February 2013 Bar Bulletin
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February 2013 Bar Bulletin

Clearing the Air after a Workplace Investigation

By Amy J. Stephson


Investigations are a necessary and often beneficial part of the modern workplace. However, they can also be disruptive and leave bad feelings that may linger for a long time. After seeing the negative effects of investigations for more than 15 years, I have come up with a few ideas on how to reduce and potentially eliminate those effects.

First, it is important to understand the impact an investigation can have on the employees involved in it, regardless of whether the complaint was found to be meritorious or not.

  • The complainant fears retaliation, ostracism, or just plain being disliked. He or she may be upset or angry if the investigation did not substantiate the complaint or the response to the complaint is seen as inadequate in some other way.
  • The respondent may feel embarrassed, betrayed or unjustly accused by the complainant. He or she may also fear being disliked or ostracized. If the respondent is the complainant's supervisor or manager, he or she will have concerns about how to manage the complainant's performance and behaviors without bringing on charges of retaliation.
  • The witnesses also fear they may be retaliated against or disliked. They may feel guilty for informing on a colleague or for not disclosing key information. They may be angry at having to take sides or just at the workplace drama in general.

So what can be done to address all this? First, there's some low hanging fruit:

Inform the parties of the outcome. Certain decisions may be confidential, e.g., discipline, but it's important to inform the complainant(s), those accused and relevant managers/supervisors of the outcome of the investigation. This sounds obvious, but surprisingly often it doesn't happen.

Inform the witnesses the investigation is completed. Thank them for their cooperation, remind them it's confidential, renew assurances of no retaliation, and urge them to come forward if additional incidents occur. Don't just leave them hanging.

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