Be strategic about your workplace restoration

Disruptive events can have a significant ripple effect across organizations.

In some cases, such as an incident and/or complaint of workplace harassment, your HR team is legally obliged to launch an appropriate investigation based on the circumstances.   

That’s why it’s so important to prevent an investigation process from turning your workplace culture toxic. The reason is that we often see accusations of harassment, whether involving two co-workers or a leader, inflicting significant cross-cultural damage, while causing a long-term erosion of workplace morale. The disruptive results can be devastating, leading to additional conflicts, turnover among talented employees and a steady decline in team productivity.

That can open the door to a protracted process that typically involves interviews with multiple staff members in addition to the parties directly involved in the incident, carefully documenting all relevant information and communicating it to the relevant parties, then giving the accused the opportunity to respond to the allegations lodged against them. Along the way, employees often experience added stress, see cross-organizational relationships crumble, while feeling anxiety, a sense of vulnerability, shame and/or devastation.

When an investigation drags on, an inevitable question echoes across workplaces: ‘When will it all end?’

On the leadership front, employers often assume that the most important part of a workplace investigation is deciding whether a complaint of harassment or discrimination is valid and, if so, what corrective action needs to be taken. While investigations serve the purpose of rooting out harassment, they are also extremely disruptive and often can serve to intensify conflicts in the workplace.

Protracted investigations—especially those that are improperly managed—nearly always result in lost productivity and decreased employee performance. Not surprisingly, it’s common for gossip and rumours to flourish as investigations progress. Fueling that mill is the fact that confidentiality requirements typically limit an employer and investigation participant’s ability to communicate about the allegations and the investigation process. In the absence of information, speculation takes hold and, right or wrong, individuals may start filling in the information gaps themselves.

Employees may go on the defensive when questioned by management or HR as part of the investigation process, not to mention losing confidence in their managers’ ability and credibility to lead. Teams can quickly destabilize as loyalties become divided and employees take sides—some supporting the complainant, others the respondent. When it’s a leader’s behaviour that’s in question, that individual will likely be removed from the workplace pending the outcome of the investigation. This only adds to the sense of instability—no one likes serving on a rudderless ship, after all.

If the leader is not removed from workplace, the complainant and respondent may have to continue working together during the process. And depending on the finding, they may be expected to continue working together.

We’ve seen numerous examples where employees in challenging situations act out either on social media or at the proverbial water cooler, undermining their manager and even using subtle tactics to retaliate against investigation participants. Another potential impact to the team is a leader feeling that their authority is being undermined. They might also feel threatened and try to curry favour with the team, which can create awkwardness. All told, difficult workplace investigations can result in dramatic increases to employee turnover and absenteeism, not to mention having a deleterious impact on staff engagement.

When the investigation is complete and the dust settles, leadership and HR’s work isn’t done. At that point it’s incumbent on managers to implement a comprehensive workplace restoration process to repair the damage. It starts with these five steps:

Develop a communications plan—Once an investigation commences, you’ll need to outline confidentiality requirements to employees directly involved in the inquiry. At the same time, be sure to deliver a communique to the rest of your team detailing the fact that the investigation is underway.  It’s important to discourage rumour-mongering to the best of your abilities. It is helpful to reference your harassment policy, where it states that an investigation is not a predetermination of guilt. Make sure your leaders are available to answer questions and keep them visible throughout the process. Just because managers aren’t permitted to discuss the details of an investigation doesn’t mean they should hide in their offices.  

Focus on team wellness—Deploy your Employee Assistance Program immediately to help manage the psychological impact on your staff. Small teams are like families, and if there is widespread organizational disruption (especially if a senior manager is the accused), employees may require added assistance during and after the process.

Revise your leadership strategy—When a manager is the subject of an investigation and potentially on administrative leave, it may be necessary to bring in other managers to lead that team, at least in the short term.  If the boss remains on the job, make sure they aren’t overly distracted by the allegations levelled against them, particularly if decisions are required that may bring their objectivity into question, such as conducting employee performance reviews.

Monitor team performance—It’s important to continually assess an affected team’s performance, monitoring for the potential escalation of conflict, harassment or violence, and to address that behaviour quickly and appropriately. If the investigation is complex and lengthy, schedule team update meetings to keep rumours and gossiping in check and implement additional performance monitoring to quantify the impact on key metrics such as employee productivity.

Take restorative action—Just because you declare an investigation complete doesn’t mean your team won’t have additional questions. All too often, many employers feel that it is ‘back to business as usual’ after an investigation, especially if there are no findings. That’s rarely the case.

Restorative actions should be specific to the observations made during the process. At a minimum, be ready to provide training to restore performance expectations and a sense of respect and dignity in the workplace. Also, prepare communications that lay out the findings and a resolution, then be prepared to facilitate a discussion with the team to help them understand what’s transpired—while maintaining confidentiality and preserving the privacy of all participants as you work to reset workplace expectations. Reiterate your key employee policies, but always focus on the culture you want to create or restore and keep the discussion forward-looking.  

Most importantly, take the time to properly deploy a customized workplace restoration effort that addresses your organization’s culture and distinct needs. This is not a one-size-fits-all process, nor is it one that should be rushed or compressed. Restoring a broken workplace usually takes months, not weeks. Taking the time to do it right could set your organization on the path to renewed success.