Workplace investigation file folder with pen

Inside HR (Part 1) – Challenges with Internal Workplace Investigations

When employers are faced with allegations of employee misconduct, workplace investigations offer a balanced approach for companies to make informed people decisions.  This is especially critical in cases where there is a potential for termination for which litigation risk is high.

Is your company diligent in conducting proper workplace investigations?
Do you have relevant policies/processes in place as required by law? 
If not, you can face severe consequences as an employer, as experienced by both CBC and Walmart Canada (Boucher v Walmart Canada-ONCA 2014) of late.
Reflecting on my 16 years of HR industry experience gained from some of the largest companies nationally and internationally, investigating complaints, grievances and employee misconduct was pretty much a daily affair. 
With an insider point of view, I have gained invaluable learnings around the challenge in conducting internal workplace investigations and the inherent risks involved for employers to take note.  
Here are some key reasons why in-house investigations can be risky business despite an employer’s good intentions.
Risk #1:  Internal politics skewing outcome of investigation
Risk #2:  Bias
Risk #3:  Lack of time to effectively plan and conduct a thorough investigation
Risk #4:  Company policies that may be lacking or hinder the investigative process
Risk #5:  Lack of transparency
Risk #6:  Lack of training 
Risk #7:  Conducting interviews by phone only
Risk #8:  Poor documentation and retention procedures
In the coming weeks, I will share my thoughts on each of the risks identified in more detail.    For this post, I will focus on Risks #1 and #2. 
Risk #1:  Internal politics skewing outcome of investigation
This is perhaps the biggest pitfall concerning internal workplace investigations which I had detailed in my last post.  HR is caught between a rock and a hard place when internal politics and power imbalances are at play.  
A conflict of interest may exist – either in dealing with complaints against management who ranks higher than the person investigating or when there are differing views on the approach and the seriousness of a complaint, objectivity can be compromised.
Sometimes, doing the right thing may not be supported by those in power like in Jian Ghomeshi’s case.  Such political pressures can either derail efforts to investigate or effectively skew the results of an internal investigation altogether.  This tendency can then render the investigation flawed exposing the employer to significant liabilities. 
Risk #2:  Bias
By human nature, we often pass judgement about an investigation even before it begins.   This is even more prominent in companies where everyone knows each other.  Bias can quickly develop that may affect the outcome of the investigation based on the parties’ reputation (i.e. a “star performer” or a “trouble-maker”). 
The tolerance for harassing behavior can also differ from one company or industry to another as well.  For instance, what is considered inappropriate behaviour in a professional workplace may be accepted as the norm in another (i.e. construction).   The threshold for sounding any alarm bells can then vary based on internal bias.    
Knowing this, it makes it difficult for HR to conduct internal investigations with complete neutrality.  This is especially problematic when HR works with any of the parties involved as well.
In CBC’s case, I believe both of these influences played a significant role in causing senior management to turn a blind eye on all the toxic behavior displayed by their star employee – Jian Ghomeshi.   By management failing to address for so many years, a culture of fear, disrespect and mistrust was created – a cautionary tale for other employers pertaining to workplace harassment.
Tips for Employers:
  • Examine and remove organizational barriers (i.e. reporting structures) that can give rise to a conflict of interest for HR/investigator
  • Hire an independent workplace investigator who is competent and perceived by all parties to be neutral can effectively mitigate both of these risks
In June’s blog, we will look at the next set of risks more closely from a HR lens.
Risk #3:  Lack of time to effectively plan and conduct a thorough investigation
Risk #4:  Company policies that may hinder the investigative process
Risk #5:  Lack of transparency
Please check back in June for Part 2 of this 3 part blog series.


* Please note the content shared in this blog post is for general information only and does not constitute legal advice. 

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At Strategywise HR, we understand the HR challenges you face and the workplace laws that affect you.  If workplace issues are keeping you up at night, or you need an experienced and objective workplace investigator, please contact us at 905-879-9994 for a free consultation. 

We can help you make informed people decisions that reduce risk and avoid costly mistakes.