The recent spate of high-profile sexual harassment cases and the rise of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements have many HR leaders re-examining their investigation procedures. Some are turning to new cloud-based technologies and apps to help examine harassment or retaliation complaints and policy violations.
Some of these new technologies also are doubling as employee engagement tools by giving employees a more user-friendly outlet for contacting HR or management, not only about negative events, but to offer ideas for improvement and feedback about positive happenings in the organization.
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One such platform is InvestiPro, which is designed to automate and simplify investigations while making them more legally defensible. The platform helps HR leaders better plan for workplace investigations, provides a list of core interview questions to ask to avoid bias and offers a standardized methodology for conducting investigations.
Companies often skip the planning phase of an investigation because they don't feel it's necessary, said Dana Barbato, founder and CEO of InvestiPro in Bend, Ore. But the lack of a formalized plan can be a red flag for regulatory bodies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or state agencies.
Regulators want to see evidence of a predetermined investigative path, including a list of employees to be interviewed, documents to be reviewed and a summary of what's known about the investigation to date, said Aaron Crews, an attorney and chief data analytics officer with Littler in Sacramento, Calif.
"It gives [the regulator] the ability to see what you were thinking at the beginning of the investigation," Crews said. After receiving a notification letter from the EEOC or a state agency that a claim as been lodged, companies can respond before the regulatory body proceeds with the claim. "You have a period of time to provide the agency with information showing you've lived up to your responsibility as an employer [by conducting] a proper investigation," Barbato said.
If satisfied that a diligent investigation has been conducted, the enforcement agency might then drop the claim, Crews said, although that decision depends on the nature of the claim and the agency. "Anytime you can be proactive in that transaction you are generally better off," he said. InvestiPro also provides templates of notices for the employer to distribute to participants in an investigation, as well as a set of interview questions screened to ensure those queries aren't discriminatory or insinuate a presumption of guilt, Barbato said.
Those preformed questions should only supplement queries tailored to address the specifics of investigations, Crews said. "Much like during a deposition, you need questions that are elastic enough to follow a witness down any rabbit holes that may surface in the course of an interview or testimony."
One organization using InvestiPro is a large grocery chain based in California. The company's director of employee relations said the platform adds new consistency and legal defensibility to what had formerly been an inefficient process.
"In the past we might have been working with 30 back-and-forth e-mails or maybe someone's handwritten notes during an internal investigation, but the technology pulls it all together in a more organized and legally defensible way," said the director, who preferred to stay anonymous. "It forces you to be more thoughtful about your investigation up front, and should someone need to review your investigative process, it's set up to allow them to do so easily and efficiently."
InvestiPro claims to reduce time spent on most investigations by 35 percent to 40 percent while providing improved protection from liability. The platform is designed for companies that have 50 to 20,000 employees, Barbato said, with annual pricing based on the number of employees in an organization.
App Facilitates Employee-to-Employer Communication
A new app called kendr makes it easier for employees to communicate with their employers about workplace issues. Created by labor defense attorney Beth Schroeder of Raines Feldman LLP in Los Angeles and company co-founder Jeremy Light, the app allows workers to contact HR or management anonymously from their smartphones to report policy violations, harassment or other issues. The app also encourages workers to make suggestions or report positive workplace developments.
While participating in depositions over the years, Schroeder grew frustrated with repeatedly hearing employees say they didn't know how to reach HR, had lost their handbooks or didn't remember hotline numbers. "We decided to create a communication tool for the one thing most workers always have accessible: their phones," Schroeder said. "We didn't develop it specifically as a sexual harassment reporting app but rather as a communication conduit."
Employees can use the app for three purposes: to make a suggestion, to pose a question or to ask for help. They can opt to stay anonymous or have their identity or work location revealed at any point in the communication process. Employees are provided a list of HR contacts or managers to send messages to, with the option to attach photos or videos if desired. HR is notified by a real-time alert system each time a message arrives.
While such apps can improve employee-to-employer communications, Crews reminded employers to follow through on reports.
"Any new technology rollout like this needs to be adequately supported from a people and process standpoint," he said. "You need to ensure employee comments coming through are regularly monitored in real time and addressed. Having issues reported through a channel like this but then not doing something about them can be the worst of all worlds."
If an employee chooses to remain anonymous but identify their work location, the employer can still send a message to the location to gather more information on the situation, Light said. "It's much harder to message back and forth with an 800 number to gather data, so by using the app you can ask questions and dig deeper into a situation to address any issues early and keep things from escalating," he said.
Britni Falter, a human resources manager with Wood Ranch restaurant chain based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., has been using kendr with her workforce. "The convenience of having an app on smartphones has allowed more of our team members to communicate with HR or management," Falter said. "It's akin to instant messaging the HR department and gives us the ability to deal with any significant grievances in real time."
The app also is helpful from a legal perspective, Falter said, because all the communications stored on it can be easily exported and sent to an attorney if needed. Restaurant employees also have used the app to send suggestions and deliver positive feedback, she said.
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.