Author Dylan Hill

Author Dylan Hill

Witness Statements: The foundation of a thorough harassment investigation

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One of the most important factors to a complete and thorough harassment investigation is the statement.  We refer to the statements as the foundation of the report because that is the first place (besides your notes) that you have recorded and presented the evidence of the case.  

A properly written statement can do many things for an investigation.  They provide a framework for the case in that statements are the raw material of the case.  Statements give you a structure on which to base your questions for witnesses and they can also point out questions or gaps of information that the investigator needs to fill before the end of the interview or investigation.  Statements are what are left at the end of the interview process that you have the witness sign and take a copy of.  They are what you base your conclusions on.

You would have a difficult time indeed bringing in a conclusion to a case of harassment without the evidence presented in the statements and the final report.  There have been countless times that we have seen reports that attempt to make a conclusion based on a lack of evidence in the statements and the report.  These conclusions are unfortunately the ones that are vulnerable to challenge.

In conducting training across the Country, we have learned that statement writing is an area where most harassment investigations need support. People often struggle with taking information they have gathered and presenting it (in the statement and the report) in a clear and complete manner.  Unfortunately, incomplete statements lead to incomplete reports.  If the evidence is presented in an incomplete way in the final report that can lead to being unable to reach a conclusion based on evidence even though the investigator asked all the ‘right’ questions, and maybe even took ‘perfect notes’.  The evidence is just simply not there unless it is presented in a clear manner.  

Are you able to read the final report and have all your questions answered and your conclusions make sense to your boss?  Have you been asked to re-do witness interviews and/or entire investigations?  Does the witness ask for excessive changes?  These are all signs that can help you asses your statement taking process.

At Hill Advisory we follow the same pattern to format statements.  We do this because we believe that it keeps our process safe.  

Life is Looking A Little Bit Different These Days

How recent events have created an opportunity to develop alternate methods and expand our tool-kit.

My day begins with the reassuring regularity of routine, like most of you. Coffee is served, computers are turned on, to do lists are checked. There are some differences over the past year, that is without a doubt. My work routine has some notable differences. There is a total lack of travel for investigative work. All of my investigation work, occurs with the help of technology and my home office. You can’t beat the commute!

At the beginning of this global pandemic, I was like most of my friends and clients, unsure of what the future would hold. Our business had some elements of telephone interviews with investigations and we had dabbled in the e-learning space in the early 2000s but the core of our business relied on travel to Canadian cities to meet with people in person for investigations. What was the new reality going to look like? That question has largely been answered in the past year and I believe, some elements can be taken forward into our business practices.

I believe remote investigations are here to stay. Allow me to explain why.

Time. Time is one of those finite resources which all of us need to measure and dole out judiciously in our careers and lives. There is no question that conducting investigation interviews remotely (audio/video) saves time. It saves time for me, and it saves time for those that are interviewed. Saving time is good. Saved time can be spent in other areas.

Costs. Costs are lower with a remote solution. When we do not need to fly to a city, stay in a hotel, rent a car etc, we save money for our clients. Saved money can be spent on other initiatives.

Speed. Remote options are also faster. Instead of looking at my calendar, and case load, and established trips, to figure out my first availability to fly into a location and interview a number of witnesses, I can weave remote interviews into my current week. I can often begin cases the same week that the client has established contact with me. Total time to completion is halved. The benefits to having a case completed and coming to a conclusion based on the evidence, and being able to action that in a much faster timeframe are clear and obvious in terms of the benefits to a workgroup.

A benefit analysis is only one part of any decision matrix though. There needs to be an examination of the potential costs to moving from an in-person interview method to a remote option. And I have heard some objections to a remote based approach over the past year. Some witnesses have outright said they prefer for the investigation to occur in person and I even had one complainant tell me that I needed to interview people in person so that I could tell when they were lying to me. The presumption being, of course, that his information would be verified as unvarnished truth, and others’ lack of candour would be seen clearly by the investigator; but only if done in person. I have always been careful to rely on the evidence when I make my conclusions, and the way that someone moves, looks, or phrases information has never made it into my decision making process. I am neither an expert in such things, nor do I think they can be proven to form a causal relationship with any sufficient degree of accuracy. 

What then are we to do as we emerge from the Government imposed restrictions on non-essential travel? Do we revert back to conducting all investigations in person only?

I have tried to think of the issue in a few ways and I think and ultimately, I believe we should expand our tool-kit to include a variety of techniques and approaches. In any analysis I try to start at the start. I wondered what the law and policy had to say on the topic of in-person versus remote investigations.

Is there policy, or law that says we need to conduct an investigation interview in person?

Is there policy, or law that says we need to conduct an investigation interview (and in my case I focus on harassment/discrimination type investigations) in person, only? It turns out there is not. In fact, at the beginning of the pandemic, we even went so far as to ask our legal team to research the case law in our area to determine if the reliance on remote tools to conduct an investigation would or could make us vulnerable at appeal. The research indicated no such risk. We also realized that there are many processes that utilize a remote approach, including within the legal system, when dealing with both civil and criminal matters. If it works in the court system, surely it will work in the corporate world? Or at least be a tool that we can rely upon.

Once we understand that there is no legal barrier to the technique, I think there is benefit to asking the question of why people would object to a remote option versus an in person method. I have found that in some cases of objection, when I explained our process, including the statement building process with the provision for editing, most objections were resolved successfully. I have had some clients say that they would prefer an in-person approach when faced with an objection. And that’s okay, I know how to make my way through the less crowded airports and wear my mask on flights. I can meet folks in person. It’s all about a flexibility in approach.

I will continue to advocate for a remote option with clients going forward. Remote investigations cost less and get done faster. And that is a powerful combination of benefits. So, while a lot of us have no doubt been impacted in some negative ways in our professional and personal lives, I do believe there is some benefit to be had. Perhaps we can conduct faster and less costly remote investigations for some portion of our work in the future. I know I’ll look forward to more efficiency with the new tools available to us!

Scope Creep

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How creeping goalposts can skew an entire process and leave you vulnerable on appeal.

The formal investigation of harassment and discrimination cases can be some of the most stressful and challenging work a Human Resource professional is required to accomplish. The way is fraught with peril including: heightened emotions from the main parties (complainant and respondent) and the entire workgroup, and pressure with respect to the time required, not to mention the potential legal ramifications down the road. 

A lack of direction and lack of functional training in conducting a fair and unbiased process can exacerbate the problems and stresses you face.

One of the biggest problems, right from the outset of an investigation relates to what we call Scope Creep. I am sure you have heard the term or may have already been a victim of this issue. Essentially, scope creep refers to an investigation that has an unclear purpose, a lack of focus and clarity. As a result, it can be difficult or impossible to come to a relevant finding, based on the evidence, which will withstand external scrutiny. Often we are left with findings such as the classic “he said/she said” conclusion, or making conclusions on elements that were not the subject of the investigation and that the parties did not sufficiently appreciate during the course of the investigation. We find a myriad of unintended consequences as a result of scope creep including: increased anxiety and stress in the work group, increased resistance from the employee group and the union to investigative processes, increased time and costs associated with the investigation and less credible investigations as a whole.

There is value in battling scope creep. Here is how I do it.

First, I define the scope of the investigation. I ask myself this question, “What is the complainant saying the respondent did to them that would constitute a breach to the relevant policy?” This requires some information, usually provided by the client in the form of the initial complaint, along with the relevant policy. 

Here is where I see the first error, typically. When people are in conflict, they will usually tell the investigator about every issue or concern they have with the other person. Our scope begins to creep. The complainant will tell you things like they did not agree with a decision that their manager made. They will bring up concerns that they have about how their co-worker has treated others. They will tell you about the thing that they heard from their co-worker, who heard it from someone at their second job that relates to the person they are complaining about. They will tell you that they know the respondent is having an extra-marital affair…and more. If you have conducted more than one investigation, you have likely experienced these examples and many more. How are they relevant to the complaint? That is a question that I ask myself, early and often. And if I cannot answer that question, I will ask the person I am interviewing. “Is this relevant to your complaint of harassment against the respondent? If so, how so?” Once you have their answer to this question in their statement, you are better able to determine if this is within scope or outside of scope. My best advice? Always have the person involved identify if they believe an issue is in-scope or out of scope, especially when it is unclear.

Next, the respondent will want to add their take on the situation, including their defense to the allegations, and any context they feel is relevant. They will also add all sorts of information relating to the complainant that may not be relevant. Again, I will ask the respondent how the information is relevant to the allegations or the complainant (if it is not obvious) and make sure their clarification is recorded in their statement.

What do we do when the complainant, the respondent or a witness provides information that is unrelated to the initial complaint, that may be about someone other than the respondent, and that could be a potential breach to the harassment policy, or to another policy or code of conduct not under review? Here is where we see the next major error point. It used to be that when we conducted investigations, and we found evidence that there was a breach to the harassment policy, no matter who had breached it, no matter if they were informed that they were named as a respondent, no matter if they had full disclosure of the allegations against them, or had the ability to prepare and be represented before responding to the allegations, we would bring in a conclusion of a breach. That has changed. It is not fair. It is not a process that we believe would be able to withstand the scrutiny of a third party, should the investigation be appealed. We have changed our process.

Here is what we recommend now. Should you, in the course of your investigation, run into additional, unrelated allegations, or any of the variables described above, you should pause, analyze the information, and suggest some additional administrative steps. The complainant brings up allegations that may be a breach against someone not yet named as a respondent? Perhaps you will take that part, disclose it to the party named, inform them of the allegation, provide them with time to prepare and get a rep, and interview them regarding the allegation. Perhaps you will instead spin off an entirely new investigation into those allegations. The approach will vary with the specific nature of the information and how it fits into the current investigation. The respondent brings up a potential breach on the part of the complainant? Perhaps you notify the complainant that there are allegations against them and they are considered a complainant as well as a respondent, and you disclose the allegations to them. The complainant, respondent, or witness brings up some information that would be a safety concern in the workplace? Perhaps you immediately refer this item up the chain of command for direction on how to proceed and which resources to access.

There are many elements of the modern harassment investigation that can take an investigator off-scope and compromise the entire process. We must be vigilant and responsive to the dynamics presented in each and every case. Our job is not to determine who the best person is, who the most right human is, or how many total “right” points are scored. Our job is to determine what the evidence is (related to the complaint that was filed) and associated with the relevant policy (the harassment policy). What did the respondent do to the complainant and was that a breach of the policy? It is that simple, and that hard.

In this time of COVID-19 isolation, we hope that our clients and friends across Canada are well, and safe. As my travel schedule has ground to a halt, I find myself contemplating our process and our training offerings. Should you have active cases that you would like some consultation with, I would be happy to review statements, evidence, question plans and reports to give you my advice in the area of scope creep and with any element of the investigation.