Accused of Wrongdoing at Work: What to Do
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:
- How Should I Respond to a Complaint?
- How Do I Assert My Boundaries When I'm Under Investigation?
- How Do I Address Claims I Believe Are Unsubstantiated?
- How Do I Humanize Myself as the Person Complained About?
- How Do I Gather Information About the Complaint?
- What Rights Do I Have?
- What Do I Do If I'm Guilty?
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).
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.
HR Investigators are best described as
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.
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.
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:
"Mary Smith and John Green can both tell you that during our team meeting on July 15 between 2-3:00 p.m., the Complainant specifically told the group that she was not offended by my comment."
Offer Supporting Evidence
Provide the investigator any important evidence that supports your point of view. Examples include emails, performance and training documents, voice mails, etc. When possible, transfer such documents to them over email. (You may need to provide proof at some point that you supplied this.)
Sometimes you may also have evidence that points in the opposite direction of your guilt (called "contrary indicators"). For a discrimination claim, for example, you may not have promoted the Complainant, but if for example, you recommended her for an award and appointed her to a key committee, then that tends to refute your discriminatory intent. Offer the information.
Reader Experience Poll
Have you ever been accused of wrongdoing in the workplace?
4. How to Humanize Yourself as the Person Complained About (PCA)
A person with an allegation filed against them is called a Person Complained About (PCA). When an HR Investigator meets with the PCA, they have typically already met with the Complainant.
The investigator has heard the ugly details about your alleged misbehavior. In addition, the Complainant probably has also shared any history of the relationship between you two. At this point, the investigator usually has a lop-sided picture characterization of the PCA as an awful employee, mean coworker, and spiteful human being.
But thankfully, they are calling you to talk with you personally and hear your side of the story.
Course Correct Your Reputation
You must disabuse the investigator of the Complainant's negative characterizations of you as an evildoer. Understand that going into your interview the investigator has heard a one-sided story. You need to tip the scales in your favor.
Use all the charm you have in your personal toolbox. You're not just another "case" or PCA. Instead, ensure that the investigator perceives you as an employee who made an honest mistake—or as someone who has been terribly misunderstood, falsely accused, etc.
Establish a Personal Connection With the Investigator
Establish a warm rapport early on so that the investigator sees you as a human being. Look for similarities between you both. Engage in brief small talk, as appropriate, without delaying the investigation (e.g., "I remember you. Didn't you previously work in the HR Benefits department?").
To counter your negative portrayal by the Complainant, you can also interject relevant information about your work history and relationships with others throughout the conversation.
For example, if this is the first complaint against you, calmly say so. If there is someone who repeatedly files unsubstantiated complaints against you, volunteer that information and ask for the investigator's help.
Establish a connection with the HR Investigator so that the investigator knows you as a person, not just as a PCA.
5. How Do I Gather Information About the Complaint?
Despite having spoken to the investigator, you may feel like you are in the dark about the complaint against you. The investigator may withhold some important details about the complaint (e.g., who complained, the exact nature of the complaint, what witnesses have been talked to).
For this reason, it's important to try to gather information from the HR Investigator in a non-confrontational manner. Ask:
- "What can you tell me about why we are here?" or
- "What can you tell me about the complaint against me? I've never been through this before."
Listen carefully to their response and ask details, clarifying when you can (e.g., "So am I being accused of sexual harassment?") Be sensitive to when the investigator is ready to move on, however. All complaints have to be investigated, and you might just be blowing the situation out of proportion.
Information You Must Learn From Your Conversation With the Investigator
Before your conversation ends, be sure you understand the following:
- The investigator's name, phone number, and email address
- What the investigation process involves
- The expected time frame for resolving the complaint
- How you will know when the matter is resolved and who will notify you
- Whether it is simply "business as usual" while the investigation is ongoing
- Whether you are permitted to speak with anyone else about the investigation (e.g., spouse, boss, co-workers, clergy, therapist, etc.).
If you had a complaint against you, could you get a fair hearing from your HR department?
6. What Rights Do I Have? (What At-Will Employment Means for You)
At-will employment means the employer can hire, fire, suspend or discipline an employee at any time, for any reason, or for no reason without incurring a legal penalty. In addition, the employer can change the terms and conditions of the working relationship based upon its business needs (e.g., reduce pay and/or benefits).
The converse of this working relationship is also true: the employee (you) may sever his employment ties should he see fit.
There are several exceptions to the at-will doctrine, such as retaliation or illegal discrimination. An employer cannot legally terminate an employee on account of the employee's sex, national origin, race, religion, color, age, disability, veteran status, or another legally protected status. Exceptions tend to vary by state, so check with the Department of Labor in your state for details.
All states except Montana presume employees to be at-will employees unless their employment is modified by contract (Guerin 2013). Union employees and high-level executives, for example, work under an employment contract.
A Summary of At-Will Employment
At-will employers have a lot of leeway. Therefore:
- As long as there is no discrimination or other violation of the law, they are not required to maintain fair procedures (although it would be smart to do so).
- Unlike in criminal court processes, an at-will employee does not have the right to remain silent or to confront his/her accuser.
- The accused does not have a right to be represented by an attorney.
- The accused does not have to consent to discipline. Discipline can range from a letter to one's personnel file to discharge of employment.
6. How to Handle the Truth If You're Guilty
Some of the most unfortunate situations have involved employees who lied during the course of the investigation, often out of embarrassment or fear of repercussions. For example, more than once I have encountered a star employee who turned a minor violation into a terminable offense by lying about it.
These folks didn't have to get themselves fired. People make mistakes in both their personal and professional careers, and they could have simply owned up to it. Whether through security videos, time card records, multiple witnesses to the contrary, or recantations of your previous statements, evidence will often make it obvious that you lied.
Being lied to is an assault on one's integrity, and the investigator does not appreciate it. If you have engaged in misbehavior and are tempted to lie to cover it up, take your lumps. Own up to what you've done and move on, whatever that involves. You could be out of a job regardless, but at least your integrity will be intact.
My experience as an investigator is that eventually the truth has a way of catching up with people.
Summary: If You're a PCA, Own Your Truth
Allegations of misconduct in the workplace can happen to anyone. Now that it has happened to you, commit yourself to seeing that the complaint be resolved quickly and fairly. Put your best foot forward during the investigation using the following tips:
- Stay calm rather than venting emotionally. The HR Investigator is not your therapist.
- Watch red flag behaviors that could trip you up.
- If the investigator contacts you at an inconvenient time, ask upfront to reschedule.
- Connect with the investigator so that they see you as a person, not just a PCA (person complained about).
- Gather key bits of information about the complaint, the process, and the follow-up.
- Help resolve the complaint by communicating clearly, establishing your credibility, addressing motive, and offering both evidence and the name of any witnesses.
- If you are guilty, be an adult and just take your lumps.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Where do I find a lawyer who will defend me against false accusations of a hostile work environment? In my situation, it is all my word against theirs, and the investigator took stock in their word and not mine. I believe they collaborated and got their stories together before their interviews. I did not have that opportunity. I am in a situation where the management wants me gone anyway, so I feel like this was a sanctioned hit.
First, be aware that most companies do not permit attorneys or anyone else to represent an employee during an internal investigation. The exception will be being represented by your union steward if you work under a collective bargaining agreement (labor contract). You can always ask, but expect to be turned down.
Even so, an attorney consultation may help you to assess the strength of your case and provide specific legal advice. The lawyer can be especially helpful if the company fires you or otherwise severs your employment.
Alternatively, if you later file for unemployment or file an external complaint with a government agency such as the EEOC, the lawyer can be helpful in arguing on your behalf. (They are NOT required; you can always represent yourself. However, they know the process better and can be your paid advocate.)
If looking for an attorney, you're looking for one who specializes in employment/labor law. The best source is a reliable person you know and trust who is an attorney or paralegal himself/herself. Ask for a word-of-mouth recommendation. If you can't get that, try www.lawyers.com or www.findlaw.com and look for an employment attorney who is licensed to practice in your state. These types of sites provide names and details on attorneys in your area. You want someone who represents plaintiffs/employees.Helpful 25
I had an arrest 10 years ago and was exonerated. Today I found out that someone sent a copy of the arrest to my corporate offices. Now I am being questioned. Do I have the right to request the documentation that corporate received?
The person who sent this seems to have some vendetta against you. Consider who this might be so that if appropriate, you can share the information with HR and maybe even your local police. As an investigator, I’ve seen people do this type of thing to an ex-spouse or someone they were stalking in an attempt to embarrass their target and jeopardize their target’s job. I’m not trying to put an idea in your head, just telling you that you know the person who did this to you, although you may not be fully aware of their motivations. However, never take matters into your own hands by seeking retaliation.
As far as your question regarding whether the Company can ask you questions about your arrest from 10 years ago even though you were not convicted … that varies substantially from one state to another. The answer may also depend on the nature of both your job (e.g., teacher, firefighter, factory worker) as well as the crime in question (e.g., child endangerment, arson, shoplifting). Even how you are legally permitted to refer to an exonerated charge when talking to an employer also varies by state.
Therefore, check the state law where you are employed: https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/state-laws... . Here’s a smattering of how varied the laws are on this issue:
• Some states expressly forbid employers from asking ANY employment-related questions about arrests that did not result in a conviction.
• Other states limit this restriction to arrests for felony crimes.
• Some states prohibit employers from asking about arrest/conviction records that have been sealed, pardoned, or expunged; which occurred in the distant past (e.g., 10 years or more); or which are of a certain type (e.g., civil disobedience, marijuana-related).
• A handful of states do not restrict employers from asking any criminal history-related questions.
Note that federal protections in place generally encourage the employer to consider three factors when making employment decisions based on criminal background: 1) the nature and gravity of the criminal conduct, 2) how much time has transpired, and 3) relevance to the job. Arrests and convictions are especially contentious issues when it comes to employment decisions because of the disproportionate number of minorities with criminal records. If they aren’t careful, employers flirt with race discrimination allegations when they tread in the territory of considering arrest and conviction records.
Ask for a copy of the document that was sent to your Company if they’ll be relying upon it to make an employment-based decision. Also, they should provide you an opportunity to explain the circumstances, including that this was an arrest ONLY and NOT a conviction, that it was 10 years ago, you were exonerated, and–if true–this arrest is not job-related whatsoever and you’ve lived an exemplary life since. Exhaust them with a list of ways in which you are a model citizen, both within the workplace and outside. And importantly, be prepared to provide your copy of the official court or police records that show that you were exonerated. If there is someone that you think may be behind this, tell them their name and why they’d do this because usually, trouble doesn’t end here.
And should you feel ashamed of that past arrest that haunts you? Please don’t. You’ve been working hard earning an honest living. Don’t let someone shame you for this, no matter their motives. You’re not alone with having been arrested, as one in three Americans has been arrested by age 23. Hold your head up high and defend yourself against whoever is doing this unfairly to you.Helpful 1
My co-worker filed a false harassment claim against me which was not substantiated by an investigation. Should I now file a claim against my co-worker for falsely claiming harassment?
The investigation failed to substantiate your co-worker's complaint, so the matter is considered closed. Unless you're convinced that your coworker brought the complaint in bad faith (and if that were the case, I assume you would have raised it during the investigation, right?) then move on. You need to focus on moving forward, and that includes not retaliating against the person who brought the complaint.Helpful 18
My husband is accused of saying something that offended someone. After the investigation, can I sue my husband's coworker for defamation of character and unnecessary stress placed on our family due to the person's actions?
You might as well shoot yourself in the foot and shoot him in both feet. Not only would you lose your case and waste your money but you'd also do damage to your husband's career and his reputation as an adult able to think and act for himself. This is his trouble. He got himself into it and he'll get himself out of it and live with any career repercussions. Don't go piling on. Support him by LISTENING instead.
Few people raise a concern out of outright ill will and malice. Often it's a misunderstanding of what was said vs. what was meant. Based on my experience, about a third of the time, the accused actually did what they're accused of. You obviously believe your husband, but you weren't there and you don't actually know what happened. You're biased.
Also, this is simply something he allegedly said to offend. It could have been so much worse. Words can typically be repaired, and the two parties can move on. When you increase the stakes dramatically by threatening to sue someone, things can turn mighty ugly. He's also probably been warned against retaliation. A lawsuit is certainly retaliation and could cost him his job.Helpful 17
I work in a healthcare facility. My coworker has accused me of abusing a resident, but she did not document it. It is therefore just her word versus mine. How will the truth be determined?
It is not uncommon to see situations like this involving one employee making an allegation against another in which the only evidence provided is one's word that misconduct happened. In that situation, an investigator must review the case, determine the credibility of both parties, and determine who is telling the truth. Note that a workplace is NOT a court of law and therefore does not abide by a standard of "proof beyond a reasonable doubt."
Here are several factors that an investigator assesses in determining credibility:
1) Inherent plausibility: Is the account believable on its face? Does it make sense?
2) Demeanor: Does the person seem to be telling the truth or lying?
3) Motivation to lie: Does the person have a reason to lie?
4) Corroboration: Are there witness accounts such as those by eye-witnesses, people who saw the person soon after the alleged incidents, or people who discussed the incidents with him or her at around the time that they occurred? This includes social media posts. Is there physical evidence such as bruises on the resident that corroborates the person’s testimony?
5) Past record: Did the person complained about (PCA) have a history of similar behavior in the past?
If the resident is in a position to speak for him or herself, that could be particularly important, as well as any physical evidence on his/her body.Helpful 15
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