Managing workplace investigations during COVID-19 pandemic
Thursday, March 26, 2020 @ 1:19 PM | By Marie-Hélène Mayer
A main risk of delaying investigations is the potential loss of evidence. As time passes, important evidence will be lost, and memories will fade.
In addition, workplace harassment may still be going on even where employees are not working in close physical proximity to each other. As we know, bullying, xenophobia or sexual improprieties may occur online through e-mail and/or social media.
Moreover, delaying ongoing investigations is likely to cause extra stress to the complainant and respondent who anxiously wait to learn about the investigation’s outcome and the actions that the business will take as a result. Witnesses may also feel anxious, as they may share the same concerns as the complainant but did not feel comfortable launching a complaint.
Given these risks, I strongly recommend that, where possible (especially if parties are healthy and available), investigations continue. There never is a good time for workplace investigations. Employers are obligated to provide a safe working environment, and swifter resolution of workplace harassment will help workers feel heard in these difficult times.
Investigating while social distancing
Using video technology to carry out workplace investigations is not novel. It allows a workplace investigation to continue swiftly whether to effectively hold meetings or conduct interviews. My practice of conducting videoconference interviews is very similar to in-person interviews. For instance, after conducting a videoconference interview, I provide parties with a summary of the interview and they can sign off soon after being interviewed.
We are fortunate today to have video technology that is easy to use and generally available for free to the public. Most individuals I have interviewed via videoconference have been enthusiastic about using it. These days, to some degree, individuals are relieved to be speaking from home rather than a boardroom. As an added benefit, remote interviews also save employers money as travel costs are not incurred.
There are some obvious privacy issues that will arise when interviewing employees who are working from home. However, these issues can often be overcome by moving to a different room in their home during the interview. (I challenge you to find a working parent who hasn’t hidden from their kids in a decidedly unusual office space in the past week while on a call. It seems that this is a COVID-19 right of passage.)
Although we are living in unprecedented times, getting to the facts of a workplace harassment complaint can still continue without extraordinary measures. Workplace investigations should not be delayed any longer than absolutely necessary. For employees who have been sexually harassed or bullied, or for those who have been accused of inappropriate conduct, the fear and uncertainty of not knowing when these allegations will be investigated and uncovered makes an already stressful time even more difficult.
Marie-Hélène Mayer is a bilingual employment lawyer and workplace investigator. For over a decade, she has carried out third-party investigations for large public-sector organizations and medium-sized businesses in English/French. Contact her at LinkedIn or www.mhmayer.ca.
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