Too Much or Not Enough?

New to employee management, Kristina feared the day she would have to field her first case of employee harassment. The day finally came when an employee called Kristina to discuss an email she had sent the day prior regarding an alleged hostile work environment. The employee was out on a leave of absence for mental health, claiming that the workplace was giving her anxiety to the point that she was unable to perform her job duties.

The employee elaborated over nearly an hour of certain situations and interactions with her supervisor which she perceived to be harassing in nature, and used a number of “trigger words” in her phone call, including “bullying,” and “harassment.” Kristina did her best and listened to everything the employee had to say, hesitant to ask any follow up questions for fear of putting words in the employee’s mouth and being liable for saying the wrong thing.

After the call wrapped up, Kristina met with her supervisor to give him a run down of the call and to go over next steps. Kristina’s supervisor was incredibly frustrated with her failure to ask any probing questions to get the employee to clarify certain points, define particular terms, and expand on specific examples. At the end of the day, Kristina’s not saying enough could be potentially damaging in that a proper investigation was not conducted.

It is vitally important that supervisors know what questions to ask in these early stages of an investigation, when reviewing or listening to an employee complaint. In this first conversation, there are a few things to always keep in mind as you ask your initial and follow up questions:

  • Ensure Confidentiality: Reassure the individual that the initial conversation regarding their complaint is intended to gather as much information as possible, and that the conversation will be kept confidential as much as reasonably possible, and all information provided will be kept on a “need to know” basis.
  • Stay Impartial: Focus on being objective to gather relative facts. Avoid pushing the investigation/conversation in any particular direction, so ask open ended questions. Never offer any opinion or follow up question that the interviewee with perceive as an attempt to discredit their responses.
  • Take Notes: Document everything, look for inconsistencies, seek opportunities for more evidence and names (of the accused, of potential witnesses, etc.).
  • Determine (Initial) Credibility: Interviews often provide differing accounts and conflicting versions of the events. Be aware that the issues are very personal to the employee(s) involved and know that because of personal/emotional investment, individual perceptions may be clouded.

Once you have these basic factors implemented and in place, what questions should you ask? Obviously, some of your follow up questions will be very specific as they pertain to the situations/accusations that were presented, but are there any standard questions you should always be asking in investigatory conversations? Read along in our next post when we go over some of these questions and explain the “why” behind the reason for asking.

Valid Complaint or Emotional Employee?

Cassie had been working as a legal assistant for the past year at a local law firm. She started out relatively new to the industry, and has spent her time at the firm learning everything she can about the industry with the goal of eventually moving into a paralegal position. When Daniel joined the practice as an associate attorney, he quickly took her under his wing stating that working together as a team, they could both move up within the organization. Initially, Cassie was glad to have someone to work and grow with, but Daniel seemed to have a crush on her and began behaving in ways that made Cassie increasingly uncomfortable.

When pulling an all-nighter for an upcoming court appearance, Daniel gave Cassie a backrub which she told herself was simply him being polite as they had been working for 18 hours straight and he knew she was tired. Later that week, Daniel invited Cassie out to dinner. She accepted thinking it was to discuss work, but Daniel was even more physically affectionate at this meeting, putting his hand on her lower back when they entered the restaurant and touching her hand when sitting at the table. Uncertain as to his intentions, Cassie again did not say anything.

When a paralegal position opened up later that month, Cassie immediately applied and began preparing for her interview. Daniel was on the hiring committee and informed Cassie that he could “coach” her on what to say to land the job and invited her to his home for a private training session that night. Cassie knew that this was going too far and declined; Daniel’s advances towards her and his affectionate behaviors immediately stopped. She interviewed for the position but another individual was hired for the position, and while they were more than qualified, Cassie believed her past interactions with Daniel may have played a part in the hiring decision.

Cassie discussed this with her supervising attorney who helped her file a grievance to the managing partner, claiming that she had experienced sexual harassment and quid pro quo in the workplace and when those advances were declined, was subject to further retaliation and a hostile environment.

Did Daniel’s advances warrant all these types of harassment? Since Cassie agreed to go to dinner with him, was it appropriate for him to touch her hand? Or were his advances simply inappropriate for a workplace setting, and his reactions when she refused him justified?

In the conversation she had with the managing attorney regarding the complaint she and her supervisor had filed, Cassie only stated that she felt very uncomfortable at work because of Daniel’s actions and wanted the treatment to stop. Did Cassie’s manager jump to conclusions and put words in her mouth, words that any HR Manager or member of executive management is obligated to investigate further? While Daniel’s actions at work were certainly inappropriate, he didn’t necessarily cross the line into sexual harassment, and claiming quid pro quo was a stretch as the individual who was hired was more qualified than Cassie.

There is a right and a wrong way to field and manage employee complaints. Particularly in cases of harassment, sexual or otherwise, it is vitally important that supervisors understand what questions to ask their employee to ensure that the grievance is completely accurate and that the employee is not encouraged in one way or the other to report things that are exaggerated. What should they say to get the necessary info from their subordinate? What should they avoid saying in that initial conversation? How should they respond to certain admissions? Follow along the next few weeks as we discuss the steps managers are expected to follow when an employee comes to them with a complaint or grievance.