Trial by Water Cooler

Don’t let gossip wash investigation efforts down the drain

A positive workplace culture thrives on good communication, collaboration, and a shared purpose.  Unfortunately, this can be easily disrupted by harassment, bullying, and discrimination.  Many organizations don’t know how to deal with these types of behaviours and find it easier to ignore them.  Over time, this can erode a positive workplace culture and replace it with something much more toxic.  Just because management chooses to overlook something doesn’t mean that other employees will do the same.  In the face of inaction, many employees will take it upon themselves to be judge and jury.  I refer to this as “trial by water cooler”.  


A Jury of Peers


Trial by water cooler happens when allegations of undesirable behaviour and actions become a main topic of conversation between employees.  It is usually based on half-truths and hearsay but can lead to long-term damage to a peer’s reputation.  Once the trial has started, it is difficult to stop.  The costs to an organization can be huge.  This type of workplace gossip decreases morale and employee engagement, causes irreparable harm to someone’s professional reputation, and negatively affects recruitment and retention efforts.  The good news is that trial by water cooler can be prevented.


Gather the Evidence


The best thing organizations can do to prevent a trial by water cooler is to have workplace investigation policies and procedures in place.  An investigation is typically initiated in response to a complaint regarding inappropriate workplace behaviour.  Examples include harassment of any kind, discrimination, or any other significant misconduct that is contrary to the expectations outlined in the organization’s policies and procedures.  The ultimate goal of a workplace investigation is to use objective evidence to reach an impartial conclusion.  


The workplace investigation policy should outline the criteria for initiating and conducting an investigation.  The procedures should include:


  • Reporting and escalation procedures, 
  • A communication plan for all involved parties, 
  • Impartial review and investigation procedures, and
  • A confidentiality agreement.


It is easier to conduct a thorough, unbiased, and timely investigation when policies and procedures are understood and followed. 


Investigation Options 


Organizations have two options for handling workplace investigations.  They can do so internally or they can outsource it to an impartial third-party provider.  


When handled internally, investigations are led by the Human Resources department and include the other involved parties.  Internal human resources professionals who handle investigations should have specific education and experience to ensure the process is impartial and robust enough to stand up to legal scrutiny.  This is especially true in cases that involve extremely serious allegations, senior staff members, or classified information.  


For organizations that want it done right and done well, outsourcing to a third-party can be an excellent option.  At AccessHR, we have highly qualified investigators that can expertly handle this for you.  Our investigators will:


  • Explain the process to the involved parties,
  • Review confidentiality requirements with the involved parties,
  • Conduct Interviews with the involved parties and witnesses,
  • Review all relevant and available documentation, and
  • Compile their findings and conclusions in a written report that is provided to the designated contact within the organization.

Many organizations prefer this method because third-party providers are impartial.  Internal investigations are often affected by biases that cause the investigation to be conducted through a lens of “finding facts to support the allegation” as opposed to the impartial collection and compilation of objective information.  


At AccessHR, we have several tools related to workplace investigations that can be highly beneficial to your organization.  If you don’t have anything in place yet, we will help you write the policies and procedures needed to form a strong and fair process.  If you have internal Human Resources employees interested in conducting workplace investigations, we can provide them with training and tools.  If you have a unique organization and are worried that typical workplace investigation processes won’t work for you, we will put together a customized plan that meets your specific needs.  Get in touch with us to learn more! 


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