Workplace Investigations During a Pandemic: Three Things We Have Learned

Most of our work is with municipalities and various types of professional offices, so Zoom video conferences usually work well.

But what happens when the complainants, respondents, and witnesses are public works staff or other non-office staff? Or when a party or witness does not have access to a suitable computer or highspeed internet connection?

Most people have cell phones, so telephone interviews can be a good alternative, but even this can be difficult when dealing with people in remote areas of the province with poor cell reception.

The bottom line is that not everyone can participate in a video conference during an investigation. And, even if they can, there are some tricks to be mindful of. Here are three things we have learned:

1. Who’s Zoom’n Who?

The first Zoom/COVID-19 lesson I learned was: don’t assume Zoom will work just because a party or witness says, “Ok, let’s use Zoom”

During a recent investigation, about 20 minutes before the Zoom video conference call was about to start, I learned that the Complainant would be joining the video conference from his supervisor’s office, using his supervisor’s computer, and assisted by that supervisor in getting the meeting started on the computer.

This would have been terrific but for the fact that the complaint was against this very supervisor.

Not everyone understands what we do, how important impartiality is, and how important it is that witnesses feel they are being treated fairly by an independent third party. This experience brought home how it hard can be to control the interview room if you are not actually there.

As it turned out, this supervisor was not trying to manipulate the investigation result. It was actually the employer trying to accommodate the new realities of operating during a pandemic and probably a desire to demonstrate some technical sophistication by being able to adopt this “new” technology – both motivations being grounded in good faith intentions.

A little awareness of the potential problems goes a long way and usually there is some solution ready at hand. We were able to cancel the meeting and switch to a teleconference later in the day when the complainant could call us from the privacy of his own home.

Now, I make sure I discuss the need for a confidential setting that is within the technological realities of the situation when I am setting up an interview.

2. Limitations of Interviews by Telephone

Telephone interviews have many advantages for workplace investigations. As with Zoom, no travel is required. This means savings for employers as investigators spend less time on travel and more time interviewing and writing reports, which increases capacity for the investigators.

The downside of not being able to see the person being interviewed can usually be handled with careful questions. Sometimes factors like age, ethnicity, a physical disability, and other easily observable traits might be relevant to the case.

I recently had an investigation in which racism was one of the issues. One of the witnesses was reluctant to say much even though I was assured by the complainant that they would be an important witness.

As it turned out, this witness was an Asian woman and had a unique perspective on some of the events under investigation. Because I could not see her, this was not obvious. Sensing her reluctance and noticing her last name was common among those of Asian ethnicity, I started to probe for more of her perspective as a racial minority in this particular workplace.

I began by asking if she identified herself as non-white and I explained why I was asking the question. This opened up a great deal of additional information that I could easily have missed if I avoided the uncomfortable question about this witness’s race. It was a real eye-opener. Telephone interviews are not for the faint of heart.

On another occasion, the telephone interview proved exceptionally helpful. The case involved harassment allegations against a supervisor who worked with the complainant exclusively by telephone and email – similar to the way we were conducting the investigation interview.

During the telephone interview the Supervisor/Respondent shared certain documents that had been part of a problematic exchange with the Complainant several months earlier. When we began asking questions about the document the Supervisor became annoyed and short with us, demonstrating exactly one of the things about which the Complainant had complained. 

After the interview, we took a closer look at the documents and realized that the Respondent had actually sent us the wrong document – another type of mistake that had led to confusion on the part of the Complainant whose confusion had been chastised by the Respondent and was also part of the alleged harassment. The telephone interview actually offered a sort of harassment simulation upon which we were able to draw meaningful conclusions about the Respondent’s communication style.

Thoughtful use of the telephone interview can be a powerful tool for workplace investigations.

3. Documentary Evidence

Having parties and witnesses provide and explain documents is probably the most challenging part of any remote interview process. Not being able to use one’s finger to point to something on a page and ask a question can feel like wearing hand-cuffs.

The time delay between speaking about a particular document and having it scanned and emailed also offers challenges. These can mostly be addressed by careful review of documents and a follow-up call with the investigator and the witness looking at the same document, but this takes time and careful attention to detail.

No doubt, as we all become more familiar with remote communication we will learn new and innovative ways to function.

In another post we will explore some of the challenges of other missing visual information like the ability to read body language when doing an interview with a witness. Even Zoom has its limits when it comes to this aspect of the investigation process!

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