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workplace investigation

On May 23, 2003, John Ponsi, a teacher at Cliffside Park High School, was unexpectedly called into the principal’s office for a meeting with two students, who accused him of making racial and lewd remarks earlier that week. Another teacher at the same meeting accused Ponsi of pushing her. Four days later, the Board of Education notified Ponsi that he was suspended with pay, pending the outcome of an investigation and psychological examination.

However, no investigation was conducted. Ponsi was referred to a psychiatrist by his physician due to the depression and anxiety resulting from the accusations and suspension. In September 2003, Ponsi was also evaluated by Dr. Meyerhoff, a psychiatrist appointed by the school board, who concluded that Ponsi was unable to teach for the foreseeable future. As a result of that examination, the Board notified Ponsi that he was ineligible to teach until he provided proof of recovery and that, if his absence exceeded two years, his employment would be terminated.

On January 31, 2005, Ponsi’s psychiatrist notified the school in writing that he was ready and able to return to teaching. Not convinced, the Board sent Ponsi back to Dr. Meyerhoff, their psychiatrist, who concluded that, while his mood disorder had abated, he was unfit to return to work because he showed no repentance or remorse over the alleged lewd and racial remarks, or the pushing incident. In essence, the Board’s psychiatrist accepted all the allegations against Mr. Ponsi as true (even though no investigation had been conducted) and, in fact, interpreted Mr. Ponsi’s assertion to the contrary as evidence of paranoid delusions. Concerned, the Board decided not to reinstate Mr. Ponsi.

Why Should I Believe You if You’re “Crazy?”

The true story cited above illustrates one of the challenges (and potential pitfalls) employers face when investigating psychiatric disability discrimination claims. All too often, the stigma of a mental illness clouds how that person is perceived, not only by managers who don’t understand psychiatric disorders but professionals who should know better. In other words, the complaint process itself becomes tainted by the underlying assumption that the complainant, because of his or her mental state, isn’t able to see reality clearly and is thus distorting what happened or misinterpreting the evidence.

Just Go See the Shrink and Get Yourself Straightened Out

Employers can also fall prey to the assumption that a trip to the psychiatrist’s office is all that is needed to get the complainant to see the light. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with offering up an employer’s EAP to a complainant who is dealing with the inevitable stress that filing a complaint generates. The devil, however, is in the details. Employers need to be clear that their recommendations or suggestions about psychiatric treatment aren’t interpreted as a thinly disguised version of blame-the-potential-victim.

They also need to be sure that the questions they ask in their investigation don’t cross the line into sensitive medical information or stray into unwarranted territory. Asking coworkers if they’ve ever felt that Bipolar Employee X was dangerous is understandable if you’re investigating alleged threats made by this employees; it’s completely inappropriate if you’re investigating complaints of cruel comments or teasing made to this employee.

The Bottom Line

Investigating psychiatric disability harassment or discrimination claims can be especially challenging, although not necessarily for the reason many of us assume they would be. Yes, some employees with psychiatric disabilities can be difficult complainants, but so can employees without a mental illness. In fact, in my experience, it’s the stigma and fear surrounding mental illness that gets in the way of a fair and objective investigation much more often than an irrational or “crazy” complainant.

However, employers must make sure that we are basing our employment decisions on the facts rather than beliefs and opinions, even when those beliefs and/or opinions come from mental health professionals. Employers who substitute professional opinions for investigations do so at their own peril. When you do need professional input, make sure you provide them with accurate and objective information is being provided.

I spent the first two years of my professional life working with people who initially saw me as the devil. These were mothers and fathers who had been ordered by the courts to either come see me or face losing permanent custody of their child, who was already in foster care due to allegations of abuse or neglect. My job as a clinical psychologist was to see whether or not the family was salvageable and, if so, to see if I could help put it back together.

Workplace investigations aren’t as adversarial as the court system but they do have some things in common – high stakes, multiple perspectives, and – sometimes –a strong motivation to lie. Two things I’ve learned from working with people under difficult circumstances – 1) people don’t talk to someone they don’t trust, and 2) even under the direst circumstances, most people will respond to genuine attempts to understand them. That being said, here are some of the strategies that help me establish rapport when I’m conducting an independent investigation:

  1. Acknowledge the emotions each person is feeling. Each person involved in an investigation has feelings about his or her involvement; the complainant may feel humiliated or scared, the respondent defensive or guilty, and witnesses may be confused or annoyed. Clues to these feelings are found in the way s/he tells his or her story; to ignore them is to ignore the elephant in the room. Acknowledging the emotional tone as well as the content of what someone is saying lets them know you’re trying to see things from his/her perspective – regardless of whether or not you agree with it.
  2. Establish your right to be there. You aren’t the only one with questions. At the top of the interviewee’s list is, “Why should I trust you?” Tell your interviewee why you have the right to be there based on your experience, expertise and empathy. I typically tell interviewees a little bit about my background as a private investigator and psychologist, specifically focusing on my experience as an unbiased, neutral party. If I’ve done work for the company before, I make sure s/he knows (without, of course, revealing specifics). If the HR person has a good rapport with the interviewee, I might have him or her introduce us. During the interview, I look for shared experiences that might help us connect, whether it’s the tough traffic we both experienced driving to work or a common educational experience. In other words, I do whatever I can to let the person know s/he is in good hands.
  3. Show an interest in the person, not just the process. After the introduction, I typically start an interview by asking general questions about the person’s day to day job functions or history with the company. If the interviewee has a difficult or unusual name, I ask him or her how to spell it. Yes, I already know the answers to these questions; I’ve already reviewed personnel files. However, the purpose of these questions is not to get answers; it’s to let him or her know I’m interested in him or her as a person, not just in relation to the specifics of the complaint.
  4. Remove physical barriers. There are countless psychological studies that show the unconscious impact physical barriers can have on our ability to connect with another person. Take them out of the equation; don’t sit behind a desk and choose a seat that is facing in the same direction as your interviewee. Similarly, think long and hard before putting objects between you and the interviewee; tape recorders often inhibit a person’s willingness to speak freely. This is one of the reasons I prefer to take notes instead.
  5. Forget mirroring. I always bristle when I read advice like, “Mimic the other person’s body posture and gestures.” It sounds so manipulative. Also, can we really be listening to the other person if we’re preoccupied with wondering whether enough time has lapsed before we can cross our right leg over our left just like our interviewee has just done? Trust me; if you’re really paying attention, your body will automatically communicate this – you’ll look the interviewee in the eye, you’ll lean forward slightly when the other person is talking, etc.

The Bottom Line

Interviews are the most important part of a workplace investigation and the ability to establish rapport one of the most critical skills. Establish rapport by easing into the interview, acknowledging the emotions as well as the content of what the interviewee is saying. Let him or her know why you have the right to be there and why he or she can trust you to be fair and objective. Make connecting with your interviewee just as important as getting “the truth;” after all, without the former, you won’t get to the latter. No one confides in someone s/he dislikes.

 

Workplace investigations are tough enough without the office grapevine gossiping about who did what to whom. As such, it’s standard practice to ask anyone who participates in an investigation to keep their mouths closed about what is discussed behind the closed doors. A new ruling from the National Labor Relations (NLRB), however, suggests that a blanket “keep your mouth shut” mandate may be improper.

The Case behind the Concern

Like many investigators, the HR director for Banner Heath Systems asked workers involved in an in-house investigation to not talk about the investigation with their co-workers. However, James, one of the employees involved objected that this request violated the rights of employees to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment with their coworkers. The National Labor Relations Board sided with James, saying that blanket requests for confidentiality during an investigation are overly broad and might have a chilling effect on appropriate – and legally protected – communications.

So what’s an Investigator to do?

This is a new ruling (July 30, 2012) and time will tell what this means from a practical standpoint. However, the NLRB’s ruling does offer some guidance. First of all, investigators can still ask witnesses to keep quiet as long as they have a legitimate business interest in making the request. This business interest must extend beyond the usual “we’re trying to protect the integrity of the investigation” reasoning.

So what business interest is legitimate? It is one that arises from that particular investigation. Perhaps, for example, the facts you’ve uncovered so far suggest that the accused might try to intimidate witnesses if s/he learns they will be talking to an investigator. Perhaps you haven’t had a chance to retrieve some valuable evidence and are concerned that, if the investigation leaks out, it might be destroyed before you have a chance to do so. Or perhaps you have reason to believe (again, based on what you’ve uncovered) that a group of witnesses might get together and “get their stories straight” before you have a chance to interview them individually.

In addition, when you do feel requests for privacy are warranted, limit the scope as much as possible. For instance, ask that the witnesses not discuss the investigation as long as it’s active or during work hours or on company property.

The Bottom Line

In every investigation, investigators walk a tightrope, trying to balance a number of competing interests. This recent ruling extends those competing interests to include the need to maintain confidentiality and employees’ rights to discuss the conditions of their employment. For now, the best solution during an investigation is to avoid blanket requests for privacy, articulate valid reasons for privacy requests when they occur, and make sure your requests are as limited as possible.

 

Consider the following three scenarios:

Your manager finally sits down with Employee A to discuss her lack of clothing in the workplace. Instead of the satisfactory resolution you envision, she responds by complaining of sexually harassing comments by several of her coworkers. This is the first anyone has heard of it, in spite of the fact that you recently conducted a series of informal employee satisfaction interviews in which you specifically asked members of her team about inappropriate conduct.

Employee B’s hours were recently reduced because he refused to be cross-trained for another position to fill his time. He also has several reprimands in his file and, according to his manager, he was just told he was in danger of losing his position altogether. Today you receive a certified letter accusing several employees of sexual harassment.

Employee C was promoted to manager a year ago because of her outstanding work ethic and amazing technical skills. However, it has become increasingly obvious that her interpersonal skills are getting in the way of her ability to lead. According to her manager (who has come to you in desperation for help), he has bent over backwards trying to get her to soften her feedback to her direct reports and spent excessive time mediating between this manager and managers she is supposed to coordinate with in other departments. When you meet with this employee, she is initially defensive about her manager’s concerns. Then, out of the blue, she tells you that she believes her manager is retaliating against her because she has turned down his requests for dates.

Timing Matters

You have a very clear sexual harassment policy in place. You’ve trained your managers (and, hopefully, your employees) on what is unacceptable conduct in the workplace. You’ve encouraged them to come forward with any concerns. So, when mum’s the word until an employee’s back is up against the wall, it can be very hard to view a sexual harassment complaint with an open mind.

However, some investigators automatically assume that a complainant’s prior poor work performance or poor credibility on other issues is enough to support their decision that the complainant is lying. This is a big mistake. Even poor performers can be harassed, and there are a myriad of reasons – legitimate and otherwise – why a sexual harassment victim might wait until her job is in jeopardy before filing a formal complaint.

But Not as Much as the Facts

Much more relevant is the credibility of the complainant as revealed by the facts of the specific complaint. For example; a complainant tells you her deteriorating work performance is due to the sexual harassment she has suffered over the past several months and names several coworkers whom she has allegedly talked to during this time. Yet, when you interview them, you discover a) that the focus of these conversations centered around her pending divorce, b) at no point did she mention inappropriate sexual conduct and c) her difficulties with the allegedly harassing manager seemed to be due to his refusal to transfer her to a job site closer to her home.

On the flip side is the manager who denies ever engaging in inappropriate conduct in spite of the evidence against him. What comes to mind is the investigation I recently completed during which an employee accused her manager of inappropriate touching, a claim which the manager staunchly denied. There were no witnesses, the manager had a long and productive history with the company, and the families of the two parties were friends. And yet, in spite of the serious doubts about the complainant’s credibility, routine video surveillance clearly revealed the alleged conduct.

Avoiding Retaliation

If it is extremely clear that an employee filed a false complaint, then she/he can never be trusted. However, if there is doubt, and you now accuse the employee of making a false complaint, you will likely face a charge of retaliation. If you doubt the complainant’s veracity because of prior work related issues, have an independent investigation be conducted by a neutral organization. Allow that organization to draw its own conclusions without knowing about whatever credibility concerns that you have.

The Bottom Line

The timing of sexual harassment accusations is something that judges and juries take into account when assessing the credibility of accusations, but it’s only one element. If there’s strong evidence that sexual harassment took place, the case could survive the suspicious timing of the allegations. If the evidence is weak, the timing will work in your favor.

 

One of the biggest challenges investigators face during sexual harassment investigations is deciding whether or not a witness is telling the truth. In fact, according to a 2009 article in Legal and Criminological Psychology, even judges aren’t’ so hot at it. And one of the reasons is the way most of us go about making credibility assessments.

For one thing, research indicates that we are heavily influenced by schemas (cognitive maps) we’ve developed based on our past experiences with similar individuals. The old adage, “to a policeman, everyone is a criminal” is an example of the tendency we all have to judge new people based on our past experiences with others. This can be problematic for those of us in HR who get railroaded into being the head of the unofficial “employee complaint department.” Dealing with minor (and seemingly ridiculous) employee complaints day in and day out can unconsciously skew our view of new or legitimate complaints in the direction of skepticism and disbelief.

Second, we all have some pretty understandable – and false – beliefs about how to actually evaluate someone’s truthfulness. It is common wisdom, for example, that liars often exhibit nervous gestures (longer pauses, not looking the other person in the eyes, speech disturbance) when research actually suggests the opposite. Throw cultural differences into the mix and the usefulness of relying upon body language to detect deception is virtually nil.

Third, most of us make snap judgments of the general trustworthiness of a witness immediately upon seeing him or her for the first time. Not only is this intuition unreliable, it can influence how we gather, and interpret, future evidence. In a study of criminal investigators, those who presumed guilt were more skeptical about evidence that suggested innocent than they were about information that confirmed their preexisting belief. In other words, we tend to see what we believe.

Here’s the good news. First, we need to throw out any ideas we might have that credibility assessment is a common sense matter and that our intuition is a useful guide. Second, we need to let go of any notions that we can tell someone is lying by his shifty gaze or nervous hand wringing. We need to be aware of how our past experiences with complainants might influence our approach to a new sexual harassment investigation. And we need to build in safeguards (a second opinion, critical thinking that objectively evaluates all evidence, clearly thinking through and documenting why we are taking each step in an investigation). This doesn’t guarantee that we’ll make the right decision; but it does raise the odds that we’ll make a fair one.

or many employees-turned-plaintiffs, the unsolicited advances, kisses, groping and requests for sexual activities from a boss or coworker are less injurious than the humiliating and biased sexual harassment investigation that followed her complaint. The investigator who is good friends with the accused, the manager who makes an insensitive comment or the fact that the alleged offender is a senior officer – any of these can lead an upset complainant running into the nearest attorney’s office.

Believe an Investigator is Biased and You’ll See It

It doesn’t take much. In fact, although folk wisdom usually has it that “seeing is believing,” a study published in the September 2009 issue of the journal Psychological Science suggests that “believing is seeing,” too – at least when it comes to perceiving other people’s emotions. Researchers found that the way we initially think about the emotions of others biases our subsequent perception (and memory) of their facial expressions. So once as person initially interprets an ambiguous or neutral look as angry or happy, she or he will later remember and actually see it as such. In order words, thinking has a noticeable effect on perceiving.

This research adds credibility to what misconduct investigators already know; when a complainants believe his or her motives are being questioned or that HR is partial or sympathetic to one side or another, s/he is more likely to see “evidence” to support this belief. In this situation, the internal investigator doesn’t have to do anything wrong for an upset complainant to believe the investigation was either whitewashed or an outraged accused to argue that the conclusion was merely a pretext for firing the individual without breaching his or her contract. This is just one of the circumstances where it pays to bring in an outsider.

Avoid Conflicts of Interest

EEOC Chairwoman Castro has repeatedly emphasized the EEOC’s position with respect to the importance of using outside investigators to conduct investigations into suspected discrimination or harassment. Specifically, Chairwoman Castro noted that the use of outside investigators is important:

1) where the employer lacks the resources to conduct investigations in-house

2) where the employer wishes to have an objective and unbiased party investigate the conduct at issue;

3) where the conduct complained of was perpetrated by very high-level employees within the company.

Although the EEOC does not generally require employers to use outside parties to conduct investigations into harassment claims, the EEOC has expressed the view that using outside investigators is important in certain circumstances, and may even be necessary where the accused harasser is a senior company official or where there is otherwise a conflict of interest. Examples of such conflicts include situations where an investigator:

* Has a personal relationship with either party.

* Has witnessed any alleged material occurrence.

* Has very strong feelings about either the complainant or the accused

Thus, employers who indiscriminately conduct internal investigations not only lose what advantages exist for having neutral third parties conduct such investigations, they risk running afoul of EEOC guidance.

Making a Case for Independence

 

In addition to reassuring a complainant that the investigation is fair and impartial, hiring a third party reduces the risk that an employee will be disciplined or discharged for something he or she did not do and provides a powerful defense against a claim that the company condoned unlawful conduct in the workplace.

Employers should consider using an outside investigator for four reasons:

1) Promptness. Misconduct investigations should, as a rule, be completed within two weeks of the initial complaint. The outside investigator will be brought in specifically for the purpose of carrying out the investigation and will not require that someone from the organization find time in his or her schedule to do the work.

2) Expertise. Outside investigators are specialists whose expertise results in a more thorough investigation. This expertise is particularly critical when the allegations are serious in nature and the stakes are high, such as sexual assault. In addition, outside investigators have the courtroom experience that will make them a powerful witness should the complaint eventually go to trial.

3) Impartiality. Although the employer hires the investigator, there still is the sense that the investigation is not an “inside” job. Employees are generally more open and more willingly share more information with an outsider who will not have to “live” with either the accused or the accuser after the investigation. This is especially true when the allegations are against a high-ranking individual.

4) Confidentiality. There is a strong need for confidentiality during a misconduct investigation. Hiring an outside party, who is more likely to be perceived as an authority figure, reduces the odds the complaint process will be a topic of water cooler conversation and reassures the complainant that s/he will be protected from retribution.

The Bottom Line

Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said that Fairness is what justice really is. Increasingly, the fairness scales are tipped in favor or employers who use outside investigators to investigate misconduct allegations, particularly when they involve a potential conflict of interest, possible litigation, or high-ranking individuals.