It has been about a year since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Canada. Almost nobody expected that, very suddenly, workplaces would experience a massive shift in the way that business is conducted. As many businesses continue to fight for survival, no doubt many projects and other priorities have likely been placed on the backburner including workplace investigations.
Delaying workplace investigations has many risks. Some of them are mentioned in my article Managing workplace investigations during COVID-19 pandemic, published in The Lawyer’s Daily.
Instead of postponing them, employers should view completing workplace investigations necessary to strengthen and keep the workplace safe for all upon returning to work.
Benefits to Employees and Employers
In a workplace harassment context, proceeding with workplace investigations can reduce the stress for the complainant and respondent who are waiting anxiously to learn about the investigation’s outcome and the actions that the business will take as a result. Also, it can reduce the stress for other employees, as they too may be affected by the alleged actions or inactions of the complainant or respondent.
When workplace investigations are conducted remotely, or with fewer employees physically at the workplace, knowledge of the investigation remains limited and the privacy of the parties and witnesses is better protected.
Moreover, the product of workplace investigations can increase workplace productivity. Failure to manage toxic relationships in the workplace, including in a temporarily remote workplace, increases employee stress and reduces workers’ productivity.
Conducting Workplace Investigations Safely
It is possible to conduct workplace investigations in a safe manner during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the vast majority of instances, workplace investigation can be conducted through video conferencing technology. When used by a skilled investigator, it provides the same quality of information as in-person interviews. This is particularly true when the issue being investigated is primarily based on documentary evidence as opposed to witness statements.
In some cases, the remote working environment of employees combined with the nature of the complaint may preclude some interviews from occurring due to concerns about privacy and forthrightness. But on balance delaying the investigation is riskier. If an individual is working from home and needs to be interviewed to respond to a sexual harassment complaint and is worried about privacy these should be discussed at the outset for an appropriate, comfortable, and safe solution.
Completing workplace investigations to address workplace harassment in a timely manner will allow employees to return to work with a fresh start and without interruption to their assigned tasks.
A few things employers should do now are:
- Acknowledge all harassment complaints received during the pandemic;
- Work with an experienced workplace investigator to develop and execute an appropriate plan to investigate complaints in a timely and safe manner; and
- Understand the challenges and concerns of employees when returning to work to identify how to address them for everyone’s benefit.