If you haven’t checked lately, the HR department has gotten a whole lot busier in managing employee relations’ issues and complaints. Since the #MeToo movement we’ve seen a significant increase in organizations investing in training for their HR teams on how to properly conduct investigations.
Why? Simple: risk management.
Without HR having the right competencies in how to handle complaint intake, document conversations with witnesses, plan an investigative strategy and actually conduct an effective investigation...well, the result is greater risk exposure for the organization. The risk exposure is the form of EEOC charges, which could cost the organization financially as well as get a “black eye” so-to-speak in cyberspace. These days when a company makes headlines because one of its managers was harassing someone or there is publicity around litigation involving harassment…people take to posting on social media a bit like wildfire to comment about it. And, the comments are generally not kind… So, organizations take a hit to their reputations as well as sometimes taking a financial hit in settlements and related litigation costs.
One big problem that we see when we read about legal cases and when we are brought in as consultants to help an organization is simply the lack of “how-to” skills. In the HR investigations classes that we teach, we focus heavily on the “how-to” skills and we dig in with practical interactive exercises to strengthen skills and we do mock investigations too. What we find is that, yes, most HR professionals are pretty knowledgeable about compliance. However, I can tell you first hand that a lot of them are not knowledgeable regarding an effective investigations process for handling an employee’s complaint of harassment, discrimination, or even retaliation.
Another key problem that we see, especially in smaller organizations, is that HR professionals are often placed into HR without the proper development. Usually, they are promoted up through the ranks from accounting or administrative roles. And, without that proper development they generally lack a lot of knowledge regarding legal compliance and are often completely in the dark about even when an internal investigation is necessary–let alone knowing how to do one. So, unfortunately these individuals have been set up to fail. When an employee complaint comes in to HR, this professional (who just got thrown into HR) is just simply expected to “know” how to handle that employee’s complaint and properly investigate it. It is no different than promoting a young supervisor from within, into a management role, without providing the proper development.
Training in how to conduct HR investigations is something that every HR and Employee Relations professional needs to know. And, in my book How to Keep HR From Being the Employee Complaint Department, I also talk about the issue of HR actually investigating too much and for the wrong kinds of issues. What I mean is that without the proper education and training, I find that HR professionals are launching investigations into simply departmental concerns and not really legitimate complaints. In other words, “making a mountain out of a molehill” by launching a formal investigation into simply minor issues that could better be resolved through a bit of coaching, guidance, and mentorship. The reality is that when HR gets involved in employee drama, petty squabbles, departmental scheduling, and balance of workload issues, it can also create a great deal of animosity with managers. The managers may see HR as stepping on their turf and undermining their departmental authority.
In summary, if you are an HR or Employee Relations’ professional, you need to get the proper “how-to” skills in an effective investigations training program. You need training on how to handle complaint intake, how to document complaints, how to interview witnesses, how to collect evidence, how to assess remedial action steps that need to be taken, and how to write an investigation report, just to name a few. The process of conducting an effective investigation is one that takes some time to learn. And, it also requires knowing how to work efficiently, such as using a good case management solution for documentation of an investigation. The goal should be in acquiring the skills necessary to do a prompt, thorough investigation and be able to come to a well-reasoned conclusion about the case. And be able to present an investigation report that your legal counsel will be delighted to read, because it was so well done. We hear from attorneys all the time and many have “vented” to us about how poorly conducted an investigation was…how the investigator was biased from the beginning…how the HR rep didn’t even call them until the case got really complicated…how the company is going to have to settle a case because it is a losing proposition if they go to court, and I could go on here.
To learn more about how to conduct HR investigations, please check out the various programs that we offer on our HR investigations page. For individuals who are looking for training for just 1 person, we teach classes publicly that are offered through our continuing education provider, at locations throughout the U.S. So, for individual training, please go to our Events page to see Upcoming Events that we have scheduled through December 2020.
Until next time…
Natalie Ivey, MBA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
President & CEO
Results Performance Consulting