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Investigations as a pillar of D&I

In diversity and inclusion, the rubber really hits the road when the company acknowledges there may be a specific problem with a specific person. How the company handles these situations means more to employees than the company’s general efforts to promote inclusiveness. If the company looks the other way when people violate the code of conduct by harassing others, then employees will rightly feel that the inclusiveness program is just window dressing.

When there is an allegation that an employee has been harassing another person then HR needs to launch an investigation. The investigation must be seen to be fair to everyone concerned and lead to an appropriate outcome. If companies can get the investigations right, then they will build credibility that they genuinely take inclusion seriously. Any kind of employee misconduct from conflict of interest to theft to falsifying clock-in times could be cause for an investigation, however, the cases that are most potent are cases of misconduct around ethnic or sexual harassment and that’s what we focus on here.


What we want from an investigation

An investigation sounds like a police action and that’s misleading. In a police investigation information is gathered, possibly leading to a trial where the accused will be declared innocent or else punished. An investigation within your organization aims for reconciliation. Ideally, any bruised feelings will be healed, and any questionable behaviour stopped. In some occasions, an investigation will lead to an employee being disciplined or terminated, however that’s not the goal.

How investigations start

Investigations start when an employee makes a complaint or HR becomes aware of a potential problem. It’s often the case that people suffering from harassment are reluctant to report it. In fact, sometimes a manager’s bad behaviour can be an open secret, yet no formal complaint is lodged. So it’s important HR be proactive in looking into potential problems—without making it feel like HR is running a police state.

It is possible to be proactive in a nice way, and that is what HR should be aiming for. We can understand this better if we remember how we hope investigations to end: with reconciliation not punishment.

The investigations process

The investigations process has many elements but the keys things to put in place are:

  • A clear mandate

  • A transparent process

  • Excellent documentation

  • A supportive approach so that everyone feels listened to, appreciated, and treated fairly

Investigations are often handled by employee relations and it’s also common to involve a consultant.

The two key ingredients to successfully use investigations

If the organization makes effective use of investigations it will boost feelings of inclusion. For it to be effective there need to be two things.

The first is a professionally planned and executed process. You need to have a good investigation process in place and you need skilled people to do the investigation. It’s a sensitive activity, it can easily go wrong, you need to take it seriously.

The second is that the rules around what behaviour is inappropriate need to be clear and the outcome of a case needs to be judged by people who represent the middle-of-the-road norms of the organization. Let me be frank here, political opinions on diversity matters are highly polarized. You do not want a passionate conservative or a passionate progressive leading the process or judging an employee. You want people who sit in the middle of the political spectrum of your organization.

Let’s not call it an investigation

We are a bit stuck in that we want proactive, professional investigations to keep everyone on track. At the same time, we don’t want something that feels like a police state. Imagine telling the press that your organization currently has dozens of employees “under investigation”. We need to get away from the word “investigation” with all it’s negative connotations.

I’d love to hear advice on good terms to use. For what it’s worth I’m inclined to call it a “Needs analysis”. The implication of this phrase is that a concern has been raised and we’re going to go and figure out what needs to be done. You might call it a “Culture needs analysis” if you want to be a bit more specific. The mechanics remain the same, and yes, people who repeatedly engage in inappropriate behaviour will be let go. We just want to frame the whole thing as solution-oriented not punishment-oriented or we may end up with our culture needs analysis doing more harm than good.

Note: Special thanks to Dr. Joanna Sosnowska of the University of Amsterdam and Pauline James of Anchor-HR for collaborating with me on a D&I program for AIHR.


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