Asking the Right Questions

Asking the Right Questions

In our last two posts, we have been discussing how to field employee complaints and what initial factors you should implement in order to get the best information out of the grieving employee, in addition to those parties involved. Factors such as ensuring confidentiality, staying impartial, taking notes, and determining credibility are all important elements to keep in mind when conducting interviews, but what specific questions should you be asking in these investigatory conversations?

Whenever an employee approaches you with a verbal or written complaint, ask some of the relevant follow up questions to ensure you have as much information as possible to determine appropriate next steps (e.g., formal investigation):

  • Ask for specific examples of situations regarding the key words (e.g., if an employee references a grievance, ask for details of the grievance; if an employee states they feel discriminated against, ask what specifically makes them feel that way, etc.).
    • Additionally, explain that in human resources, these terms have very specific definitions and give those definitions so the employee understands the gravity and relevance of the terms they choose to use in their complaint.
  • Depending on the nature of the conversation, ask some of the applicable the following follow up questions to the individual’s complaints/statements to ensure you have all the information:
    • Who/what/when/where (who committed the alleged behavior, what specifically happened, when did it occur or is it ongoing, and where did it occur)?
    • How did you react and did you ever indicate that you were offended or somehow displeased by the act or offensive treatment?
    • Who else may have seen or heard the incident and have you discussed the incident with anyone? Is there anyone else who may have relevant information?
    • Did the person who harassed you harass anyone else? Do you know whether anyone else complained about harassment by that person?
    • How has the behavior affected you and your job?
    • Are there any notes, physical evidence, or other documentation regarding the incident(s)?
    • Did you follow the Company’s grievance process?
    • Do you have any other relevant information?
    • What action do you want the Company to take?

After you finish conducting your interviews is that it? Are there any “best practices” you should be implementing to conclude the investigatory process? Follow along in our next post as we wrap up this topic and discuss what steps are necessary to tie up any loose ends and close out an investigation.

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.