Investigating Workplace Bullying Allegations: 10 Tips for Success

Investigating Workplace Bullying Allegations: 10 Tips for Success

Employers are responsible for protecting their employees from bullying and harassment. Investigate allegations promptly and thoroughly.

More than 60 million US workers experience bullying in the workplace. As an employer, you're responsible for investigating workplace bullying allegations and ensuring employees feel safe. Make sure your investigations are sensitive and thorough using these 10 tips.

Find out how case management software can help you protect your employees' safety and well-being in our free eBook Conducting Effective Harassment Investigations with Case Management Software.

What is Workplace Bullying?

Before you can tackle it, you have to understand what workplace bullying is and how it differs from other forms of harassment. According to Timothy Dimoff, president of SACS Consulting & Investigative Services, Inc., bullying is "repeated unreasonable actions of an individual(s) directed towards an employee(s)." Dimoff notes that bullying actions are intended to:

  • cause health risks
  • intimidate
  • degrade
  • humiliate
  • undermine

The key here is that bullying is repeated harassment that interferes with the employee's work. Bullying differs from other harassment or simply rude behavior in its intent to harm, creation of a power imbalance and lack of remorse from the bully. Examples of bullying in the workplace can include:

  • verbal abuse
  • gossiping and spreading rumors
  • threatening behavior
  • interfering with or sabotaging the victim's work
  • persistent criticism of the victim's work
  • insulting the victim's habits, attitudes or personal life
  • frequent reminders of the employee's past mistakes

Watch this webinar to learn more about investigating workplace bullying allegations from Timothy Dimoff.

Investigating Workplace Bullying Allegations

1. Take Every Allegation Seriously

All employees deserve to feel heard and protected at work. For this reason, take every allegation seriously, no matter how far-fetched or trivial it sounds. Remain objective, but assure the reporter that you will investigate their problem.

Workplace bullying can affect the entire office if left unresolved. It's important to, identify the dangers of not resolving the complaint before investigating the allegations. If bullying did take place, could it continue or happen to someone else? Does the victim exhibit outward signs of distress that could potentially verify the allegations (e.g. absenteeism, excessive sick leave, reduced productivity)?

2. Review Policies

Before you begin a workplace bullying investigation, review your organization's policies. Does the allegation match your definition of bullying or harassment? If so, are your procedures for handling these types of complaints adequate for this case?

Make sure your company has procedures for dealing with harassment and bullying complaints, including exactly how and when to conduct an investigation. Sometimes policy changes are required for clarity or staying up-to-date. In this case, get authorization and consensus, then document any edits you make and communicate them to all affected parties before you proceed with the investigation.

3. Involve the Union

If your workplace is unionized, the alleged victim has the right to get the union involved. After they bring their bullying complaint to you, ask if they'd like to file a formal grievance with the union and let them resolve the issue or if they'd prefer the organization's management to handle it.

Additionally, inform the employee that no matter what they decide, they can always come back to you for help. Should they disagree with the outcome of the union's investigation, they have the option to try again with an internal investigation.

RELATED: How to Investigate Workplace Bullying When You Can't Even Define It

4. Be Fair and Impartial

While it's important to listen to the potential victim's concerns, investigators also need to stay impartial throughout the investigation process. Ensure that both parties receive equal opportunities to share their side of the story. In addition, maintain confidentiality as best you can in the circumstances to protect everyone involved.

Don't go into the investigation assuming that one person is telling the truth and the other is lying. This could sway the outcome and isn't fair. Hiring an external investigator may ensure a more objective investigation.

5. Work Quickly

When an employee comes to you with a bullying allegation, it probably isn't the first time they've been harassed. For this reason, act quickly and diligently. Taking too long to respond gives the bully time to cause more damage to the victim's physical and/or mental health.

In one case, a victim reported continuous harassment but their employer didn't respond. As a result, the bully found out about the complaint and the harassment got worse. Conducting a prompt investigation could have not only protected the victim, but also helped the employer avoid paying the complainant $300,000 in damages.

6. Be Transparent

After you receive a bullying complaint, give the complainant "clear guidelines as to . . .  the process of investigating the complaint as well as how long it should take to figure out and address the issue," suggests Nate Masterson, business consultant and HR Manager for Maple Holistic.

At every stage of the investigation, meet separately with both parties to explain the process. Set expectations for appropriate behavior as well as consequences for inappropriate behavior. When everyone is aware of the process, all parties will feel more at ease.

7. Conduct Strong Interviews

Well-thought-out, objective interviews with the potential victims, alleged bully and witnesses, provide a detailed picture of the bullying incident. Ask what behaviors occurred, where and when. Be as specific as possible to encourage interviewees to do the same.

Interviewees may speak more openly to a single interviewer. However, having a second person in the room, even just to take notes, protects the interviewer from allegations of unfair or intimidating interview methods.

8. Focus on the Facts

"Ultimately, the purpose of the investigation is to determine what happened," notes WorkSafeBC. This sounds obvious, but it's easy to get distracted by emotions during a bullying investigation.

To remain impartial, WorkSafeBC suggests, focus "on finding facts and evidence, which should include interviews with the complainant, respondent, and any witnesses." Document objective facts, details and dates, being careful to avoid opinions or inferences about the incident.

9. Keep a Record

It's important to document the investigation well. As soon as the accuser comes to you with their complaint, record as many details as you can. Keep a timeline of the investigation, too, to stay on track with your organization's procedures.

Investigators should also compile a final written record of the investigation's outcome. Include information such as:

  • complaint details (e.g. names of parties, where/when bullying occurred, specific behaviors)
  • interview summaries
  • supporting documents (e.g. notes, emails, photos, etc.)
  • outcomes, findings and conclusions
  • course of action taken

One way to make this process much easier is to use case management software. Because you can store all of the supporting documents right in the case file, you won't waste time tracking down important information. Every action taken during the investigation is recorded with the date and time int eh case file, providing a complete record of the investigation.

RELATED: How to Investigate Allegations of Bullying With an Open Mind

10. Take Preventive Action

While a bullying incident can shake up an organization, it can provide opportunities for growth as well. After investigating workplace bullying allegations, use what you learned to make your company safer.

Not only can an investigation resolve a negative situation for one employee, but also prevent future incidents from occurring. For example, after finalizing the investigation you should:

  • review harassment and bullying policies and procedures and update them if needed
  • update or provide anti-harassment training and information for employees
  • remind supervisors of their duties to protect their employees from harassment and bullying