As misconduct scandals involving high-profile persons within blue-chip organizations continue to proliferate, companies are scrambling to keep up with the rapidly changing ideas around how to handle workplace misconduct.
Whereas misconduct investigations were once the work of low- or mid-level HR generalists, they now demand much higher degrees of attention, care, and independence. Current best practices dictate these investigations be conducted by neutral third-parties unaffiliated with the organization.
Below are two real-life case studies in which organizations mistakenly attempted to conduct workplace investigations internally. The highly damaging consequences resulting from this decision in each case should give any organization considering an internal investigation reason to reconsider.
Case Study No. 1: A Prominent Face of the #MeToo Movement Comes Under Fire
On March 11, 2019, Politico reported that, in the summer of 2018, a female aide resigned from the office of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand — an outspoken supporter of the #MeToo movement — in protest over how Gillibrand’s staff had handled her sexual harassment complaint.
The aide alleged that Gillibrand’s personal driver had repeatedly made unwelcome sexual advances toward her and had made inappropriate remarks about other female staffers. The aide claimed that when she complained to her supervisor about the behavior, a sham of an internal investigation was conducted by members of Gillibrand’s own staff. The investigation resulted in a demotion for the driver, which the aide felt did not adequately address her concerns.
Additionally, the aide who complained of the behavior had recommended that former female staffers who had also been sexually harassed by the driver be interviewed as part of the investigation. However, Gillibrand’s staff never spoke to these women. Moreover, the relationship between Gillibrand and the driver accused of harassment was a close one, which created concerns among some of Gillibrand’s staff members as to whether the investigation was truly fair and impartial.
The aide resigned soon after the investigation was concluded, and she sent a sharp and pointed letter to Gillibrand herself, excoriating her for publicly presenting herself as a defender of women while allowing harassment to exist within her own workplace.
Publications like the Washington Post labeled Gillibrand a hypocrite and questioned her commitment to the #MeToo movement. All told, this case study is a high-stakes example of the damage that can result from not outsourcing employee misconduct investigations.
Case Study No. 2: Decades of Student Abuse at Ohio State University
On May 17, 2019, Ohio State University (OSU) announced the results of an independent investigation conducted after a former OSU student athlete alleged that former university doctor Richard Strauss had sexually abused him and other athletes while they were students at the school. To date, more than 170 former students have come forward to make similar allegations against Strauss.
The independent investigation, conducted by an outside law firm, spent a great deal of time analyzing a prior investigation conducted in 1994 by OSU’s director of sports medicine into sexual abuse allegations against Strauss at that time. The 1994 investigation concluded the allegations were unfounded, although the evidence is now irrefutable that Strauss had been abusing young men at the school for at least a decade by that point. The person who conducted the 1994 investigation was a colleague of Strauss’s. The two had worked together for many years.
Whether due to a lack of investigative expertise or the workings of internal campus politics, the 1994 investigation was erroneous and hugely damaging. The incorrect conclusion drawn from that investigation allowed Strauss to continue his disturbing and abusive behavior for years afterward.
These real-life case studies should show the danger of not outsourcing employee investigations. Internally conducted investigations can fail for a wide range of reasons, from lack of know-how to the influence of personal relationships between investigators and the accused.
Mishandled investigations not only allow for misconduct to persist, but they can also erode employees’ trust in organizational leaders. This, in turn, damages employee morale and increases turnover rates, as more employees will begin to search for healthier workplace environments.
Additionally, poorly handled investigations can open organizations up to significant legal liabilities. For the safety of both the organization and its employees, it is best to let misconduct investigations be handled by independent third-party investigators.
KiaRoberts, JD, is the founder and principal of Triangle Investigations.