In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & Chief Executive Bryan Strawser shared best practices to follow in an investigation of sexual harassment or hostile work environment in your organization. Handled improperly, this can be one of the most critical reputational crisis situations you will ever face.
Topics discussed include employing neutral, third-party investigators, investigation best practices, and the need to take allegations seriously to protect the victims and the organization’s reputation.
Related Episodes & Blog Posts
- Episode #22 – When sexual harassment comes to the C-Suite
- Society for HR Management: How to investigate sexual harassment allegations
Hello and Welcome to the Managing Uncertainty Podcast. This is Bryan Strawser, Principal and Chief Executive here at Bryghtpath. And in today’s episode, I want to talk about something that’s been in the news a lot here in Minnesota, over the last couple of weeks. And that is the issue of sexual harassment and allegations of assault that have gone on. Here in Minnesota, there’s a number of allegations happening towards the culture at the Republican Party of Minnesota.
Now, the purpose of today’s podcast episode is not to talk about the actual political scandal that’s going on. I just give you that for some context. What I want to talk about is how to appropriately manage these kinds of situations as a leader in your organization. Before I started Bryghtpath in 2014, I spent 21 years in various roles in corporate security, in a Fortune 50 organization. A lot of that time was spent in crisis management and business continuity, but I also spent time in investigations and I spent time running large security teams in the field in New England and New Jersey and in Baltimore, and in Ohio, before I wound up at a corporate headquarters environment for the last nine years of my career there. And I was a part of many sexual harassment investigations as an investigator and security leader, working with my partners in human resources and employee relations.
So I want to talk just a little bit briefly here about best practices when things like this happen. In most organizations, human resources is responsible for investigating such complaints when they’re made. But often, security leaders, even physical security leaders, are often involved for a number of different reasons. It might be because HR’s not available. It might be because they need additional witnesses or they need another interviewer. It might just be because as a security professional, you have more experience in interviewing and talking with individuals in this context than an HR leader may in some cases.
The professional trade association, if you want to call that for human resources is the Society for HR Management, often called SHRM. Their website is shrm.org. And SHRM has a list of best practices, which we’ll link in the show notes, about how to investigate sexual harassment allegations and these best practices with a little bit of my experience is what I want to talk about today.
First, SHRM recommends that you begin by making an investigative plan when these allegations are made. The plan should outline who will investigate, preferably a neutral outside investigator. That could be you as a security professional or an HR leader or an employee relations leader. It could also be an outside counsel in organizations or where that’s necessary or where the level of the person being investigated, simply calls for that kind of attention to be paid. You want to put in this planning, a list of evidence that needs to be collected and a list of who has information and should be interviewed.
The investigator should approach this from a neutral objective demeanor. Their job is to interview those that have information about the complaint, gather evidence that supports or negates the complaint, reviewing past complaints and files for patterns of this individual that has been alleged to have done things, but also the culture and the workplace environment also need to be examined. And then determine what does the evidence show? What does the evidence show? What does it tell us about the allegation? What other allegations or situations does it uncover? And then document this action that has been taken. So those are the roles of the investigator. Neutral and objective demeanor, interview those with information, gather evidence that supports or negates the complaint, review past complaints and files for patterns, and document their actions.
The next task for the investigator is to determine if company policies were violated and/or if inappropriate conduct has occurred and if so, then recommend a course of action to the decision-maker, the business leader, or the HR leader that oversees this area. What does the evidence show? That is the important thing to look at. What does the evidence tell us about these allegations? What does it say about the veracity of the individuals involved on all sides?
Often in situations like this, as we saw here in Minnesota with these recent allegations, it can be best to bring in an outside law firm who has experience in these sorts of investigations and have them conduct a thorough, complete neutral investigation, and then make recommendations to the organization. The law firm does not have a stake. An outside counsel in this situation does not have a stake in the game. They are not trying to change things for their own benefit. They are not trying to put themselves in a better internal political position with the organization. They’re going to look at the facts. They’re going to interview the individuals, they’re going to review the evidence, and they’re going to approach this in a neutral manner.
This is often the best approach when you’re dealing with the leader, the executive leader of the organization, an executive director, a chairwoman, or chairman, the CEO. You take away the investigative responsibilities of other leaders, and in some cases, the board, and you’re protecting the organization through a neutral third party investigation. Your board of directors can then take this report and take appropriate corrective action, fully informed by the facts, supported by evidence that cuts through all the spin and all the lies and all the things that happen in these situations. You’re looking at the evidence and the facts of the case.
If you think about this for a moment and just imagine a large Fortune 500 company like the ones we have here in the Twin Cities, General Mills, Cargill, 3M, Wells Fargo, Best Buy, Target. If they had allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and a hostile work environment aimed at their CEO, their board of directors would appropriately investigate this, and then take action. And they’re going to do this in most cases by bringing in outside expertise and outside counsel to make this investigation. And they’re going to do this because the reputational costs of not doing this, are huge. They’re highly significant costs and would have long-lasting impact on the organization’s reputation.
Your company, all organizations regardless of size, scope, non-profit, for-profit, public agency, you have to have a reporting and investigative process that allows complaints to come forward with this information. This reporting and investigator process needs to be led from a trauma-informed standpoint. It needs to express empathy for the victims and treats all of these kinds of incidents with the seriousness that they are due. Not doing this will have enormous reputational costs to your organization and your team, your employees, will simply not want to work in an environment where this kind of behavior is tolerated.
And lastly, I would just add as from a leadership standpoint, these are things that have to be taken seriously. Any allegation of sexual harassment or sexual assault or hostile work environment needs to be thoroughly investigated by a neutral investigator, a neutral objective investigator, following these best practices from the society of HR management.
I hope you found this advice helpful. It’s a little shorter episode than usual, but I think it’s a message that needs to be shared. And I think all of us have found ourselves in this situation at some point in time, in terms of having to deal with this kind of a disruption in the organization. That’s it for this edition of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, we’ll be back next week with another new episode. Be well.