By Tracey I. Levy
What if we were less secretive about outcomes in our workplace investigations?
Conventional wisdom, and the cautionary note I most commonly provide when conducting harassment prevention training for organizations, is that the organization will not share specifics about whether and what remedial actions are being taken following a workplace investigation of concerns of harassment, discrimination, retaliation or other inappropriate workplace behaviors. We explain that this is out of respect for the respondent and consistent with disciplinary process. Just as I would not tell employee A that employee B was being written up for excessive lateness, I will not tell a complainant that a respondent has been written up, denied a promotion, had their bonus cut, or all of the above based on a violation of the organization’s policies.
But does that approach still make sense? What do we sacrifice in the process? Post #MeToo/Black Lives Matter, this may be the time for organizations to consider doing things differently.
Earlier in my career, when I was conducting investigations in-house as an employee relations specialist, my colleagues and I would periodically vent to one another about the “bad rap” that our team and the human resources function more generally had when it came to addressing employee concerns. We often took responsive actions following workplace investigations, with a host of wide-ranging consequences for respondents. We felt we were acting appropriately to achieve the primary objective — getting the behavior to stop, and deterring that individual from doing it again. But because we were silent about what actions were taken, complainants assumed we had done little more than pay lip service to their complaints. We were powerless to correct employees’ misimpression, because we were adhering to the conventional wisdom of respecting the respondent’s privacy. I used to rationalize that it only was HR’s reputation that suffered from this process. I now think the harm is broader.
Accountability is a key component of any initiative to create a more respectful workplace, one that does not tolerate harassment, discrimination or retaliation. The EEOC made that clear in its seminal 2016 report on workplace training and effective prevention of harassing behavior. On a fundamental level, organizations usually do hold employees personally accountable for their inappropriate workplace behaviors, at least following a workplace complaint and investigation. If no one is told details of the outcome, however, then the organization’s responsive actions at best serve the limited purpose of deterring that particular individual from engaging in further inappropriate conduct. There can be no broader deterrent effect absent some transparency.
One option is for organizations periodically to provide their workforce with aggregate data on the responsive actions taken following workplace investigations. That serves the beneficial purpose of disclosing the range of actions taken, and how frequently they occur. The downside is that the data may not mean much without additionally disclosing how many claims were substantiated, and the types of behaviors that were found to have occurred. Each disclosure runs the risk of raising more questions than it answers. Particularly if the number of claims found unsubstantiated is not considered sufficiently “high” from the employees’ perspective, organizations may find the aggregate reporting is too generalized to present the desired message of a responsive leadership team.
So how about full transparency — informing the complainant in an individual investigation of the responsive action being taken by the organization, including possible disciplinary action of the respondent. Clearly there are downsides to this approach in that it tarnishes the reputation of the respondent and may add fodder to the gossip mill, thereby making it harder for the respondent to move forward. But there are upsides as well, in that the complainant receives specific information about how the organization has responded, and is not left to wonder or doubt the sincerity of the organization’s approach. Also, as employees learn that responsive actions are no longer being kept confidential, the deterrent effect may be enhanced — individuals may think twice about their behavior if they know that their actions will have public consequences.
Take Time to Evaluate Options
Each alternative presents challenges and concerns, and there is no single “right” answer. But most organizations default to keeping responsive actions confidential, without even entertaining the possibility of an alternative approach. I invite you to consider something different, weigh the upsides and downsides of greater transparency, and do not fall into the trap of maintaining the status quo simply for the sake of being consistent with past practice.