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Restoring the workplace following a harassment investigation

By Laura Williams


It’s a nightmare event for any organization: A manager or key employee, such as a top salesperson, faces a lengthy investigation into allegations of sexual harassment or some other form of serious workplace misconduct.

The investigation takes months and the manager is removed from the office while the fact-gathering is underway. Employees begin whispering about the incident, pre-judging the outcome and questioning the strength of the organization’s culture. Senior leaders – feeling constrained by confidentiality – are less than forthcoming with information, further fueling the gossip. Morale, productivity and engagement are seriously impacted, and a few employees consider departing for competitors.

The investigation ultimately concludes that the allegations of misconduct against the manager are not substantiated and the manager is reinstated to her managerial responsibilities. Despite being vindicated through the process, the manager’s direct reports now openly question her authority, not to mention the credibility of senior leadership, who expect that the case is closed and that it should be back to business as usual.

They couldn’t be more mistaken.

Scenarios such as this one play out almost daily for organizations of all sizes and across industries. Many management teams and HR professionals believe that when an investigation wraps, their work is done when, in some respects, it’s only just beginning. The reality is that workplace investigations can have a devastating effect on organizational morale, negatively impacting everything from employer brand – which impacts an organization’s ability to engage, attract and retain its employees – to bottom-line performance.

That’s why it’s important to be proactive and develop a comprehensive workplace restoration strategy outlining the various tactics needed to repair an organization’s damaged morale and operational effectiveness in the event of a disruptive workplace incident.

It starts by customizing a restoration plan that sets out exactly how the organization will address and, potentially, rebuild culture when a challenging scenario (such as the investigation described above) occurs. Think of it as a crisis management roadmap that includes important details from communications roles for key managers and HR personnel to restorative activities (e.g. team building measures) and even key performance expectations that should be attained and maintained when employees participate in the restoration process.

The plan should include a post-incident assessment that determines who may have been impacted by the incident, how badly and what the implications are for the organization’s employee engagement, as well as employer and business brand.

Key assessment considerations include evaluating the external impact to the organization’s reputation and what public relations response is required if the incident gains media attention. Internally, it’s important to evaluate how employees are dealing with the incident and how they perceive the organization’s response. When negative, those impressions – fair or not – will often mar their view of the organization.

Gleaning this information could involve everything from employee surveys and facilitated townhall-style meetings to employee focus groups or one-on-one interviews. Organizations may choose to involve third-party consultants at this stage to help assess and manage the process in an objective manner.

Senior leaders should be made available to employees, middle managers and even clients throughout the restoration process – daily, in some cases – as they provide reassurance that the business is taking steps to address the impact of the incident. This communication strategy should include targeted messaging delivered consistently to employees. Senior leaders will also be the ones coaching mid-level managers, who will be largely responsible for monitoring employee morale and productivity with a goal of returning it to pre-incident levels. This is where activities such as team-building events designed to reinforce esprit de corps and rebuild confidence in the organization can be important.

Whether vindicated or disciplined as a result of the investigative outcome, the employee(s) who faced the allegations will need support reintegrating into the workplace and regaining respect among staff. If the individual is removed from the workplace as a result of the investigation process, the emphasis should shift to setting up their replacement for success and encouraging the team to work towards a fresh start by realigning them with the organization’s core values and refocusing on shared goals for success.

However, what happens when even the most effective workplace restoration plan fails to resonate? There are situations when cynical, disengaged employees become a toxic presence in the workplace. It may be necessary to reassign or even physically relocate individuals to help curb gossip-mongering or the outright negativity that can metastasize and poison the work environment. Although in some cases, the only effective way to deal with jaded employees is through termination, but only as a last resort after other corrective measures have been exhausted.

Not to be overlooked, the organization’s workplace policies should be drafted in a manner that shores up the restoration plan. Policy content should include key themes that can effectively pre-empt and neutralize anticipated fallout and behaviours that usually manifest during and in the wake of a workplace investigation process, such as rumour-mongering, pre-judgments, fault-finding and brand/leader credibility loss.

For example, that means ensuring that workplace policies, such as those related to harassment, emphasize that an employee placed on a non-disciplinary suspension should not be prematurely presumed guilty of wrongdoing; that no conclusions should be made by a leader regarding the investigation because communications will be constrained by confidentiality; and that gossiping about the investigation can compromise the process and its outcome. Policies can also be effective in pre-acknowledging the impact that an investigation process could have on workplace culture and in socializing employees to expect that restorative activities may be undertaken to repair any adverse impact.

Now, some leaders will question the logic or priority of building a workplace restoration plan to manage a challenge that may never arise. However, as any experienced HR professional can attest, even minor issues can develop into costly, stressful and devastating problems that become challenging to resolve if they escalate. In that sense, taking a proactive approach to workplace restoration is a hedge against worst-case scenarios that could threaten the organization’s overall success.

At a time of increased competition, when everything from innovation to the recruitment and retention of top talent are such crucial considerations for organizations, being caught off-guard by a disruptive workplace incident simply isn’t worth the risk.


Laura Williams is the founder, a principal and lawyer of Williams HR Law and Williams HR Consulting. Attend Williams’ presentations, “Restoring the Workplace: #AfterTheInvestigation,” on Jan. 30 at 11 a.m., and, “Bill 148 Amendments to the Labour Relations Act: One Year Later,” on Jan. 30 at 3 p.m.



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