Workplace Investigation Pitfall: Failure to Clarify and Confirm
Witnesses always explain themselves with descriptive terms. Does the investigator understand the descriptive words used by a witness? Is the investigator’s definition of “gross” the same as someone else’s? This typically occurs, not surprisingly, when there is an accusation and alcohol is involved. Witnesses describe conduct in terms of others being drunk or inebriated. Obviously the truth is influenced by the witness’s own consumption of alcohol and his/her perspective on what it means to be drunk. In one example, an angry customer complained that staff was routinely imbibing in too much alcohol at client functions. The witness described staff as drunk and disorderly. Relying on statements made by the customer, management sought to immediately discipline the employees accused. Upon further investigation, it was apparent that the angry customer, herself, consumed as much alcohol as the accused employees. By focusing on the amount consumed by each of them, their behavior, confirming with other witnesses, rather than drawing conclusions helped the investigator draw the right conclusions.
Instead of relying on such vague descriptors from a witness, the investigator needs to be sure he/she understands what witness said and what he/she is talking about. He should reconfirm his understanding of what was said by the witness without putting words in the witness’ mouth. This will help to avoid reaching erroneous conclusions and helps to avoid reaching conclusions too soon in an investigation.
For more, see my book: Workplace Investigations: Discrimination & Harassment