How to Investigate Discrimination in the Workplace

Last summer ushered an era of social justice where companies across all industries were held accountable for their contributions towards workplace discrimination. These reports resulted in adverse publicity for these companies, with some facing lawsuits.

Now more than ever, corporate leaders must build inclusive workplaces with zero tolerance for prejudice and inequality. Discrimination in the workplace won’t vanish overnight, even with training. Beyond setting aside diversity panels and teams, companies must establish policies to navigate allegations of discrimination in the workplace.

Here is a guide on how to investigate discrimination in the workplace:

1. Acknowledge the complaints

If you want to investigate discrimination in the workplace, you need to address the complaints properly. Treat the complainant with respect. Most times, HR teams respond negatively to accusations by dismissing complainants or downplaying the weight of the allegations. It’s challenging coming out to accuse a colleague of discriminative behaviors. Defensive reactions can escalate the issue, which often ends in lawsuits or PR problems for the employer.

Instead, take an empathetic approach and listen to what the complaining party has to say. Thank them for raising the issue and take swift action. Acknowledging their concerns sends a positive message to other employees and also encourages internal conflict resolution.

2. Provide protection against retaliation

Ensure confidentiality of all involved parties. Keep all information private when necessary until the end of the investigation. Limit the communication between the accused and complaining party to avoid retaliation. There are many circumstances of people receiving threatening emails from other colleagues after reporting workplace discrimination.

Protect them from further harassment and retaliation at work. Sometimes, companies suggest short leaves and work breaks during investigations like this. However, avoid involuntary transfers or actions that burden the complainant. Subtle forms of retaliation also include pay cuts, isolating the complainants, etc. Ensure they don’t feel punished for speaking out since they’re the supposed victim in this scenario.

3. Set up an investigation team

Before looking into the report, consider hiring an external legal team on standby in case litigation happens. Seeking legal advice could provide an amenable solution to the dispute. Next, set up an investigation team to get the facts of the matter.

Members of this team must have experience in interviewing and investigative knowledge. They should also have a neutral stance and adequate information about employment laws. If you’re concerned about objectivity and qualifications, hire a corporate investigation service to help out. For instance, many legal offices offer investigative services. Other examples include independent HR professionals and internal security teams.

4. Establish timeline to gather relevant information

Prepare for the interview and establish the timeline for accuracy. Determine the order for the interviews and create an organized system before beginning. Consider starting with the accuser since they placed the report. Don’t forget to write a short list of witnesses and a corresponding file for their testimonies. Set aside an internal location for the interviews and build an efficient schedule that won’t clash with their job duties.

5. Set up interviews with involved parties

Ensure to have all members of the panel present during the interviews. Keep the sessions as private as possible to avoid crowding. Consider holding the sessions at different time slots to avoid queuing at the entrance.

Follow an outline of relevant questions and get the complainant’s report in writing to set the pace. The interview format, while flexible, should ask questions like “who, why, what, and where”. Consider speaking to potential witnesses, like employees who interact with both parties in professional capacities.

The accused should also answer questions that establish their participation in the case. Beyond this, the company must maintain fairness and balance by seeking clarity and credibility when speaking to the accused.

6. Write and review the report

Encourage all parties to submit relevant documents, like text messages, emails, evaluation reports, and internal communications records. With discrimination reports, presenting physical evidence can speed up the investigation process.

Assess the documents and add them to the investigation file. Investigators must document details of the process, from their notes to the interview responses. Other details to record include dates, names of individuals present, a summary of allegations, policy violation, and a narration of all presented information. Investigators must also legible notes and records.

7. Recommend and take actions

Depending on the investigation report, the organization must take measures directed by employment law and company policy. The company policy must encourage balance to ensure a positive outcome.

After presenting crucial facts, the company’s legal and human resources teams should propose recommended legal disciplinary actions. With a settlement, establish an enforceable agreement that’s fair to both parties, especially the accuser.

8. Follow up on the investigation

Assess the impact of the investigation on the organization and its employees. Cases of discrimination can lower employee morale. The investigation might uncover structural problems within the organization.

Follow up with the witnesses and complaining employees to inform them of the results of the investigation. This will assure the staff of the company’s response to discrimination and encourage other complainants to come forward. Set up a catch-up session to determine if the complaining employee has additional reports and if they’re comfortable with the working environment.