Group of people listen to a colleague.
Employee’s Guide to Workplace Investigations and Aftermath
Overview

What actually happens after you report harassment or discrimination at work? We’ve been working with people who’ve experienced harassment and discrimination for over fifteen years, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that knowing you’re not alone is a big deal. We created this guide to help you know what to expect so that you’re not caught off guard. 

How Do Investigations Get Started?

An investigation starts if you report harassment, discrimination, or retaliation to your employer, but that’s not the only way one can start.

If you use the words “harassment,” “discrimination” or “retaliation” in conversation with a manager or HR person – or even if you don’t use those specific words, but your employer believes your experiences constitute a form of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation – your employer is legally required run an investigation…even if for any reason you ask them not to. While this law is intended to protect other employees from experiencing the same thing you did, it can feel pretty disempowering if the investigation was not your choice. Depending on the context, it can even feel like a violation of trust. It’s not uncommon for people to report that the investigation was more traumatic than the original incident of harassment.

Also, in most states and workplaces, if your coworkers witness you experiencing harassment, they can report it to HR or management. Your employer can then launch an investigation without your knowledge.

Consider What "Resolution" Looks Like For You

First, it’s a good idea to figure out if there are requests you can make of your employer in order to help alleviate your day-to-day pain when dealing with workplace harassment and investigation. You might request things like: 

– Not having to work directly anymore with the person who harassed you. If you want them fired, say so. If they are still on your team, can they be moved to another team? Can you move desks? Departments?

– An apology. This can take the form of a written apology or a verbal one, and it should include a sincere commitment from the person who harmed you that it will never happen again.

– A commitment from the organization to improve their harassment policy and/or provide better harassment training (connect them with us, we can help).

– Support in finding a new job, which could include a written letter of recommendation, introductions to others who are hiring in the field, etc.

– A severance package that can hold you over until you get a new job. The standard for this is two weeks of salary for every completed year of service (minimum of four weeks; maximum of 26 weeks). Severance packages are usually cheaper for employers than legal cases.

Getting Some Insight into Your Employer's Motivations

Even “good” employers, ones that seek to create safe and welcoming work environments, still actively work to do a few things that can prioritize company interests over your personal interests.

– Employers want to avoid being sued, either by you or by the person who harassed you, who might sue for “wrongful termination” or “slander.”

– They also want to retain talented staff. This can become a conflict of interest when the person who harasses is senior to the person they harassed, and is therefore viewed as a more “key player” on the team or as someone the employer does not want to discipline or risk losing.

– They generally want to minimize damage to team morale, which can occur if an incident becomes public and team members take sides, or if someone in the investigation becomes “toxic” and the employer is incentivized to push them out.

– Employers also don’t share anything specific about the investigation with staff during or after it. That’s because doing so would put them at risk of influencing the investigation while it is ongoing, or of being accused of slander after it’s over.  

The Investigation Process
Who Conducts Investigations?

In larger organizations and businesses, investigations are often conducted by Human Resources departments.

 

In smaller ones, they may be conducted by consultants (often lawyers) or by other members of staff (such as management or board members).

 

Investigators typically try to keep things as confidential as possible to avoid further eroding employee morale. But in practice, often very little can remain confidential since investigators are ultimately trying to uncover and uproot harassment. What you report about your experience may be shared – in whole or in part – with other team members who are called in as witnesses. That can include the person who harassed you.  

How Long Do Investigations Take?

Investigations should be short: ideally 1-2 weeks at most (this is good for the employer and the person who was harassed).

 

In practice, though, they can last longer depending on:

1. How much time the investigator commits (sometimes investigators contracted from outside the organization take a while to get started or split their time among multiple clients).

2. How complicated the case is (the more incidences of harassment that you report or that the investigator uncovers in the process, the longer the investigation will take).

 

At the end of an investigation, only the people directly involved may learn the result, and more often than not, the result is “inconclusive.” Harassment tends to be hard to prove from a legal standpoint.

How Do I Gather Evidence?

The more detail, the better. We recommend preparing your report with as much information as possible. Try to include answers to as many of the following questions as you can:

 

– Where and when did it happen?

 

– What was said and/or done?

 

– Who else was there? Who else became aware afterwards (if anyone)?

 

– How did it make you feel? Did it result in any impact on your work performance, relationships, confidence, creativity, etc.?

 

– Is there any record of the harassment? This could include documentation of the actual harassment (for instance, an email). It can also consist of confirmation of details of the harassment (for instance, a due date for an assignment that is relevant to your story).

 

– Are you aware of other incidents of harassment related to this one? Do you have knowledge that this person harassed anyone else?

 

 

The investigator may ask you for these details or others, but don’t count on it. It might seem weird that we’re telling you investigators may not ask for details – after all, they’re investigating, right? Well, here’s why: they may avoid probing further so that they don’t open up a “Pandora’s box” of harassment at your workplace, since they would be accountable for investigating it all. They may try to keep their job as simple as possible.

 

So, it’s in your best interest to come prepared with as much detail as possible about as many incidences as you’re aware of. Create a written report with your story and bring two copies to your investigation – one for you and one for the investigator.

How Do I Practice for the Investigation?

When speaking with investigators, it’s important to appear calm, collected, and in control. That doesn’t mean you can’t cry or show emotion. But it is crucial not to lie, lash out at the investigator, or rant about your employer or the investigation. If you exhibit these behaviors, the investigator might assess you as an “unreliable narrator,” and that could affect your case.

 

When asked a question, stick to the facts. This is where your written report can help you. Trauma can erode our memories, leaving us to remember some things in technicolor and others not at all. Data and documentation can help to support our memories. If you don’t know the answer to a question, tell them you don’t know. You can always get back in touch with them afterward if you remember.

 

The investigation may be triggering for you. Not only will be you asked to recall traumatizing things, but you will also be questioned about them and asked to rationalize or defend your own behaviors and reactions. Many people who experience harassment already (consciously or subconsciously) blame themselves for what happened, so this experience can bring up a lot of emotions. Don’t be afraid to step out for a bathroom break, where you can take a few deep breaths and get grounded to calm your nervous system a bit. Remind yourself that you didn’t do anything wrong, and by speaking out about what happened to you, you are making a safer and more welcoming workplace for everyone.

The Day of the Investigation

When showing up to the investigation, consider these strategies to help you get through the process:

 

– Wear something professional that makes you feel confident and comfortable.

 

– Get grounded by taking some deep breaths before getting started.

 

– Consider bringing a support item. Some people might bring a photo of a loved one to help them remember what matters, while others might bring a meaningful small object like a crystal.

 

– Bring water and a snack.

 

– Have a support team in place, and make sure they know that today is the big day so that they can support you before, during, and after the investigation.

 

– Have a post-investigation plan. What will you do afterwards? We can’t emphasize enough how much we don’t recommend just going straight back to work. Even if you only have ten minutes to yourself before you have to return to work, how can you care for yourself? Call a friend? Journal about your feelings? Sit in a safe place – like out in nature or in the sun – and remind yourself that you are safe?

Emotionally Prepare for the Aftermath of Investigation

There can be lingering effects of workplace harassment and investigation that are deeply challenging and can be further traumatizing. We’re listing some below not to scare you, but to help you mentally prepare and to remind you that you’re not alone. Some common effects we see:

  • Your coworkers may blame you for the harassment you experienced. It’s hard not to take this personally, but know that it’s not about you. When harassment happens in the workplace, everyone feels unsafe. Some employees may try to reestablish their sense of psychological safety by telling themselves, “That would never happen to me.” They often try to justify that statement with some variation of “the harassment was deserved,” which they may base on imagined critiques of your demeanor, your presentation or way of speaking, or your job performance. Remember that this reaction stems only from their desire to convince themselves that they are safe in a threatening workplace. It does not stem from you. No matter what, you do not deserve to be harassed.
  • Your coworkers may take the side of the person who harassed you. Sometimes the person who harassed you is popular at work or uncommonly charismatic, and they gain support as a result. Sometimes that person may intentionally try to garner support by spreading rumors about you or perpetuating myths about why you deserved harassment. Remember that these are just that – myths.
  • You may be socially ostracized. There’s a chance that people at work – especially those who share a relationship or common identity with the person who harassed you – will begin to exclude you from work-related socialization, like happy hours or break room conversations. They may give off a feeling that they are uncomfortable around you and “worried about saying the wrong thing.” Remind yourself that you have done nothing wrong by speaking up against harassment at work.
  • Your performance at work may drop. At a workplace where you’ve been experiencing harassment, getting through the workday can feel like a social-emotional Olympics that drains all the capacity you used to be able to put into your work. Throwing yourself into your work to avoid the emotions may feel tempting, but it’s not always possible or sustainable. Try not to be hard on yourself as you deal with this, and consider seeking support from a manager to make your workload more bearable.
  • Your wellbeing may be impacted – for instance, you might have trouble sleeping or feel anxious frequently.  Harassment is proven to cause significant mental health impacts, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Dealing with these conditions can make it hard to function at your current job or get a different one, despite how badly you may want to.
  • Your employer may retaliate against you for filing a report. They may do this by moving you off the team you loved and thrived in (instead of moving the person who harassed you). They may stop inviting you to meetings or withhold information from you that you need in order to do your job. They may try to push you out of the company, make you so uncomfortable that you’re forced to quit, or just fire you outright. You can (and should) report retaliation – it is illegal, even in cases where they decide that your report of harassment wasn’t actionable.
Final Reminders

It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to feel hurt. It’s okay not to have the “perfect” response – there’s no “perfect response” to harassment, something you didn’t ask for.

Regardless of the investigation’s outcome and aftermath, it’s important to heal. That can be hard whether you stay at the same workplace or go to another. If you’re looking for some tips to heal, check out our resource on “Healing and Getting Closure After Harassment at Work.”

To provide you with another layer of support, we’ve partnered with Empower Work. They offer free, confidential support around workplace issues from trained peer counselors. To reach out, text RightToBe to 510-674-1414.

OUR UPCOMING TRAININGS

Right To Be

Upcoming training

Resilience: This Moment and Beyond

September 26, 2022

4:00 pm - 5:00 pm EST

Right To Be

Upcoming training

Resilience: This Moment and Beyond

October 19, 2022

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Right To Be

Upcoming training

Resilience: This Moment and Beyond

September 26, 2022

4:00 pm - 5:00 pm EST

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YOU ARE POWERFUL

Remember, everyone can do something. At this time in our history, it is even more important that we show up for one another as active bystanders. Research shows that even a knowing glance can significantly reduce trauma for the person who is targeted. One of the most important things we can do is to let the person who is targeted know, in some way, however big or small, that they are not alone.

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