Remote work hasn’t removed the potential for misconduct, so HRM asked an expert for tips to conduct investigations remotely.
Warning: this story discusses instances of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Moving to remote work presented a lot of hurdles for organisations trying to recreate the office experience. How do you replicate collaborative brainstorming? How will managers oversee their teams? What about coworker socialising and friendships?
Technology for the most part has allowed many workplaces to effectively move those experiences into the virtual spaces, but unfortunately, some of the insidious aspects of work have also followed the move online.
Earlier this year whistleblowing service Your Call reported an increase in allegations of workplaces misconduct particularly in regards to misappropriation of personal protective equipment. But it doesn’t stop with theft.
“We’re still seeing bullying, still seeing harassment, discrimination, fraud to a certain extent, and sexual harassment. I don’t think having a remote workforce changes the circumstances. The same types of behaviour still occur,” says Jason Clark, workplace investigator and director at dispute resolution organisation, Worklogic.
Remote workplaces present two main issues for identifying misconduct. Firstly, Clark says a lack of visibility can make it easier for misconduct to go undetected. Secondly, the removal of incidental or informal conversations between leaders and employees can reduce the likelihood of an employee feeling comfortable enough to make a complaint.
Spotting the symptoms
“You might start to see things like lack of engagement, increased absenteeism or you might even start to hear a little bit of grumbling around minor disputes and some increased tension. You need to keep an eye on the little symptoms,” says Clark.
When it comes to inter-colleague misconduct like harassment or bullying, the reliance on online communications can make it easier for perpetrators to connect with a victim.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic technology-facilitated sexual harassment was an issue. The groundbreaking Respect@Work report released earlier this year found three per cent of respondents to the 2018 National Survey on Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces said they had been sexually harassed through email, text messages or social media communication.
Clark says HR and team leaders need to dial-in to their employee’s emotions and reactions.
“You can feel it when you’ve got someone on the phone that there’s something that they want to tell you but they just don’t know how to broach. Or if you’ve got a zoom meeting going on and there’s a little bit of tension there’s not a free flow to the conversation, that’s when managers need to think ‘maybe there is something going on here’.”
When an employee comes forward with a complaint of misconduct, Clark says it’s important to act quickly.
“From a practice point of view, you always try to do the investigations as quickly as you possibly can. Fortunately, I think remote work adds a certain level of availability now. People tend to be a bit more available for meetings so we’ve found that the process has organically sped up recently.”
Clark says the first step in an investigation is to organise a meeting with the person making the complaint. Use this meeting to collect as much information as possible because that will inform you whether an official investigation should proceed.
“The first step should always be setting up a meeting with the complainant. If you’re doing that over video call you really need to make sure the technology works and everyone can use it,” he says.
“The last thing you want, especially in a meeting involving a sensitive matter, is for the person on the other end to feel unheard or frustrated by technology.”
For this meeting, the complainant should be given the opportunity to bring a support person along. This process is vital and can’t be ignored, even in a remote setting.
“Maybe that means having a group video call or something like. Whatever you choose, it’s really important that level of support is available to everyone involved in the process,” says Clark.
The next step is to follow your misconduct policy. Clark says even if your policy doesn’t explicitly refer to remote work, the bones of the policy should be applicable.
“You may need to be a bit dynamic and adapt it for the remote environment.” At the end of the investigation, it’d be good to review your policy to include remote investigations.
Most investigations will have three stages: engaging with the complainant, collating evidence (including speaking to witnesses), and finally engaging the respondent (the person the complaint is about).
Clark outlines the process he took with a remote client in rural Australia.
“I was sent the letter of complaint. Then I made contact with the complainant to introduce myself and explain the process.”
Clark met with the complainant over Zoom, and used the software to talk through the letter of complaint and other relevant documents.
“I showed the documents by sharing my screen but I also emailed it to them afterwards, so that they could make sure that we’re happy with it and make any other comments. We also record the interviews and send the transcripts to them,” says Clark.
“It’s crucial you give them that opportunity to verify what was shown to them on the screen is the same as what you’re referring to.
“I needed to speak to a couple of witnesses, which I did in the same manner [over Zoom]. And then I drafted the allegations and issued them to the respondent. A day later, after they’ve had some time to consider their response, I do a similar interview.”
It is important all participants are given the same treatment, says Clark. If you conduct a Zoom call with the complainant then you should do the same with the respondent.
Once an investigation is over you will need to consider the steps needed to prevent recurrences.
“Not every misconduct investigation ends in a termination of employment. So if the involved parties will still be working together then there needs to be a proper resolution to the issue.
“That might be mediation, or conflict coaching, whichever route you decide it’s imperative you deal with it so those feelings aren’t there bubbling under the surface.”