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Workplace Investigations: Whistleblowers Versus Character Assassins (Surviving Anonymous Complaints)

Adapted from The First-Time Manager: Leading Through Crisis (HarperCollins Leadership 2023)

Workplace Investigations and Accusations Against Your Character or Actions

When the #Sarbanes­ #Oxley Act was passed in 2002, companies found themselves scrambling to publish corporate ethics statements and codes of conduct that made it safe to disclose all sorts of workplace improprieties—financial, systems-related, or human— that threatened the safety or well­being of the workplace. And since employees had the discretion to escalate matters anonymously, a Pandora’s box was opened that allowed workers to share concerns, and sometimes rumors and character attacks, with impunity.

This idea of companies accepting anonymous complaints has a healthy side to it, of course. Employees who fear retaliation can still escalate matters of concern to senior management, often doing so using a nontraceable cell phone number. Yet all good things can be abused once people figure out how to game the system. In this case, how does a responsible employer handle it when it suspects that the nameless voice behind an anonymous complaint may actually be engaging in character assassination against a targeted supervisor? And how do you protect yourself if you find yourself on the “sharp end of the investigation spear” with numerous, unsubstantiated claims being levied against you? Workplace investigations can have significant consequences, and it's important that you're prepared to defend yourself and the organization, especially when the complaints are anonymous.

Five Steps for Dealing Effectively with Anonymous Complaints during Workplace Investigations

Following are reasonable steps that you can follow to protect yourself and your organization if you feel you are being unfairly targeted by an anonymous complainant:

Rule 1: Keep your cool. Don’t overreact to a situation like this. This isn’t about your feelings; it’s about your role as an objective leader within your organization and your willingness to partner with human resources and/or legal to protect the company (and yourself, of course).

Rule 2: Partner closely—and I mean closely—with human resources. Follow HR’s lead every step of the way. If you’re placed on “administrative, investigatory leave,” go along with it willingly. Your job is to do whatever it takes to make the investigation easier on the HR team.

Rule 3: Do nothing to appear to conduct your own mini-investigation into who on your team (or outside your team) may be raising these allegations. You are not to speak about this with anyone on your team or with any of your peers. Consider yourself “frozen” until the investigation is concluded: do your work and nothing more.

Rule 4: Admit any wrongdoing that may have occurred when you speak with the HR fact finder. Be willing to share any specific circumstances where people may have taken what you said or did out of context. By admitting partial responsibility for a situation gone wrong, you’ll actually come across as more objective and credible.

Rule 5: When it’s your turn to be interviewed (and defend yourself), remember to encourage the HR factfinder to speak with anyone else who may know about the allegation or have witnessed any particular events in question. This is not the time to be shy or shield yourself from others—it’s the time for you to involve others in getting to the truth and remaining as transparent as possible. It’s all about your credibility. Provide detailed responses as well as emails or other proof that demonstrates your innocence in the matter. Follow the rule of full cooperation and honesty. Nothing will build your credibility faster.

Effective Leadership Communication Once Workplace Investigations are Complete

Finally, assuming that the investigation concludes with no wrongdoing found, encourage HR to hold a staff meeting with you, your immediate superior, and your team to share the results of the investigation. (No details—simply the overall findings and conclusion of the investigation.) This isn’t intended to violate your privacy rights or air unfounded allegations against you publicly. It’s to help the team heal. In many instances, this is far better than sweeping the whole matter under the rug and pretending that it never happened. Understand that this may be the hardest part of all because it requires you to work with team members openly going forward, even if you feel vulnerable because someone did so much to damage your credibility and reputation and to possibly get you fired. You have to be the “bigger person” here. Once the team acknowledges that the investigation led to no findings, healing can begin.

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