Lemons to Lemonade -Turning workplace investigations into an opportunity to improve the culture

Whew….  The workplace investigation has concluded, and the complaint wasn’t substantiated, so everyone can go back to the way it was…. Right?!?  Unfortunately, regardless of the findings, when an investigation is conducted at work the collateral damage can have a negative impact on the environment unless the recovery effort is approached just as purposeful as the investigation.  Workplace investigations, or workplace conflict of any type, can cause friction and mistrust in the culture when left unaddressed. 

Before rebuilding can commence, it is imperative to close the investigation in a purposeful way.  Be as transparent as possible with the complainant and respondent and any witnesses who participated.  Be mindful of your policies and the culture when communicating with those involved.  This process will be much easier if closure practices are contemplated when the investigation commences, and participants are informed about what to expect.  In either case, be sure to be forthright and allow for questions and discussion.  This level of dialogue goes a long way with participants.  Be sure to set a reminder to check in with participants 30 days after to see how everyone is doing.  This added touch will build trust.

Even when an investigation is closed with skill and transparency, the emotional impact remains.  Leaders should be mindful of the symptoms of the emotional impact and address proactively.  Employees may fear retaliation, feel guilty for participating in the investigation and providing information against a coworker, and employers may see a loss of trust and a loss of productivity.  In some cases, the accused may show anger and those who support him / her can follow suit.  This can result in blaming, taking sides, and in some cases, a claim of retaliation or turnover (or both).  Educate managers on what to look for and help them manage issues that arise.

Once the investigation is officially closed, assess where things stand.  How is the team functioning?  How do people feel about underlying events and the investigation?  Is there a need to think about how to best use the information learned to avoid a similar issue in the future? 

Employers can turn this negative situation around by spending time assessing what was learned from the complaint and making improvements.  Investigations many times provide the foundation for improved processes, a recommitment to the organizational culture, and a greater awareness of employee engagement and concerns.

The best outcome of an investigation is taking the opportunity to rebuild the team.  Bring the team together and move forward together.  Human Resources professionals have unique skills in this arena that can be helpful to build a stronger and more cohesive team.  This can start by acknowledging or creating ground rules or team values that serve as the foundation to move forward.   Once established, work closely with the team to ensure there are clear expectations about how to treat one another, how to work together positively, and how to work together towards a common goal.  Once the team turns the corner and begins focusing on the future, identify near term and achievable goals that the team can accomplish together.  Nothing brings people together more than winning as a team.  When appropriate, celebrate the TEAM (not the individual) and set the stage for the next big goal.

Workplace investigations are difficult for everyone.  Be mindful of the pitfalls of going back to ‘business as usual’ without addressing the impact the investigation had on the team.  Turn lemons into lemonade and reduce future liability by staying the path and engaging with employees even when the investigation has concluded.