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Managing the fallout from a workplace investigation


They say that sometimes the aftershocks from an earthquake are as bad as the initial disaster.

When the ground stops moving people assume they’re safe and begin putting their lives back together, only to realize when it’s too late that the smaller, less dramatic seismic rumblings to come can send the structures around them crashing down. In the workplace context, the fallout from a protracted investigation into sexual harassment or bullying has its own aftershocks that can have equally catastrophic results.

Why? It’s common for business owners, managers and HR professionals to assume that because they’ve satisfied their obligation to investigate incidents or complaints of workplace harassment and have taken steps to deal with the investigation outcome, their job is done and it’s back to business as usual.

The reality is that in the wake of an investigation, a seemingly insignificant crack in morale can erupt into a far more damaging fissure derailing the organization’s culture. Organizations that ignore this fact do so at their peril.

Now, we can all agree that a post-incident emphasis on returning to business, as usual, makes sense. Leaders want to help employees regain their peak productivity, restore bottom-line growth and bring employee engagement to pre-investigation levels, while also making efforts to rebuild their damaged culture. The idea of dragging out an uncomfortable episode any longer than absolutely necessary is anathema to any leader, let alone one committed to the success of their organization.

This reality may cause leaders to opt for silence rather than transparent communications. Sometimes they simply don’t know what to say, so they say nothing for fear of creating greater challenges, say, by making inaccurate or ill-advised statements. Employee rumour mills grind into high gear. In the absence of information, people create their own narrative. Cliques can form and employees will often take sides, even with the alleged harasser, which can lead to workplace bullying and exclusion. Management inevitably finds it near impossible to regain control of the message. Staff become disgruntled and dread the thought of working in such a toxic environment. Employee turnover spikes and the organization’s financial performance suffers further.

To be clear, this isn’t some far-fetched doomsday scenario. We see this playing out routinely in the client engagements where we’re asked to help restore a workplace after an investigation when the organization is unfortunately in reactive mode.

One of the most infamous examples of the impact of a disruptive workplace investigation comes courtesy of our national broadcaster. Most of us will recall the devastating effect that the probe into alleged bullying and sexual harassment by former Q host Jian Ghomeshi inflicted on the CBC and its workplace culture. Some say the episode was a catalyst for the #MeToo movement in Canada.

A leaked employee engagement survey from 2015 quantified the extent of those cultural aftershocks. It found that CBC employees’ ‘pride of association’ in their employer fell to 69 percent from 92 percent in 2012. Overall employee satisfaction with the CBC fell to 42 percent from 69 percent, while only 29   of employees who participated in the survey felt management was able to effectively deal with “situations that may threaten or harm employees.” And that was three years after the initial incident.

So, what’s an overworked, budget-conscious, growth-hungry CEO to do when faced with the prospects of managing a potentially costly investigation, as well as its aftermath? As counterintuitive as it may sound, look at this as an opportunity to optimize your workplace policies and procedures to ensure they’re not only legally compliant and crafted to mitigate potential labour and employment law risk, but also address the unique needs of your organizational culture.

This is an opportunity to use those policies to develop a progressive plan to move past the disruptive incident and build a better workplace. This is a chance to make your leaders visible and accountable, to liaise with both middle-managers and employees to reassure them that the organization will emerge stronger. This is the time to remind staff that your management group is competent and has a strategy to deliver ongoing success.

Communication is critical to the process, as is leadership training. Give managers the tools they need to re-engage their teams and address simmering issues, including methods to track employee performance and make operational adjustments as needed to restore key performance indicators. Leaders should not only be available, but proactive in their dealings with employees. Have managers arrange a one-on-one, small-group or town hall meetings (tactics will vary depending on the size of the organization) to listen to employee concerns and generate ideas on how to make your workplace not only less toxic but more effective at delivering its products or services. Just remember to keep the primary focus on employee wellness and engagement.

Restorative teambuilding activities and a renewed alignment around strategic priorities—potentially with the launch of exciting new initiatives—can be important final steps. Tough decision-making will likely be needed. Some employees may remain cynical and disengaged and may have to be reassigned or their employment terminated to allow the workplace to move past the incident and restore its culture. This is where effective leaders earn their stripes.

The bottom line is that companies that make a difference, that attract and retain top talent and manage consistent growth are those that navigate disruption and leverage it to their advantage. As structural foundations are crumbling, the strongest leaders are already looking to build them back up


As the founder and principal of Williams HR Law Professional Corporation and Williams HR Consulting Inc., Laura boasts more than two decades of experience providing strategic advice and legal representation to employers on a full range of labour and employment law matters.  Her core areas of practice include pre-termination advice and strategy, labour relations, workplace safety and insurance, wrongful dismissal litigation, workplace investigations, human rights, disability management, workplace violence and harassment compliance, privacy compliance, employment standards, workplace policies, employment contracts, restrictive covenants and workplace culture recovery.

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