Published on: August 31, 2022
Workplace investigations are an essential part of maintaining a respectful workplace and are required when an employer becomes aware of a possible incident of workplace harassment. In some cases, however, something is clearly “off” within a workplace, but no specific complaints have been made. Signs that a workplace has underlying problems include decreased productivity, increased attrition, and less willingness on the part of employees to partake in company social activities.
In such situations, employers can take a proactive approach and decide to conduct an assessment of the workplace. One of the goals is to identify and deal with any potential issues before they may lead to an investigation. Many workplace investigators are adding this service to their practice. While this can be a beneficial process when done correctly, it is also easy to make mistakes.
Below are some tips to keep in mind when conducting a workplace assessment.
1) Maintain confidentiality
Any third party conducting a workplace assessment on behalf of an employer should be clear that the specific information they gather will remain confidential, subject to specific exceptions (such as an allegation of harassment that needs to be investigated). Usually, workplace assessments culminate in a report that does not reference the participants by name; instead, the assessor reports back on themes and makes recommendations based on those themes. Knowing that they will remain anonymous (again, subject to certain exceptions) allows the employees participating in the assessment to be candid with the assessor and leads to better information gathering.
2) Be cautious if you think an investigation will be necessary after the assessment
It is not unusual for an assessor to receive information during an assessment that indicates that an investigation will be required. For example, several employees might comment that a particular manager is engaging in harassing or discriminatory behaviour. While it is important to keep track of the information provided and advise the client that there may be an obligation to investigate, the assessment interview is not the time to gather all relevant information about these potential allegations.
In some cases, the person acting as the assessor is not the appropriate person to act as an investigator in a related matter since information gathered during the assessment process could unfairly bias them against one of the parties. If an investigation results from the information collected in an assessment process, it should be kept separate, and careful thought should be given to who is the appropriate person to conduct the investigation.
3) Do not use assessments as a fishing expedition
While it is not unusual for allegations against one or more people to come up during an assessment, an assessment should never be used to drum up allegations against someone deliberately. It is one thing for an employer to undertake an assessment process because they feel that something is “off” within a workplace, but it is another thing entirely for an employer to use an assessment process to seek out complaints against someone they want to discipline or terminate. An assessor should be clear with their client that questions asked during an assessment should focus on the workplace and not on the performance of any one individual. Using an assessment as a targeted fishing expedition can result in complaints of bad faith against both the employer and the assessor and could result in any subsequent investigation or disciplinary process being challenged.
If you would like to learn more about how to conduct thorough workplace assessments to improve workplace culture, consider attending our upcoming online session on Workplace Assessments: Identifying and Solving Issues Before They Become Investigations.