stack several interviews of others with relevant information in a single day, allow space and the possibility of needing to shift that schedule or follow up with an interviewee on another day. Information provided in one interview may introduce new elements to the investigation and require you to prepare questions for subsequent interviews that reflect those additional points. Or a particular interview may prove to be so draining that you are not able immediately to pivot to another one and maintain the requisite focus and composure. Spacing interviews helps avoid those challenges.

Another consideration is when to provide updates to one or more parties with an interest in the progress of the investigation. I prefer not to provide daily debriefings to a client contact as an investigation unfolds. My daily debriefing is inevitably raw, unfiltered, and at times a bit disjointed. It reflects how I received information from the interviewee but usually not how that information fits with other information I have gathered. I can provide a more concise summary of my progress, status, initial impressions and next steps if I am allowed a day to pull those details together, separate from the days spent gathering information.

Cognitive overload is almost an inevitable by-product of conducting workplace investigations. While it may not be possible to prevent its occurrence, allowing time and opportunity to mentally process information that has been gathered can dissipate the stilting or even paralyzing effect of cognitive overload.


In this periodic Workplace Investigations blog series, I will be exploring considerations that arise from our firm’s experience conducting workplace investigations and my work as an educator with Cornell University ILR school’s professional certificate programs on conducting effective workplace investigations.

By Tracey I. Levy

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