The question is an excellent one and is something that should be considered when an investigation occurs in a workplace. Regardless of whether it’s done internally or externally, people are impacted by it.
Sometimes, you have people that have registered a complaint in good faith but it just doesn’t reach the bar of the violation they have complained about. The complainant believes he or she has been wronged because in his or her mind; the complaint is real and an incorrect conclusion was met.
On the flip side of that, you have an individual who has been accused of something and supervisors, peers or subordinates are made privy to that through the course of the investigation. Whether the complaint is founded or not, there has been feelings expressed; perhaps the sense that confidences have been shared; and for a complaint who’s case in unfounded, there could be feelings of anger and mistrust moving forward.
So, what can an employer do about this? At the end, it does come down to perception but the fact remains, the complainant believes his or her complaint to be legitimate and harm is created by the mere fact that an investigation occurs and looks at people’s behaviours through a microscope.
I think, similar to when terminations occur for leaders in an organization, a conversation has to occur with those left behind (called survivor syndrome). Everyone is affected to some degree.
So, the fallout of the investigation should be dealt with regardless of whether the complaint is founded or not. Perhaps a discussion is managed through HR by coaching managers on how to let the ‘survivors’ know what they can. Perhaps the managers are well equipped to explain the process and without revealing any confidences, can explain what goes on in an investigation. You could even consider a staff meeting – not to reveal anything but to see how people are feeling about the process and what happened. Very generic stuff, but enough that people feel involved. After all, you sought their help and requested their honesty and confidentiality throughout; doesn’t that deserve acknowledgement or ‘thanks for your patience’ kind of talk.
This is something you can even invite your investigator to speak at (particularly if an outside person). As investigations are becoming more common all the time, I think it’s important to talk about processes, explain that things are not always as they seem, and offer counselling to the complainant (and the respondent) so they can better come to terms with what they’ve experienced.
I will add here that this is why I am a huge proponent of anti-bullying/harassment training being done face to face as opposed to on line or just through distributing documents. I think there could be an opportunity to assess the culture of the workplace – things change all the time.
Maybe you have an abrasive personality that is being perceived as a bully and that person should receive some training on how to communicate more effectively. Perhaps the complainant needs some resiliency training.
There are a number of options on how to manage the fall out but ignoring it is to do so at your own peril. If an organization is serious about having a healthy workplace and high levels of engagement, which leads to higher production; they have to think about what they are willing to invest in that.
Policies are obviously another part of the equation but unless they are followed fairly and are well communicated, they don’t have a lot of power or ability to actually change behaviours.
There is no magic bullet that is going to cure what happens after the fact but I do believe it will restore trust in the leadership and build stronger teams in the end.
Don’t forget that if leaders and managers don’t tell the stories and help their employees believe in them, who will? Stories will be told whether you tell them or not. Wouldn’t you rather be the one to nip rumors and inaccuracies of information yourself?
Sweeping problems under the carpet is going to hurt you far more than being transparent and maybe even a wee bit vulnerable. Not being afraid to demonstrate that you’re not perfect and sometimes complaints do come in (whether founded or not) you deal with them and you let people know they matter.