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Reducing Participant Stress Before a Workplace Investigation

Devan Corrigan
Publication date: June, 2020
Reducing Participant Stress Before a Workplace Investigation

It is normal for participants in a workplace investigation to feel some anxiety, but too much worrying can create barriers to obtaining critical information, which is a challenge for investigators looking to build complete and thorough reports.

Ensuring participants fully understand the process and their role in it can help alleviate unnecessary anxiety during the investigation. With a greater understanding of the process, participants can feel empowered to speak confidently in the interview and provide the investigator with the necessary information.

 

Where does this anxiety come from?

Participating in an investigation can be stressful. Most people do not have the experience of participating in a workplace investigation and simply do not know what to expect. Without a proper understanding to put their interview in the larger context of the investigation, participants could engage in counterproductive and unhelpful behaviours. They may fear scrutiny falling on their own actions or the consequences of sharing their knowledge of an incident with the investigator. They may feel they have no control over the process and be less than cooperative. They may, intentionally or not, withhold critical information. Some may even refuse to engage in the investigative process at all. All these behaviours act against the goal of uncovering the relevant details of a workplace incident.

These behaviours do not make a participant deceitful but rather it stems from a survival instinct and is linked to the fight or flight response, a mechanism that enables individuals to react quickly to a threat by either facing the threat directly or disengaging it by escaping to a safe place. Viewed in this light, becoming adversarial in an interview or refusing to participate can be seen as rational responses to stress, even if such behaviours are unwarranted. Ultimately, the investigator wants to curb these kinds of emotional reactions from participants’ as they will not be conducive to the investigation.

The investigator must reduce the imagined “threat” in the mind of the participant before conducting the interview. Luckily, there are practical solutions to alleviate anxiety before interviews which will result in a better outcome. This article will provide some tools that will allow the investigator to eliminate some of the unnecessary pressure felt by the participants. This should result in higher-quality interviews.

Although no investigation process is stress-free, ensuring participants understand the process ahead of their interview can greatly reduce their stress. It is clear that some participants like the Complainant and Respondent in a case will likely receive more information than witnesses, but providing information about the investigation to all participants will generally be helpful for the investigator and to the overall process.

Using the following two-step process before conducting an interview will benefit both the investigator and the participants of the investigation.

 

Step 1 – Introductory Letter or Email

Send a well-crafted letter or email to the complainant(s), the respondent(s), and any witnesses (i.e. all participants).  The letter or email should include the following:

  • the mandate of the investigation,
  • the role of the participant in the investigation (are they the complainant, the respondent or a witness)
  • the expectation of maintaining confidentiality throughout the process,
  • the time and place of the interview with the participant, and
  • request for a pre-interview phone call.

Outlining the process of the investigation in writing from the start will reduce participants’ anxiety level. 

 

Step 2 – Pre-interview phone call

This step is significant in decreasing anxiety of participants involved in the investigation. The pre-interview phone call allows the investigator to provide further details, including introducing themselves, the mandate, and explaining the investigative process in more detail.  This call also provides the participant a chance to ask questions about what is expected of them during the process.  Having this take place ahead of the interview establishes rapport between the investigator and the participant early on and it also humanizes the process. In this phone call, the following issues should be addressed in more depth:

1. Introduction of the investigator

It is important to explain that this call is not the actual interview, but serves as an opportunity for introductions between the investigator and the participant. The investigator should explain that the interview will take place at a later date, and most likely in person. Information provided to the participant can include the professional and educational background of the investigator, the investigator’s role as a neutral third party, and the expectation of the participant to provide truthful answers during the interview.

2. Explain the mandate in general terms

Explaining the mandate during the pre-interview phone call is critical.  If participants understand the purpose of the investigation, they will be able to identify what information is relevant to the matter at hand. This gives the participants confidence ahead of the interview and it helps the investigator as well, since the participant will think more critically about the information that is required.

3. Explain why the organization is investigating the matter

Participants can often be critical of the reasons why organizations conduct investigations in the first place. During this call, the investigator can explain that organizations have a legal obligation to investigate alleged instances of harassment, discrimination, and violence in the workplace, pursuant to legislation in most Canadian jurisdictions. To allay any further skepticism about the investigation, the investigator can also explain that workplace investigations are ultimately conducted with a hope to correct some workplace problem that exists. Again, this explanation should help the participant to understand the process and reduce some stress.

4. Explain what to expect with the investigative interview

Participants often fear the interview, and in particular, the questions that will be asked by the investigator. The investigator should explain that the participants will be asked questions in good faith and will be expected to provide truthful responses. It might also be helpful for the investigator to explain that they will not be trying to “trip up” the participant or trick them with difficult questions. It is important to note that the investigator is not interested in being deceptive but is interested in getting to the truth. Tricks and traps are counter-intuitive to this end. Explaining this to the participant will go a long way in establishing a level of trust prior to the interview.

5. Reconfirm the importance of confidentiality

This might be the most important part of the call with the participant as it is vital the investigator gets commitment from the participant to maintain confidentiality throughout the process. The investigator should relay that ensuring confidentiality protects the integrity of the investigative process. Participants should also be advised that if confidentiality is breached and information leaked to other employees, the entire investigation may be compromised. Depending on the organization’s policy or process, a breach of confidentiality could also result in a disciplinary penalty to the participant culpable of that action.

 

Conclusion

The interview of participants is critical to producing a high-quality investigation. The accuracy and completeness of the information provided by participants during an interview can be skewed, or even incomplete, when participants experience stress and anxiety about the process. This negatively impacts the legitimacy of the investigation. The two-step process outlined above will go a long way to reducing participant anxiety by building rapport and trust between investigator and participant, resulting in higher quality interviews and a more complete investigation.

 

About the Author

Devan Corrigan

Devan J. Corrigan is the Founder and Principal of Corrigan HR Consulting which provides consultancy services in the area of human resources and labour relations. He specializes in conducting workplace investigations in both the provincial and federal jurisdictions. Devan holds an Honours degree in Psychology from Saint Mary’s University and a Master of Industrial Relations from Queen’s University.