Let's be clear from the start - there are many employment related situations where it is both necessary and appropriate to conduct an investigation within the traditional sense of that word. Potential fraud, an allegation of sexual harassment, and many other forms of alleged misconduct are all simple examples. Despite this, there's an increasing propensity within many employers to launch into a "formal" investigation whenever an allegation is made by one employee against another, where the nature of the complaint is largely interpersonal conflict. Is there anything wrong with this? Perhaps not, but that will depend on what we were hoping to achieve.
If we were only looking to determine whether something occurred or not, then an investigation is likely to be a reasonable way of trying to get to an answer.
If we were after the optics of investigating because it's consistent with taking all allegations seriously and demonstrates a level of independence, then depending on how it all unfolds, we might achieve that.
If we were doing it because we expected it would provide a holistic solution and resolution to the complaint, then we're likely to be very disappointed.
When we undertake an investigation, we inherently press "go" on an adversarial process. When we speak with the complainant, we place them in a position where their primary focus understandably becomes proving their complaint. They often do that by recounting every possible occasion where something adverse occurred. In adopting this process, we promote an environment where the complainant becomes further invested in the minutia of their complaint, and are required to continue reliving whatever negative experience led them to the complaint.
When we speak with the respondent, we place them in a position where their primary focus understandably becomes disproving the complaint. Commonly, this is coupled with counter allegations, or allegations of similar conduct elsewhere within the business.
When we reflect on the completed investigation, how often do we genuinely get to a clear answer as to whether something did, or did not, occur? Similarly, how often do we land with a finding of "unsubstantiated", not because we found it didn't occur, but because there was insufficient evidence to find that it did?
So what did we achieve? At best we now know whether something did, or did not, occur. Often, we don't. Either way, we're very likely to lead our two people through a process that was distressing for both, and amplified the things that divided them. Is it then surprising that the restoring a positive, respectful and collaborative working relationship becomes problematic?
So, what's the takeaway? While there are rarely absolutes when dealing with interpersonal conflict within an employment relationship, there's a few things that good employers ask themselves before launching into an investigation process:
- What am really looking to achieve, and will an investigation process achieve (or help to achieve) that?
- If I'm investigating to find an answer to a question, do I really need to find that answer to achieve what the outcome (which might be about rebuilding a fractured working relationship)?
- If the complaint is 100% true, is a dismissal likely to follow? If not, how important and what's the relevance of an investigated finding?
- Are there other (better) ways of assisting my people to overcome the conflict, and move forward in a positive, respectful and collaborative way?
These are not easy questions to answers, and there will always be situations where investigating is both necessary and appropriate. But if we're investigating interpersonal conflict, we should at least ask ourselves whether there might be a better way before we embark on a process that will inevitably damage the relationship further.