Managing communications during a workplace investigation
Call it the grapevine, water cooler gossip or just plain old rumour spreading…when something happens at the office, the story can circulate like wildfire. The facts change, the speculation grows and before you know it, someone has gone home in tears and everyone thinks everyone is getting fired.
Communicating during a workplace issue is an important, yet sensitive, practice that must be taken care of quickly, efficiently and with as much transparency as possible. Gone are the days of sending an uninformative holding statement to your entire staff body, hope no one asks more questions and carry on with business as usual.
As the expectations of a psychologically safe work environment increase — as they should — so does the importance of conducting diligent and thorough workplace investigations. But with those investigations must come effective, strategic communications.
Employee communications…before an investigation
Start by establishing a foundation of communications around employee culture. Consistent, effective outreach about the support programs available for staff, education around a psychologically safe work environment and guidance on how to file a complaint all contribute to someone feeling more confident to come forward.
There is often a perception that anyone who complains at a company gets fired. That feeling comes from uncertainty that is created by a lack of employee communication. When you leave everything to speculation and rumour, the reputation of your company is damaged from the inside out.
Earn the trust and respect of your team from their first day, allowing them to feel empowered, safe and confident in their environment.
Communications evaluation in the moment
As soon as there is a workplace investigation underway at your company, communications should be involved and it starts with a triage of who needs to know what.
Some employees or stakeholders could be offered more information than others because of their proximity to the situation. Being transparent with those individuals and groups will go a long way to establish trust and confidence through the investigation process.
Transparency doesn’t mean you compromise the privacy of the individuals directly involved. It means you provide an honest update — in person or on the phone. This is not email communication.
- Acknowledge there’s an investigation underway
- Clarify the individuals will be working from home, on admin leave etc. (i.e. they are not fired)
- Explain the investigation process and outline if/how they will be included
- Reminder of confidentiality
- Provide access to resources and space for a safe conversation
Providing these immediate teams with a bit more context is important and part of them continually feeling safe at work. Follow up the conversation with an email of resources and tools your employees can access and encourage them to reach out with questions.
As you look to other groups, evaluate who needs to know what and how best to communicate. You may learn an employee in another department has a deeper connection to the parties involved than you knew. Reach out, talk to them and give them the space to communicate.
Wider communication to larger organizations needs to be evaluated carefully. An email blast to a big company can be a recipe for disaster; emails get forwarded with no context and you’re back to the rumour mill.
Instead, use this as an opportunity to reinforce your company values, ways people can get support and remind them of the available training and tools for ensuring their psychological well-being.
Communication doesn’t stop when the investigation does
When you communicate about the outcome of the investigation, it needs to go beyond saying the right things. Focus on action and what happens now. How are you taking steps to improve the culture? How can employees play a role in that change? Why should they?
A workplace investigation is not the moment to shut down communication and operate behind closed doors. Showing your employees you take complaints seriously and will conduct proper due diligence goes a long way to protecting and enhancing your corporate reputation from the inside out.
Melanie Nicholson is the Principal/Owner of MLC & Co., a boutique communications firm based in Calgary, AB.