Employee’s Guide to Workplace Investigations and Aftermath
After reporting harassment or discrimination happens at work – it’s pretty common to be blindsided by what happens next. We’ve been working with people who have experienced harassment and discrimination for over 15 years at this point – if there is one thing we have learned – knowing that you’re not alone is a *big deal*. We created this guide to help you know what to expect so that you’re not caught off guard.
Know how investigations get started
If you use the words “harassment,” “discrimination” or “retaliation” with a manager or HR person – or if you don’t use those specific words, but your employer believes your experiences constitute a form of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation — they are legally required run an investigation (even if you beg them not to). This is designed to protect other workers from experiencing the same thing you did, but it can feel pretty disempowering, and depending on the context, it can feel like a violation of trust. It’s not uncommon for people to report that the investigation traumatic than the original incident of harassment. In most states and workplaces, your coworkers can also report your harassment to HR or management who may launch an investigation without you even knowing it.
Think about what “resolution” looks like for you
First, you’re going to need to figure out if there is anything you can ask your employer for that may help alleviate your day-to-day pain. Some things to consider requesting are as follows:
- Not having to work directly with this person any more. If you want them fired, say so. If they are still on your team, can they be moved to another team? Can you move desks? Departments?
- An apology. This can take the form of a written apology or a verbal one and should include a commitment from this person that it will never happen again.
- A commitment on behalf of the organization to improve their sexual harassment policy and/or provide better sexual harassment training (connect them with us, we can help).
- Support finding a new job, which could include a written letter of recommendation, introductions to other people in the field who are hiring, etc.
- A severance package that can hold you over until you get a new job. It is standard to give people two weeks of salary for every completed year of service (minimum of four weeks; maximum of 26 weeks). Severance packages are usually cheaper for employers than legal cases.
Unpacking employer vs. employee motivations
The most important thing to know about investigations is that they are designed to protect the employer. You and your employer may have some shared interests – i.e. ideally neither of you want someone harassing employees on staff. But keep in mind, even a “good” employer that seeks to have a safe and welcoming work environment will also be actively working to avoid lawsuits (from you or the person who harassed you, who may sue for “wrongful termination” or “slander” for example), to retain talented staff (this shows up most often with the person who harasses is senior to the person harassed, and viewed as a more “key” player), and to minimize damage to morale (such as when an incident become public and team members take sides, or when someone in the investigation becomes “toxic” and the employer is incentivized to push them out). Employers are also unable to share anything specific about the investigation with staff during or afterwards. It puts them at risk of influencing the investigation while it is ongoing – and of slander after it is complete.
The investigation process
In larger organizations and businesses, investigations are often conducted by human resources departments. In smaller ones, they may be done by consultants who are often lawyers, or other members of staff, like management or board members. The investigators will typically try to keep things as confidential as possible to avoid further eroding employee morale. But given they are also trying to uproot harassment on their staff, in practice, very little is confidential. What you report about your experience may be shared – in whole or in part – with other members of the staff who are called in as witnesses including the person who harassed you.
Investigations should be short, such as 1-2 weeks max (this is good for the employer and the person harassed), but can last longer depending on how much time the investigator commits to it (sometimes investigators who are contracted outside the organization take a while to get started or are managing other clients while it’s ongoing) or how complicated the case is (the more incidences of harassment you report or they uncover in the process of the investigation, the longer the process will take). At the end of an investigation, only the people directly involved may learn the result, and more often than not, the result is “inconclusive.” Harassment tends to be hard to prove from a legal standpoint.
Gathering evidence for an investigation
You will need to prepare your complaint with as much detail as possible. This should include things like:
- Where and when did it happen?
- What was said and/or done?
- Who else was there? Who else became aware afterwards (if anyone)?
- How did it make you feel? Was there any effect on your work performance, relationships, confidence, creativity, etc, as a result?
- Is there any record of the harassment? This could include documentation of the actual harassment (i.e. an email) but it can also be confirmation of details of the harassment (i.e. a due date for an assignment that is relevant to your story).
- Are you aware of other incidents of harassment related to this one (i.e. did this person harass anyone else?)
The investigator may ask you for these details (or others) – but don’t count on it. They may opt not to for fear of opening up “pandora’s box” and eliciting even more incidents of harassment they are accountable for investigating. The best bet is to come prepared with as much detail as you can about as many incidences as you can.
Practicing for an Investigation
When you speak with investigators, you’re going to want to appear calm, collected, and in control. That doesn’t mean you can’t cry – but it does mean that you don’t want to lie, lash out at them, or go on rants about your employer or the investigation. Things like this can cause them to assess that you are an “unreliable narrator” and effect your case overall.
When they ask you a question, stick to the facts. They will typically ask for “evidence” before you go – but if they don’t – bring along two copies (one for you and one for them). The focus on facts is important because trauma can erode our memories – leaving us to remember some things in technicolor and others not at all. Data and documentation can help to support your memory. If you don’t know the answer to something, tell them you don’t know. You can always get back in touch with them afterward if you remember.
The investigation may be triggering for you. Not only will be you asked to recall traumatizing things, you will also be questioned about them and asked to give a rationale as to why you did this or that. For most people – who already (consciously or subconsciously) blame themselves for what happened – this can bring up a lot of emotion. Don’t be afraid to step out for a bathroom break to take a few deep breaths and do what you need to do to calm your nervous system. You didn’t do anything wrong, and by speaking out about what happened to you, you are making a safer and more welcoming workplace for everyone.
Showing Up for an Investigation
The big day is here and it’s time to speak to the investigators. Some things to consider that may help support you:
- Wear something professional that you feel confident and comfortable.
- Get comfortable and grounded.
- Consider bringing a support item. For some people this may be a photo of their kid to remember what matters, for other it may be a crystal or other small support object.
- Bring water and a snack.
- Make sure your support team know that today is the day, so that they are there to support you before, during, and after.
- Have a plan for post-conversation. What are you going to do afterwards? If “go back to work is your plan,” think again. Even if you only have 10 minutes to yourself before heading back to the office, can you call a friend? Journal out your feelings? Sit in the sun and remind yourself that you are safe?
Emotionally prepare yourself for the aftermath
There are often lingering effects of harassment in a workplace that can be deeply challenging. We’re putting them here not to scare you — but in hopes that if you face these consequences you’re not alone. Some common ones we see:
- Your co-workers blame you for the harassment. It’s hard not to take this personally, but it’s not really about you. When harassment happens in the workplace, everyone feels unsafe. Some employees may try to re-establish a sense of safety by telling themselves “Well that would never happen to me.” Their rationale is often some variation of “they deserved it,” ranging from critique about what you wear, to how you talk, to your job performance. It’s important to remember that is about their desire to feel safe, not you. No matter what, you didn’t deserve to be harassed.
- Your co-workers take the side of the person who harassed you. This often happens in workplaces where the person who harassed you is popular (it’s not uncommon for people who harass to be uncommonly charismatic) but can also happen if the person who harassed you starts to intentionally get others on their side by spreading rumors about you or perpetuate myths about why you deserved it.
- You become “black-balled” socially. All of sudden people, especially people with the same identities as the person who harassed you start to not invite you out to happy hour – or engage you socially in between meetings. You get the feeling that they are uncomfortable around you and worried about “saying the wrong thing.”
- Your performance drops. Getting through the day at work feels like the social-emotional Olympics that requires all the capacity that you used to be able to put into your work. You try “putting your head down and just doing your job” but it starts to feel impossible.
- You can’t sleep and feel anxious all the time. Harassment is proven to cause significant mental health impact – like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. This can make it hard to get a different job, no matter how bad you want to.
- Retaliation. Your employer may retaliate against you for filing the complaint by moving you off the team you loved and thrived on (instead of moving the person who harassed you), not inviting you to meetings or sharing information with you that is important to your ability to do your job, or by trying to push you out of the company (or just fire you). You can (and should) report retaliation, it is illegal (even in cases where they decide that your report of harassment wasn’t actionable).
It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to hurt. It’s OK not to have the “perfect” response.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigation and aftermath, you will need to heal – which can be hard whether you stay at the workplace or go to another.
To provide you with an added layer of support, we’ve partnered with Empower Work. They offer free, confidential support for workplace issues from trained peer counselors. To reach out: Text HOLLA to 510-674-1414
This guide is evolving. Have more tips for people going through workplace investigations? Email us at [email protected]