Trauma-Informed Workplace Investigations – Five lessons from the trenches

In my years of experience as a workplace investigator in-house for a large organization and in my current role as an external investigator, I have learned some hard lessons on what not to do when conducting an investigation. At Forte Law, a trauma-informed approach is not a nice-to-have, but a must have, and this can very easily be lost by a busy investigator under pressure to get an investigation done as soon as possible.   Here are 5 traps to avoid so you can maintain a trauma-informed workplace investigation: 

  1. Do not send a cold email on a Friday, to interview a party after the weekend.This may seem obvious, but when you are looking at your remaining to-do list, it is an easy trap to fall in. You will be causing a great deal of unnecessary anxiety. The recipient will be wondering and filling in the blanks throughout the weekend, and likely come to the interview stressed and triggered. Being trauma-informed means providing the parties with control over what is possible. The time and date of when to meet can be one of those things.  Pick up the phone, introduce yourself (or ensure the proper party within the organization has introduced you in advance), and discuss times to meet that are comfortable to the person you will be interviewing.  
  2. Do not come into the interview scattered or upset. Check in with yourself before each interview meeting. Are you calm? Are you angry about something else? Will you be able to be fully present? Have you made up your mind based on the facts you available to you so far, that the person you will be speaking to is unlikeable? Take a moment to meditate and to connect with the emotions in your bodyMake sure you are able to remain objective during the interview. You may be triggered by things mentioned during the interview. Will you have the ability to not react? Learning how to place distance between triggers and your reaction takes practice. So, practice, practice, practice. Your brain can create new connections and works like a muscle. It needs to be trained! 
  3. Do not let the person you are interviewing quit during the meetingIf the person you are interviewing is so upset that they decide to communicate to you that they are resigning, make sure to ask them to think about it carefully, to not rush, and acknowledge the difficulty they are experiencing. Depending on your role (as either an external or an internal investigator), you may not be in a position to accept the resignation anyways, and there are legal consequences to accepting a decision to resign that was evidently made in the “heat of the moment.” 
  4. Don’t forget to manage expectations from the beginning. It is surprising what people expect out of making a complaint. There is the misconception that raising a concern should automatically lead to the complainant’s version of events to be believed, that it should lead to the respondent’s termination of employment within a couple of days, and that there will be monetary compensation to the complainant for their negative experience. Respondents sometimes also believe that if there is no consequence for them or their version of events is preferred over that of the complainant, that this automatically means that the complainant brought the concern in bad faith, lied and should be terminated. Outlining to each party the possible outcomes and the privacy restrictions associated with fully disclosing the details of any disciplinary consequence, is very important. An investigation typically results in a “winning” and a “losing” party. Someone is not going to be happy with the outcome. Managing expectations will assist in allowing the parties to move on once the process is over and will diminish the likelihood of litigation.  
  5. Don’t forget your terms of reference, or what your mandate is. You can be kind and compassionate yet know your role. As an investigator, you may create the type of bond with the parties that lead them to believe you can resolve other issues they are facing in the workplace. It is important to be clear on the scope and the limitations of the investigation and refer the parties to the proper contacts for issues unrelated to the investigation.   

This blog is not intended to serve as legal advice, and only provides general information.

Every situation must be considered on its own facts. Need legal advice? Contact us by phone at 604 535-7063 or email [email protected].

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