As more and more people are coming forward with claims of sexual harassment in the workplace, employers have rightly focused on making internal investigations thorough and effective. But the work doesn’t end when the investigation is wrapped up. In fact, it may be just beginning, according to an attorney and a human resources expert who urge employers to dig deep into any lingering issues that may harm the work environment.
It’s not enough to just determine what, if any, harassment has taken place and who’s responsible, since technical violations or nonviolations of an employer’s antiharassment policy don’t tell the whole story, attorney Mary L. Topliff and HR consultant Marianne Jones say. The two conducted a Business and Legal Resources webinar in 2012 titled “After the Investigation: HR’s Action Plan for Workforce Recovery and Refocus” that teaches lessons for today’s employers who find themselves working to undo damage left in the wake of allegations and investigations.
An employer can see its goal of increasing diversity derailed if employees believe women and minorities are held back and mistreated because the employer tolerates harassers. That’s why conducting effective investigations of complaints—and then going deeper—is necessary.
Dangers of tolerating “jerks”
Topliff tells of the problems created when employers are perceived to be looking for reasons to exonerate an employee they want to keep without fully addressing the behavior. For example, in cases of a bullying supervisor, an investigation may show the accused didn’t violate the employer’s antiharassment policy, but a problem exists nonetheless.
“There’s no law that says you can’t be a jerk, or you can’t be a bully for that matter,” Topliff says, but investigators should take a broader view than merely determining if a technical harassment policy violation has occurred. “Their conclusion may be that the harassment policy wasn’t violated, but it’s entirely possible that some other standards of conduct were violated,” she says.
Tolerating a bully or “jerk” creates bad evidence for the employer even if it doesn’t result in a harassment claim, since it can become relevant in future claims in terms of the culture of the company, Topliff says.
“One of the big liability risks out there is just not doing enough to prevent the next occurrence,” Topliff says.
Even when an investigation results in a harasser, bully, or jerk being fired, organizations can still suffer survivor issues, Topliff says. “The survivor folks can still be really damaged by what’s already happened and fearing the unknown, like what’s the next person going to be?”
Jones points out that employees recognize when an employer’s actions to remedy the problem are superficial. Any inadequate response can bring about decreased productivity as well as a sense of growing cynicism about the employer’s leadership.
How employees see the employer dealing with the root cause of an issue “makes a big difference in how quickly the organization is able to respond and move forward,” she says.
Therefore, HR needs to focus on the aftermath of an employer’s investigation of and response to allegations of harassment or other wrongdoing. “It’s about creating clarity,” Jones says. How HR’s responds to allegations influences whether employees feel they can go to HR with issues that are highly personal and highly emotional. So HR really has “to show up for these things,” Jones says. The fix isn’t just up to HR, though. Building trust and a healthy culture calls for collaboration with top management and building relationships throughout the organization, she says.
Assessment of the aftermath
Topliff and Jones urge employers to conduct an assessment of the process of investigating and remediating accusations. Such an assessment can reveal the root causes of problems and make them less likely to reoccur. An aftermath action plan exists on three levels, Jones says.
- Remediation. The employer needs to decide what to do right away to correct bad behavior. Some companies want to stop there, Jones says.
- Mitigation. This level involves deciding what needs to be done beyond corrective action, how to put precautionary measures in place.
- Restoration. This involves exploring what needs to be done to get back on track to being a healthy organization. HR along with other departments need to collaborate and plan how to go from the current reality to where the employer needs to be.