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Accused of Wrongdoing at Work: What to Do

FlourishAnyway is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist with applied experience in corporate human resources and consulting.

What to Do If You're Accused

What to Do If You're Accused

What to Do When an HR Investigator Calls

Facing accusations of misconduct at work is no joke. There's an old saying to pair with accusations: There are two sides to every story, and then there's the truth. If you've just received a heart-pounding call from HR, how can you present your perspective in the most positive light? After all, your promotability within the company, your professional reputation, and your job are on the line. In this article, I address the best way to reclaim your image given the circumstances.

Why You Should Trust My Advice

Having been a corporate Human Resources (HR) Investigator for two Fortune 500 companies, I am accustomed to unintentionally ruining an employee's day with a simple phone call. Hearing from me often meant an employee was first learning there was an allegation of misconduct against them. Usually, the allegation was serious: harassment, discrimination, theft/fraud, conflict of interest. You get the idea.

Typically, the employee's heart sank. I could tell. Some even joked with me that they felt panic or dread when they saw my number appear on their caller ID, wondering what they had done. Some already knew.

Although I wasn't seeking to ruin anyone's day, asking questions and reaching a finding was part of my job. I was a fact-finder.

Where Do You Start? Start Here.

Wipe the sweat off your brow. A lot is riding on the success of your conversation with HR. You must be ready to present your best self, and I am here to help. In this article I cover:

  1. How Should I Respond to a Complaint?
  2. How Do I Assert My Boundaries When I'm Under Investigation?
  3. How Do I Address Claims I Believe Are Unsubstantiated?
  4. How Do I Humanize Myself as the Person Complained About?
  5. How Do I Gather Information About the Complaint?
  6. What Rights Do I Have?
  7. What Do I Do If I'm Guilty?
Being called by an HR Investigator can make you feel like your behavior is under the microscope.

Being called by an HR Investigator can make you feel like your behavior is under the microscope.

1. How Should I Respond to a Complaint?

When you are contacted by an HR Investigator, you may feel a variety of intense emotions:

  • Your head may throb with angry and resentful thoughts of a coworker who has finally escalated an ongoing conflict.
  • You may feel shocked and confused because you have no clue who would want to hurt you this way.
  • You may feel frustrated that HR is wasting your time asking questions about what you feel is a fabricated complaint.

It is normal to have these feelings, and they are valid. It's important to take a deep breath and realize that the resentment, shock, and frustration you are feeling will not help you navigate the process. If you over-react, you could be demonstrating first hand for the investigator that what the complainant says is indeed true (e.g., that you're hot-headed, loud, rude and threatening, and/or emotionally unstable).

You must stay calm, listen, and do not over-react.

I Feel Upset. How do I React?

Instead of over-reacting, take a deep breath. Use a calm, steady voice to describe your emotional reaction.

For example, you can express that you are:

  • surprised because you're an excellent employee with 10 years of unblemished service with the company
  • disappointed that the complainant did not first attempt to approach you with the problem, or
  • that this is the first you're hearing of a problem (if that is indeed true).
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If you believe the investigator will find no merit to the complaint, confidently say so. Commit to full cooperation so that the complaint can be resolved quickly and you can get back to your job.

What Is the Investigator's Role?

As a fact-finder, it is the investigator's role to be neutral, to listen to all relevant parties, review evidence, and then make a determination. It's important to not become emotional around the person who will decide the outcome of your case.

Monitor Your Red Flag Behavior

Whether they are meeting with you in person or talking with you over the phone, investigators are alert for red-flag behavior.

Here is a quick overview of facial and body expressions as well as other behaviors that could indicate a problem, particularly when you exhibit them as a part of a pattern:

  • Defensive postures: arms folded tightly in front of your chest, hands in pockets, hiding hands
  • Signs of deception: rapid blinking, lack of eye contact, touching your face a lot, heavy sweating, fidgeting, nervous swallowing
  • Dominating behaviors: loud tone of voice, interrupting, swearing, frequent repetition, glaring, invasion of personal space, pounding fists, pointing, attempting to take notes on the investigator during the investigation
  • Passive behaviors: becoming quiet and withdrawn, slumping posture
  • Deflecting responsibility: "dropped" calls at critical points in the conversation (if this interview is via phone); counter complaints; you blame everyone else

Exhibiting these behaviors won't further your cause.

Make the Investigator's Job Easy

Although this is the only complaint you are involved in, the investigator probably has a docket of many other cases. Thus, you can help yourself by making their job as easy as possible.

Communicate Clearly: Offer precise times and dates when possible. Answer the investigator's questions directly. Be succinct. If you don't know the answer or don't remember, say so. Guessing could backfire on you.

Establish Your Credibility: The investigator is determining your credibility as you speak with them. Ask yourself:

  • Do you make misstatements then correct yourself upon further questioning?
  • Do you verbally attack the complainant, witnesses, or others who are discussed during the investigation?
  • Do you acknowledge your own shortcomings or your role in conflict (especially if it's obvious)?
  • Are you attempting to bully the investigator? (Not a good move, especially if you're being investigated for alleged bullying behavior!)

As an investigator, there have been PCAs that have impressed me with their candor and maturity. Rather than denying knowledge of the alleged behavior, they immediately owned up to it, said they regretted their actions, and told me why. This short-circuited the investigation.

Reader Poll

Rescheduling a call with an HR Investigator is more common than you know.

Rescheduling a call with an HR Investigator is more common than you know.

2. How Do I Assert Conversation Boundaries When I'm Under Investigation?

Say that HR contacts you when it's not a good time to talk—for instance, when you're driving, heading off to a meeting, or when you cannot talk without being overheard by another employee.

Don't agree to answer "just a few questions" about a confidential employee matter when you are unable to give your full, undivided attention to the investigator. The stakes are too high.

It's also not a good idea to discuss the matter when you have an audience, even if it's your cubicle neighbors. You don't know what the issue is about yet. Your cubicle neighbors could be involved somehow.

How to Reschedule a Time to Talk

  • If you are in an environment where others can overhear you, offer to call the investigator back from a private location such as an unoccupied conference room or empty office.
  • If you don't have time to talk, politely tell the investigator that you are heading off to a meeting (or whatever the case), and offer to reschedule. If the investigator nevertheless presses you to continue the conversation, push back with the statement that "the investigation is important to us both, and you deserve my full attention."

Above all, be professional and courteous.

Unsubstantiated Claims: What to Do If You Believe You're Not Guilty

Unsubstantiated Claims: What to Do If You Believe You're Not Guilty

3. How Do I Address Claims I Believe Are Unsubstantiated?

Not all complaints have merit. I typically substantiated about one-third of the complaints I investigated. This was in line with company norms and industry averages.

Some of the more vivid examples of unsubstantiated complaints from my time in HR included:

  • Anonymous allegations of drug abuse, foul and abusive language, and egregious sexual misconduct against the least likely of subjects (e.g., a very straight-laced employee).
  • Claims by an employee's ex-husband that a manager used sexual harassment to "lure" the man's ex-wife and many other women away from their spouses. The jealous ex-husband had a record of following her and making unfounded allegations.
  • A co-worker's repeated complaints that her entire workgroup was spying on her, pranking her work station, hiding key documents, and trying to make her think she was "crazy." The woman eventually disclosed that she suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was off her medication.

A professional investigator will approach each investigation with an open mind. He or she will review the facts and reach a decision based on the evidence. Cases are often not what they seem to be at first blush.

Address Motive

Understand the difference between making a false allegation—that is, deliberately lying about your actions—and simply misunderstanding your behaviors or intentions. Sample reasons for false allegations include revenge, bullying, and romantic relationships gone wrong.

If the allegation is a misunderstanding, can you help the investigator reasonably explain away your actions?

If instead, you assert that the Complainant has filed a false allegation, answer the investigator's burning question: "Why?" The investigator is interested in what motive would compel someone to fabricate a complaint against you. Messing with someone's livelihood is a pretty mean thing to do.

Provide the Names of Corroborating Witnesses

When relevant, suggest the names of witnesses who can corroborate your story. Specifically, state what the value of the witness is to the investigation. For example: