Lessons Learned from 30 Years of Leading Workplace Investigations

He said, she said … now here’s what I say

By Janet Garber July 11, 2017
Lessons Learned from 30 Years of Leading Workplace Investigations

Looking back on my 30-year career in HR, which spanned five industries in the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds (wine and spirits importing, manufacturing, mortgage banking, academic health care and continuing legal education), my first thought is I made it! At times, I thrived; at others, I survived. But what a ride! Even at the lowest moments in my career, I was grateful for the wonderful friendships I made in the office that have continued well past closing time and into the present day. The high points where I could sit back and admire my handiwork—turning chaos into order, bringing creative ideas to the workplace, or helping foster a positive and life-affirming environment—were like cruising on Lake Como in July.

One aspect of my responsibilities was both a high and low spot: workplace investigations. How I dreaded them! Recently, I sat in on a session at the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition led by attorney Karen Michael—whose Richmond, Va.-based Karen Michael Consulting offers employment law and training consulting—to  find out what I had done right or wrong. It's never too late to learn. First, I polled fellow attendees on their motives for selecting this session.

"Why are you here?" I asked. "What do you hope to learn?" Rupal Sadberry, an HR manager for Alphatron Marine in Houston, was most interested in learning how to empower people.

Another HR manager a few rows back, Lucy Wert, told me she works for Circassia, a pharmaceutical firm based in Chicago. Circassia has been doubling in size every year for the last three and now employs 300 workers. Wert knows that mismanagement can be detrimental to the health of a company and wants to establish best practices for HR.

Chelsea Daley, HR manager, works for the University of Wisconsin in Madison, which has a workforce of 3,000. Every year, the university faces a few major grievances that require serious attention. How, she wondered, can she learn to ask the right questions and investigate conflicting statements? Daley informed me that she is one of four HR staffers handling complaints.

Finally, Mike Paschoal, an HR business partner for In-N-Out Burger in Irvine, Calif., said he aims to preserve the good reputation his company has earned. His responsibility is to counsel store managers over the phone. Since the employee population ranges from ages 16 to 21, often interventions are required. His challenge: to guide the onsite managers to take appropriate action while never personally meeting any of the principals.

HR's Prime Directive

We scurried to our seats as Michael began the session. Talking about investigations is never boring. Michael punctuated her talk with colorful and sometimes titillating anecdotes based on cases she had handled.

What is HR's prime directive? Get at the truth, she said. Avoid lawsuits. Conduct a reasonable and good-faith investigation without giving in to pressure from outside parties. Come up with a reasoned conclusion based on evidence and supported by investigation. Make sure your recommendations are followed.

To minimize the occurrence of grievances, she counseled us to establish standards of conduct and an effective complaint procedure, conduct training, ensure a no-retaliation practice, and react quickly. Equally important is to establish a game plan to analyze the information we have, what we need and how to get it. Resolving a grievance in 30 days is a good benchmark to aim for.

I have handled scores of complaints, Step 1 grievances from unions, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Human Rights Commission hearings spanning the spectrum from disagreements over what the temperature should be in the office to allegations of serious misconduct, sexual and racial discrimination, and harassment. In most cases, I would conduct the investigation, write up my decision and then run it by our in-house attorney before delivering it to the complainant. Smooth sailing, right?

In retrospect, it was the closest I ever came to playing a lawyer—not the only time HR practitioners are called upon to do so. I found my role as investigator to be exhilarating, as the quest for truth usually is, but also stressful and even scary. Michael did not allude to the situation most of us find ourselves in: how to juggle an investigation and keep to its tight deadlines when other pressing duties call. I was the only one in HR tasked with employee relations. I had no choice but to temporarily neglect recruitment, training and day-to-day employee relations issues. I did not want to make a mistake or rush to judgment. People's livelihoods and reputations were at stake.

I listened attentively to the speaker. Some of her advice came decades too late. "You can't put the genie back in the bottle," she said. But oh, how I tried, especially with regard to keeping the investigation confidential, revealing details only on a need-to-know basis, and impressing complainants and witnesses with the necessity of keeping mum while I conducted my research and drew my conclusions. People will talk, she insisted, and HR cannot avoid some degree of leakage.

"You don't have to jump down every rabbit hole," she continued. Now you tell me! I flashed on the time I interviewed more than 20 employees in the plastic surgery department concerning a sexual harassment claim that was—you guessed it!—a "he said/she said" situation with no corroborating witnesses. I was determined to entertain all possibilities and satisfy due diligence even if it took me an inordinate amount of time to do so.

Slapped Across the Face

Michael also reminded us that once a complaint is brought to HR, HR cannot, in most cases, ignore it. That bit of advice prompted another memory. On a particularly upsetting day, a sobbing administrative secretary showed up in my senior recruiter's office with a large red handprint on her left cheek. My recruiter buzzed me to come to her office. By the time I arrived, the woman was crouched down in a corner of the room, shaking and hardly able to speak. The story she told us, which she later retracted, was this: Her boss, an esteemed doctor, head of his department, had slapped her across the face!

Motives were murky, but my recruiter and I started to get the impression that this woman and her boss and his wife were on very friendly terms outside the hospital. Very friendly. We sent the woman to the employee assistance program for immediate emotional support. What happened next was not in our HR playbook. When I attempted to investigate, the supposed victim not only withdrew her complaint but vilified HR, blaming us for her predicament. "They made me file a complaint," she maintained angrily.

"Yes," I agreed. "And we manufactured the imprint of a hand on her cheek, too!" The outcome was unsettling. She resigned with what I strongly suspected was a considerable under-the-desk payoff. She left, content; the doctor was off the hook; and I was not happy.

Yet in hindsight, now that I am retired, I must admit that workplace investigations were stimulating tasks that called upon me to be the best I could be. Concerned with ethics, fair play and the truth, as all of us HR folks are, I realized I was in a position to make a difference by fighting the good fight. And so I did.

In a perfect world, HR would have all the time it needed to devote to this task; in reality, we are usually being pulled in a multitude of directions. Perhaps one day someone will address the issue of providing emotional support to multi-tasking HR managers. In my case at one particularly harrowing job, I turned to yoga, the gym, therapy, healthful eating and friends to center myself, all to little avail. What I needed was more staff to handle the workload. Denied. Eventually, I transitioned to a different industry with a workforce of 150 rather than 3,000, and I made sure from the very first interview that the president and I agreed on the crucial need for adequate staffing in HR.

We've all heard the line "I'm not a doctor; I just play one on TV." Well, I am not an HR investigator any longer; I just play one on the phone with my friends. My experiences have made me the go-to person for insights into any and all workplace "situations." Glad to oblige!

Janet Garber, a SHRM member for 30 years and now retired, lives in Northern Westchester, N.Y. Visit www.janetgarber.com.

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