How to Run a Workplace Investigation Without Harming Participants

A workplace investigation can resolve conflict and improve working conditions if performed correctly. However, these investigations can affect the mental health of participants. Keep reading to learn why it is important to prioritize your employees’ mental health during an investigation, and how you can achieve this throughout the entire investigation process.

Work-related risk factors for mental health

Mental health may not be easy to visualize or understand, but the mental health of every employee is extremely relevant to the work environment. Employees who experience negative mental health at work will often be unhappy, unfocused, lose sleep, experience more stress, and may experience further health risks. An employer who neglects their employees’ mental health may cultivate an unhealthy environment and lose good employees.

READ MORE: The Importance of Promoting Mental Health in the Workplace

The purpose of workplace investigations

A workplace investigation may be launched following reports of harassment, discrimination, bullying, theft, or other issues involving conflict.

A concrete, formal investigation is performed in order to address these issues seriously and fairly, and reach a positive outcome.

The impacts of workplace investigations

A workplace investigation may be performed to reach a specific outcome, like ending a conflict or holding a guilty party accountable. However, investigations can have adverse collateral effects. An employee’s mental health may deteriorate upon participating in an investigation. Specifically, they may feel nervous, judged, or at risk for further conflict – all of which can produce negative mental health effects. Thus, it’s important to prioritize employees’ mental health when heading an investigation.

READ MORE: The Importance of Mitigating Workplace Conflict Before It Arises

How to cultivate positive mental health throughout the investigation process

Support participants

Since a workplace investigation can feel stressful and intrusive, all participants should be supported throughout the entire process. Some participants may hide that they need support in order to appear more cooperative, so it is important to provide a base level of support to everyone.

Examples of necessary support include:

  • Offering counselling
  • Letting all participants be heard and believed
  • Delegating a neutral unbiased figure to check in on participants and answer any questions

It’s important to support employees after an investigation is complete, since investigations can have a lasting impact on workplace culture and the mental health of those involved.

Be transparent about the process

Transparency can make or break an investigation. A transparent approach will encourage all participants to share facts without fear and contribute towards a positive outcome, while an investigation that lacks transparency breeds mistrust and confusion.

Participants should be explicitly told that there is an investigation, what allegations were made (if any), who is operating the investigation, the time frame, the goal, potential outcomes, and the steps being taken.

These steps are also necessary to ensure that an investigation is transparent:

  • Have an investigation process that is clearly defined and followed thoroughly
  • All parties should be informed about the investigation, and aware that all conversations related to the issue are being formally recorded
  • Communicate and record things in writing as often as possible

Be swift and avoid delays

An investigation that drags on can be detrimental to someone’s comfort or mental health. A time frame should be established, and if it is not possible to remain on track with that time frame, participants should be given an explanation as to why. In order to prevent harm caused by delays, the investigator should be given updates as frequently as possible.

Investigations may result in someone taking time off or being temporarily suspended, so consider how your time frame affects these outcomes as well.

Try not to isolate anyone

The nature of an investigation may leave someone feeling isolated. For example, someone may face an allegation that diminishes their reputation among others, or someone may make an allegation that others do not believe.

Isolation is associated with poor mental health outcomes including depression, poor sleep quality, and cognitive decline.

Though it is hard to avoid the social effects of a workplace investigation, try to reduce the risk of isolating any employees. Avoid enforcing strict rules that encourage isolation, and ensure that all participants have, at the very least, a network of unbiased neutral figures.

Respect employees and avoid interrogation

As a leader or investigator, your demeanor needs to appear open and unbiased. If a participant feels they are being vilified, judged, or not believed, their mental health may suffer. This will also prevent the investigation from going smoothly, because the participant won’t feel like they can communicate without being defensive. Meanwhile, if participants are given the opportunity to speak without interruptions or judgement, they will likely give more complete, meaningful contributions to the investigation.

Restore confidence, trust and cooperation

An employee may feel awkward returning to work following a suspension. Feeling unwelcome in your workplace, regardless of reason, does not breed positive mental health.

In these cases, make it clear that the employee will not work under a black cloud of judgment. Instead, make it clear that their return is a good thing, and that you are confident in their ability to fulfill their role in the company.

To do this, ensure that the investigation does not simply lead to a punishment, but that clear guidance on how to move forward in a positive way is also provided.

In conclusion, a workplace investigation can leave adverse effects on the mental health of those involved or affected by it. In order to achieve a positive result, it is important to consider the steps outlined above to ensure that the investigation does not result in any unintended harm towards participants. A professional investigator can help you ensure that conflict is handled fairly, thoroughly and quickly.