Observations from an internal workplace investigation

Bill Pinto details what goes on during an internal investigation in the workplace:

Occasionally clients ask me to conduct internal investigations for them concerning a variety of employee matters. Recently, I worked with a client on an investigation of alleged harassment. An employee presented a couple of incidents that involved her and asserted that a couple of other employees were experiencing some of the same issues. The client asked me to interview the employees in the department as well as their supervisors to determine what had occurred and whether further action was necessary.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, I interviewed a number of employees and the supervisors, asking them if they had observed anything that the complaining employee alleged or any other incident of possible mistreatment. The reactions from the employees to the various questions I asked them were interesting to say the least. These are the most common reactions that I heard:

1) Did I do something wrong?

2) That employee complains about everything.

3) That employee can dish it out, but she can’t take it.

4) This place can be like junior high sometimes.

The other observation that I had was how often people think everyone else gets better treatment. It is a reminder how myopic we can be. We get caught up in what we are doing and how we are treated and fail to step back and look at the bigger picture. Psychologists have found that people tend to attribute their successes to their own internal abilities and their failures to external causes – refusing to admit, or at least downplaying, any responsibility for poor performance or problems they may be having. It is understandable that this phenomenon would occur in the workplace as well. Over the course of an internal investigation, you can see these attribution effects play themselves out from every angle. The complaining employee sees the problem with everyone else. The alleged harasser thinks the complainer is the one who is too sensitive. The co-workers who may observe some unfair treatment do not say anything because that is the supervisor’s responsibility. The supervisor says he cannot act unless one of the employees complains to him.

After I completed my interviews, I met with the complaining employee a second time to follow-up with her and ask her some questions about certain matters that were revealed over the course of the interviews. When I asked her specific questions about those matters, she accused me of interrogating her unfairly. And the attributions continued.

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