#1 Understand the goal
First, you need to determine as best as possible what actually happened in the situation. Once you receive the complaint, you should make an assessment of whether or not an internal investigation is necessary. If no other facts or outside resources are needed to resolve the issue, then it may be resolved informally. However, if the accuser cannot supply all the facts needed to make a determination, an investigation is likely warranted.
By conducting a formal, documented investigation, you can show that your organization has done its due diligence to understand the issue and is taking the necessary action to resolve it. That in turn can help limiti the liability for the company and managers involved.
#2 Act quickly and be timely with your response
Even before an investigation starts, managers should immediately determine whether there are any risks to an employee’s health or safety after they receive a complaint. Also, avoid taking any negative action against the complainant (such as an involuntarily transfer), as this may be seen as retaliation. However, paid suspensions or temporary reassignments may be necessary to provide interim relief during the process.
All supervisors and managers within the company should be trained to assume personal responsibility for contacting the HR if an employee files a complaint with them. The more a company delays in addressing an issue, the higher the risk that they jeopardize their credibility with their employees.
#3 Take steps to avoid retaliation
Anyone involved in the investigation, including interviewees, supervisors, etc. should be properly informed that the employer will not tolerate any form of unlawful harassment or retaliation against the individual who made the claim or any of the interviewees who participated in the investigation.
A statement that the employer will not allow retaliation to occur should begin well before any investigation. It should also be properly documented in each interview during an investigation that this statement was made. All representatives of the employer should be aware that this includes any behavior or conduct that could be viewed as retaliatory, regardless of whether or not that was the actual intent.
# 4 Make no promises of confidentiality
Often, employees will make a complaint but ask that no action be taken, or that their name be kept confidential. Typically, this is out of fear of retaliation. The HR contact or supervisor should explain that the company will do everything possible to keep the matter confidential (on a need to know basis), but that the organization faces legal liability if it doesn’t investigate issues as they are brought to management’s attention. This is the perfect time to reinforce the prohibition of retaliation within the company and inform the employee that they should report and retaliation immediately.
Having these general best practices in mind will help you to be better prepared should the day come that an employee files a complaint. If you'd like help identifying your HR Gaps, we're here to help. We'll pair you with a dedicated, certified HR professional to help you with straightforward answers and advice. Our services extend far beyond an investigation - we'll help you build a compliant, productive workplace.