Words matter: keep the focus on the investigation
How many times have you walked away from a “tough conversation” and wished you had worded things differently?
Your choice of words in any given moment can be the difference between a constructive discussion and one that gets out of hand in a hurry.
Word choice matters even more when discussing workplace investigations with employees, employers, and colleagues to ensure a fair Internal Investigative Process.
How to choose the right words
It’s always important to select the word that de-escalates a situation and avoid legal emphasis. For example, we often say “we’re conducting an investigation” or “we’re investigating.” The keywords here are investigating and conducting to gather information about the issues.
Phrases like “factual information” should be used instead of “the facts.” While it may sound like you’re saying the same thing, they are different. In most cases, we may not be able to determine the facts; no matter the source, the information may not be accurate.
How often have you heard the term “allegations” in the media? While very commonly used in the community, it’s verbiage to avoid during a workplace investigation. A more neutral phrase to consider is: “information provided by the complainant.” In this same context, the term “accused” can have a stigma attached to it. In this case, “the respondent” is much more appropriate. Instead of calling people “witnesses,” refer to them as “people with information.”
Here’s a carefully phrased statement that remains neutral for the investigative process: “We are looking for people with information, so we can assess whether the information provided by the complainant involving a situation with the respondent is accurate.”
By choosing the right words, we ensure the internal investigation remains fair for all concerned. If we use the wrong words, it can escalate the situation and makes it hard to focus on the investigation itself.
Words Matter cheat sheet
Avoid these words/phrases:
- the facts
Try these instead:
- factual information
- information provided by the complainant
- the respondent
- people with information