Why conduct a workplace investigation?

When you start a business, there isn’t really a playbook that explains how to implement the human resources function or how to mitigate risk to your business. Most often than not, it is trial by fire. Sometimes we will see a business wait until they have about 75 employees before they introduce human resources practices to their company. Other times, it might be during a firestorm where they are facing litigation stemming from a termination. A common myth seems to be that the human resources function is not required in a business until it grows beyond at least 50 employees. While a small business may not require a full-time HR professional immediately, there are certainly several HR practices that can be implemented to mitigate risk for a small business.

In today’s blog, we will discuss the importance of conducting workplace investigations when you are presented with a claim of harassment.

Why conduct a workplace investigation?

When you receive a harassment complaint, it is sometimes easy to fall into the trap of believing one side over another, taking action based off your gut feeling, and calling it a day. The risk of not conducting a formal workplace investigation is an employee filing a lawsuit or human rights complaint because their complaint wasn’t taken seriously (or if they are terminated because of a perceived frivolous complaint). If you want to look at the consequences of not properly conducting a workplace investigation, see Boucher v. Walmart Canada from Ontario. Walmart was sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars because they did not follow their own anti-bullying policy and conduct a proper investigation.

It is implied in any employment relationship that employee’s must be dealt with fairly, with respect and dignity. Therefore, conducting a thorough and objective workplace investigation will ensure your company adheres to the requirements of an employment relationship. Your management team will also build credibility with your workforce if you are seen as taking their complaints seriously and ensuring an impartial investigation is undertaken regardless of personal relationships.

You have four important responsibilities when it comes to dealing with harassment issues.

1.    Risk Mitigation – Harassment complaints expose the business to significant risk. As a business owner or senior manager, it is your responsibility to mitigate risk by implementing procedures, such as investigations, that will objectively deal with harassment complaints.

2.    Gather Facts – It is crucial to find out all the facts during an investigation, and not make decisions based on hearsay. This means interviewing all parties, including witnesses, to determine what happened.

3.    Due Diligence – You’ll need to take reasonable steps to satisfy your legal requirements. In a human rights tribunal hearing or in a court of law, the first item discussed is likely to be the investigation. Remember, it is a legal responsibility for any employer to provide a safe workplace for their employees.

4.    Consistency – You want to be seen as consistent in the eyes of your employee’s. You lose credibility when you show favoritism or turn a blind eye to the actions of your preferred employees.

Ensuring there is an objective and credible workplace investigation can make all the difference in your workplace. Good senior leadership will walk the talk of their Anti-Harassment Policy and ensure that no matter who is the Complainant or Respondent, the parties are subject to the same level of objectivity and fairness. Your employees will likely be more engaged because they have a higher level of trust with you as the employer. When a lawsuit or a human rights complaint is filed, it is typically because the employee perceives there is a bias against them, or their complaint wasn’t taken seriously.

Keep an eye out for our blog each week, where we discuss important human resources topics for your small business.