How Psychologically Safe is Your Investigation Process?

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Mindfulness and psychological safety go hand-in-hand.

A psychologically safe workplace is one where individuals feel confident that their ideas and thoughts will be listened to and are able to speak up freely without fear of retaliation. People who feel that sense of safety are more likely to perform at higher levels and stay with an employer that values them. As a result, many organizations are focusing on how to increase psychological safety in their workplaces.

For as much attention that this critical concept has been given in organizations, when it comes to how to make workplace investigations psychologically safe for all participants, there is surprisingly little information.

Given the stress, anxiety and emotional turmoil that invariably occurs amidst workplace investigations, this sense of safety is particularly important, irrespective if you are the complainant, respondent, or witness. What steps can be taken to ensure that psychological safety is embedded into the investigation process?

To answer this question, let’s begin by taking a look at a situation that pertains to sexual harassment in the workplace — an unfortunately common source of workplace investigations.

Since starting with ABC Company three weeks ago, Maria has received a warm welcome from the team, particularly from fellow colleague Sam. Each morning, when Maria arrives to the office, Sam greets her with a tight hug. At first, Maria thought Sam was simply trying to make her feel comfortable in her new environment, but as time goes on Sam’s hugs have started to make Maria feel anxious and uneasy. She is scared to say anything with fear of jeopardizing her new role. However, two associates, Katie and Hardeep, noticed Sam’s behaviour and notified HR of what they had observed. An investigation is now underway.

How to Promote Safe Disclosure

As we saw in the above anecdote, a primary reason why individuals do not report unethical behaviour is due to fear of retaliation, including job loss, career growth consequences and social isolation. In other cases, there is the fear that no action will take place to stop the behaviour.

What then can we do to create a safe space for individuals to come forward and report their concerns?

First and foremost, as people leaders, we need to model behaviour that is supportive, inclusive, and ethical, to help employees feel comfortable disclosing issues when they arise. If there is not a fundamental trust that exists wherein employees believe they will be supported by leadership when they bring their concerns forward, it is unlikely they will disclose. Trust can be built by walking the talk, leading with integrity, and demonstrating care and empathy for others.

Secondly, creating confidential disclosure mechanisms can ensure that individuals feel protected. Examples include an anonymous hotline that deals with workplace bullying and harassment; having a contracted external consultant or counsellor who employees can direct the concerns to; or appointing an internal person who has been trained to create a safe space for disclosing difficult and sometimes traumatizing issues.

Thirdly, having clear policies and procedures in place regarding disclosure, that are supported with training and reinforced regularly in meetings and employee communications, can ensure that individuals know how they can report concerns and complaints.

Setting the Stage for Interviews

Establishing a safe and secure environment is a critical part of the investigation process. Once a complaint has been brought forward, it is important to set the stage for interviews to take place.

To maintain the objectivity and neutrality of the investigation process, many employers will contract an external investigator – someone who is unknown to the investigation participants.

Logistics of the interview can sometimes be tricky, but whenever possible, meetings should take place in a location that is neutral and private, and preferably offsite. If participants feel anxious or have any sense of animosity at the workplace, they will be less likely to share and communicate openly. It can also set rumours and gossip into motion if people are observed to be having behind door conversations. Therefore, if off-site meetings are not possible, then it is best to hold meetings before or after regular working hours.

Participants in the investigation process should be told in advance what the meeting is about, to ensure they are not left confused and anxious about having a meeting scheduled. It can be a simple messaging to employees that a workplace concern was brought forward, and their viewpoint in the matter is needed and appreciated.

Making the Investigation Process Psychologically Safe

Once the investigation is underway, it’s common as HR leaders that we find ourselves distancing from the parties involved in efforts to remain neutral and unbiased. Unfortunately, this often means that participants involved are left with lower levels of support. With this in mind, a practical tip is to appoint a support person for participants to go to for emotional support and to answer any questions they may have.

Now, as much it seems ideal for business to remain as usual during the investigation, this is often not possible. Depending on the nature of the investigation, it may be deemed psychologically or physically unsafe for the complainant(s) and respondent(s) to work together. As such, participants may wish to or be required to take time off work, or work in alternate locations or shift times. Time off should be offered to complainants who have suffered a traumatic incident, as a means of providing them with access to sick leave benefits and medical health professionals.

Caveats and Cautions

However, investigators should keep in mind that mandatory time away from work may also result in feelings of prejudgment and guilt, particularly for respondents. You don’t want investigation participants to feel as if they are not allowed to talk to anyone at work and become socially isolated. While it is imperative to ask employees to limit their discussions involving the investigation as to not compromise confidentiality, any limitations should not comprise their ability to maintain working relationships.

Once investigation meetings commence, investigators should preface the meetings by acknowledging that the process may be difficult and emotional. Ask participants if there is anything that they need prior to getting started, make it clear that a break can be called at any time, and ensure they are advised the meeting can be stopped and resumed at a later date if it is too emotionally taxing to deal with at one time. Room set up is important too—some participants report feeling trapped and claustrophobic. Ask participants where they would like to sit in the room for maximum comfort and feelings of security.

Participants may also be invited to bring a support person with them to the meeting, however, it is advised that this be an external support person due to the confidential matters that will be discussed. Should participants elect to have a support person in the meeting, it is advised that he/she sign a confidentiality document.

A Mindful Sense of Safety

Ultimately, psychological safety in the investigation process is about providing a safe space for employees to disclose and discuss their concerns freely and without fear of reprisal. If you create this sense of safety, you can expect to see fewer extended leaves and reduced rates of turnover as a result of workplace investigations, and most importantly, an enhanced level of trust and engagement from all participants.


 

Robin Turnill, CPHR is founder and CEO and Mia McCannel is an HR consultant at Pivot HR Services.

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