What HR Won't Tell You: Employee Complaint Investigations
What You Don't Know Could Hurt You After All
Workplace Investigations: Observations From An HR Insider
If you're an employee who is thinking about filing a complaint with your HR department or corporate compliance hotline, you may not have a practical understanding of what goes on behind the scenes, especially if you are new to filing an internal complaint.
While all companies have different processes for managing complaints, here is a list of 23 observations from a former corporate HR Investigator.
How much do you trust your Human Resources department to resolve employee complaints fairly?
1. You're in our database now
If you are assigned a case number, your complaint was probably entered into a computer database. The company tracks case details such as name, job title, and contact information for the complainant, Person Complained About (PCA), and any named witnesses.
Additionally, the computer record captures a summary of the allegations you made. It can be pulled up years later. Who can access it now? Well, plenty of interested parties.
2. Too many people may be in the loop
You trust HR to share your complaint with key personnel on only a "need-to-know" basis. But here's the kicker: because executives desperately want to know about compliance and people issues that affect their department, this "need to know" list can become quite extensive.
Too many people may be in the loop when HR is unable to effectively push back against unnecessary requests from nosy executives. Depending on the nature of your complaint and the politics in your organization, the distribution list can include a long list. This includes executives both inside your department and out, plus employees in the Law department, personnel in Audit, Finance, IT, Security, Compliance, and multiple layers of HR. That's a lot of inquiring minds crawling all up in your confidential business!
Secret Keeper or Something Else?
3. You're not alone
If only you knew how many complaints mirror your own! The truth is: you're probably not alone, although it can sure feel that way.
HR tracks, counts, and reports on complaint data, and they typically use a labeling scheme to code allegations (e.g., theft, sexual harassment). This permits data analysis on large numbers of complaints. For example, the company may look at trends in the number and types of discrimination cases for this year versus previous years.
Of course, how HR codes your case is important. Hopefully, you were very clear about what issue prompted your complaint. Why is that important?
4. Sometimes codes are changed to fit a political purpose
In the face of significant pressure from top executives, sometimes HR management re-codes "borderline" cases, so the numbers don't look quite as bad. For example, an allegation of discrimination might become a generic management conduct issue. This is such an ethically slippery slope! And it's how systemic problems are swept under the rug.
5. Staying anonymous is hard (if not impossible)
If you make an anonymous complaint, a good HR Investigator can often logically deduce who you are. That's simply good detective work!
Sharing, Caring, and Competence
6. Data security may be lacking
HR may routinely email detailed investigation reports to one another or executives that are not password protected and are unencrypted. That's your information they're handling sloppily.
HR employees may accidentally leave materials on copying machines and printers or displayed on computer screens when they leave their desks "for just a moment." The investigator might even take your case file home. File materials may contain information that is not only personally identifying but also very sensitive, putting you at risk in more than one way.
Your Case File is Here Somewhere ...
7. Yep, executives ARE treated differently
You suspected this was true. Executives and other special people are often treated differently than you. Their investigations are often faster, more discreet and informal.
When they misbehave, their consequences are typically less severe and poorly documented. When serious misbehavior is substantiated, they may have a broader range of face-saving options (e.g., early retirement, a mutual resignation agreement). Sadly, instead of holding them to higher standards, HR representatives often do the opposite.
8. You're being talked about
Your case may be discussed in internal HR team meetings or special meetings with Law, Audit, Compliance, Executives, or others. It's not a gossip session; it's a business meeting about your case. There can be a discussion about the facts of your case, findings, and recommended action steps.
9. You could have a lousy investigator
Your investigator may be
- poorly trained or inexperienced
- may have a performance issue himself or
- suffer HR issues of his or her own.
Some companies rotate their HR employees through various HR sub-specialties (e.g., Benefits, Training), and you may have been assigned the new investigator who doesn't know EEO law or company policy very well.
If you don't seem to be getting good service, find out more about the investigator in a low-profile, respectful manner. Also, be sure to document your communications with him or her. With sufficient reason, you might also request another investigator.
10. Business may be booming in Investigations
There are a number of factors that could affect how long your case takes to be investigated. Case volume tends to peak at certain times (i.e., during performance evaluation season, layoffs, reorganizations). The investigator may have a huge caseload, may be going on vacation, may be out sick with no back-up, and these factors will affect the amount of time for your case to be resolved. Your case may also be handed off to another investigator.
To avoid surprises, ask upfront for an estimate of how long the case should take to resolve, and arrange for periodic check-ins, as appropriate. If you don't hear anything, check in. Don't assume that no news is good news.
11. You're being documented
A good investigator is documenting every key discussion he or she has with you. This includes the conversation date, time, and what was said. It may also include voice mails that were exchanged. Copies of emails and important documents are also kept in the file. Watch the tone and content of the emails you send to investigators!
Are You the Topic of This Meeting?
12. You can talk to select others about your case
When the investigator tells you to keep the investigation matter confidential, it's going to feel like you cannot talk to anyone about this. Maybe he or she even presents you with a company document that directs you to refrain from talking to others about your case.
You may wonder whether you can discuss the matter with your spouse, clergy person, therapist, lawyer, best friend, a coworker who is experiencing the same problem, or your union representative, and so forth.
There are, in fact, people you are legally permitted to discuss your case with and those you cannot. Ask questions if the company provides you with such a document or if the investigator makes such a request. Don't suffer in silence. Know your rights.
13. Cubicle eavesdropping may be taking place
If you are talking to the investigator via phone, he or she may be sitting in a cubicle or talking on a cell phone in a public location where others might overhear the details of your conversation. After all, office space is at a premium.
14. How you communicate to the investigator matters
The investigator is evaluating your credibility, and it impacts the outcome of your case. For example: Do you change your story? Are you responsive to the questions asked, or do you wander off-topic? Do you have documents, details, and witnesses to support your assumptions and claims?
16. Conflict of interest, anyone?
The investigator might be friends or former colleagues with the person complained about. Check out the investigator's LinkedIn account to see if the two are connected.
15. You might receive feedback yourself
On occasion, it becomes apparent that the complainant has a major contributing role in the conflict. In such cases, the complainant may receive feedback (or on rare occasion, discipline) as the case is resolved. Alternatively, during the investigation an unrelated compliance matter could also surface.
17. Electronic eavesdropping:
Depending on the nature of the case, the investigator may electronically monitor your company email as a part of his or her research. This can be done in real time, and employees typically have no idea it's happening. I know because I've done it.
Frequent Flyers, Lawyers, and Other Realities
18. Oh, it's you again
HR often has a short list of employees who repeatedly file complaints — sometimes against the same employee and at other times against lots of different coworkers.
Maybe these folks aren't getting what they need. Maybe they are highly sensitive. Maybe they are abusing the system. Snarky HR investigators may refer to them as "frequent flyers," but each allegation has to be investigated on its own merits.
There's another group of red flag employees who have a history of prior complaints against them, yet they somehow manage to stay employed.
19. We're betting you won't contact an attorney
HR investigates many complaints and trusts that most employees will not go to the trouble or expense of contacting an attorney about their workplace concern. The more you have at risk, however, the more you should consider consulting one. Lawyers do tend to achieve more attention and better results.
20. Sometimes, it only looks like nothing was done
If the allegations were substantiated (i.e., found to have merit), you may be told simply that the matter was "handled appropriately." It could appear to you that nothing was done.
In fact, there are probably outcomes that you are specifically not told about because of concerns about the other party's privacy. For example: a disciplinary write-up, a reduced performance rating, early retirement, a pay cut, demotion, a big promotion denied, or a bonus that was withheld. You may never know exactly what was done to the offender.
21. A confidential case report may describe what happened in the case
At the conclusion of your case, the investigator may write a report about your case. A typical report contains background information on the key parties in the complaint, allegations made, steps taken during the investigation, the investigator's evaluative findings, and actions taken.
In the report, the HR Investigator also frequently documents credibility assessments for key parties in the complaint. You will not typically be granted access to this report, although some states consider investigation records to be part of the employee personnel file and therefore do allow access.
22. Substantiating a case takes more effort
Let's face it: it's much easier for the HR Investigator if a case has no merit. When a case is substantiated, the investigator must debrief management and agree on discipline and/or remedial action. Then, discipline must be administered and documented. The investigator may even have to present the case to his or her own management and vigorously defend findings and recommended actions, plus seek consult from the Law Department.
This extra work is simply a part of the HR Investigator's job. Appreciate them when you know they've been a conscientious investigator.
23. Role conflict
The HR Investigator may come across as neutral, polite, and professional, and you may trust him or her. You may even perceive you have HR in your corner. However, if you decide to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or take other action, that same HR Investigator will be helping to respond to your complaint.
In this case, that nice HR person will be helping to defend the company against your claim. Your relationship with the HR Investigator is a business one, so treat it as such.
HR Investigation processes differ from company to company. Should you ever need to file an internal employee complaint, this insider's list of observations can help you ask questions, set shared expectations, and understand the potential pitfalls. Good luck in your dealings with HR and others. Above all, remember that in the grand scheme of life, this is a JOB. Practice good self-care emotionally and physically. You'll get through this.
And You Thought You Were Going Through a Rough Patch ...
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