Emtrain Blog

Decision-Making in Workplace Investigations: Keep it Fair

Remove unconscious bias from your workplace investigationsNow more than ever, companies are being held to a higher standard when it comes to workplace misconduct. They must have reliable and safe methods for employees to report misconduct, and they must establish trustworthy mechanisms for investigating and resolving those concerns. That means making sure that your decision-making when investigating claims of misconduct is free of actual or perceived bias.  We hear about the mental shortcuts our brains take to get through our everyday lives. Research tells us that many of these shortcuts are necessary and harmless, but more and more studies show that these shortcuts are sometimes quite damaging, especially when it comes to basing our workplace decision-making on stereotypes and faulty assumptions.

The discussion around unconscious bias at work has primarily focused on the employee life cycle—from hiring to promotions and from employee development to pay equity. An area that hasn’t been explored as extensively, however, is how our unconscious biases affect our ability to make sound decisions in the area of workplace investigations.

Corporations Must be Fair When Receiving and Addressing Complaints

How do we ensure that our decision-making is fair from the time a complaint is made until the investigation is finalized and a resolution is implemented? First, it requires a recognition that these unconscious biases exist and that they may inadvertently taint the decision-making of anyone associated with the complaint-investigation-resolution process.

This means that line managers—the group employees are most likely to turn to if they have a concern—must know how to distinguish between a relatively straightforward employee relations or performance issue (meaning an issue they can likely resolve on their own) and an issue that presents a more serious complaint that needs to be formally investigated.

And then there are the people in charge of actually conducting the investigations–are they being fair when making decisions about important issues like whether to investigate, who to interview (or not interview), or when making credibility determinations?

Finally, those in charge of participating in the process of fixing problems uncovered by a workplace investigation must be equally careful to make sure their own biases don’t negatively impact their decision-making.

How Unconscious Bias Can Negatively Impact Workplace Investigations

So what are some of the most important ways to watch out for unconscious bias when receiving employee complaints, investigating those complaints, or implementing remedies to make the workplace better?

There are several, but two of the most important are confirmation bias and affinity bias.

  • Confirmation bias refers to our human tendency to look for evidence that confirms our preconceived notions. That means that if a line manager automatically thinks that an employee who complains of misconduct is lying, that manager will look for evidence to confirm that belief or, worse, may decide that there is no need to investigate. This type of bias also creeps into decision-making when an investigation is conducted. An investigator who reaches a conclusion before considering all the evidence might decide to only speak with witnesses she knows will support that early conclusion. This almost always leads to a conclusion that is based on an incomplete picture.
  • “Similar to me” bias refers to our tendency to favor information from those who are “like us” (or to discount information from those who are different from us). The affinity might be based on factors such as race/ethnicity or gender, but in the case of investigations, an equally dangerous affinity might be based on position (is the accused a manager like me?) or other shared characteristics (the accused is married like me, is the same religion as me, and since I’d never engage in the misconduct, I bet he didn’t either). Failing to recognize and eliminate affinity bias can have dire consequences during the investigation process and is equally dangerous when deciding on consequences to the misconduct (typically seen in lenient discipline if the person found to have misbehaved is “like” the decision-maker).

One hallmark of environmental health is the extent to which companies establish procedures for handling complaints of misconduct, and the extent to which they follow those procedures when employees raise concerns. Eliminating unconscious bias from that process is vital for employees to feel they are part of an organization that takes complaints seriously, investigates them fairly and distributes discipline for misconduct in an even-handed way.

Drive Diversity by Focusing on These Three Company Culture Elements

Drive Diversity by Focusing on These Three Company Culture ElementsIf you’re working on diversity initiatives in the workplace you know it’s equally inspiring and frustrating. Research shows that companies with diverse talent pools achieve greater innovations, more productivity and higher profitability. So companies are spending hundreds of millions on diversity programs, yet getting very little return on their investment. Diversity numbers have increased only a percent or two—and in some cases, diversity is decreasing. As Google, Uber and Starbucks know, it only takes a leaked internal memo, a Medium blog or a YouTube video going viral to show the world the worst. For every two steps forward, we take a step back.

Scandals aside, why is there so little progress being made in recruiting and retaining diverse talent? If diversity is a focus, if talented people are holding dedicated diversity and inclusion roles, if the budget is being applied, why aren’t we seeing positive effects?

It comes down to two things: The Leaky Funnel and corporate culture.

The Leaky Funnel is a concept that explains how bias (conscious and unconscious) affects diverse candidates at three key points in their career: when being recruited, when navigating team dynamics and when in the promotion process. To drive positive change, organizations need to bring daylight to each of these areas, with structured processes and mini-interventions when things go wrong. We’ll share tips on each of these below.

Corporate culture, particularly an organization’s ability to accept, appreciate and admire diversity, is a bigger shift because complex human behavior and legacy tactics have already shaped the politics and power structure. Shifting from the status quo rocks the boat: some people will have to take a step back to let others ahead. 

Leaders can’t just change their organizational culture. Cultures evolve, there’s no top down or bottom up magic to apply. Luckily, there are some good habits and cultural competencies that companies can promote so today’s employees can adopt to start the shift towards embracing diversity. We share some of these below too.

The Leaky Funnel: The Reason Your Talent Diversity Efforts Are Falling Short

‘Tis the season when technology companies publish their diversity numbers. And, despite a concerted effort to increase diversity, women and people of color are still underrepresented across all levels and particularly in senior leadership.

How does this happen? All organizations have three inflection points that can make or break diversity: recruiting and hiring, team dynamics, and career advancement. When unconscious bias kicks in and leaders give opportunities to people they feel “are the best fit for the team,” diverse candidates—like women and people of color—are less likely to get those opportunities

When diverse talent starts falling out of the corporate talent pipeline, we call it “The Leaky Funnel”.


Be Conscious About Bias to Work Better

Be Conscious About Bias to Work BetterOur brain’s ability to make quick assumptions based on limited information is one of the marvels of our evolution. It helps us rapidly process information and protect ourselves in critical moments. We’re so used to relying on first impressions and stereotypes that we do it all the time, even in professional settings. We call this unconscious bias, and it shows up in the workplace in all sorts of ways, from interpersonal relationships to the way office temperatures are set. (Doubt that last one? Are you freezing in your office right now?)

Unconscious bias also influences how we think about our colleagues and our leaders, how we approach projects, and how we get and give opportunities.

Everyone’s Got Biases
Think you don’t have any biases? Check out our video to see if you’re right.


T-Minus Ten Weeks: What Companies with New York-based Employees Must Do to Comply with Sexual Harassment Prevention Training Mandates

The preamble to the NY State legislation aimed at preventing workplace sexual harassment indicates that the bill is comprehensive and multi-faceted. It enacts an approach “to help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, ensure accountability, and combat the culture of silence that victims face.” It goes on to say, “this bill will help ensure that all employees are provided with a safer work environment.” This language drives home a point that we see surfacing not only in New York, but throughout the country: State legislatures are taking a comprehensive and serious approach to tackle this complex issue. 

Our prediction? This is the beginning of a trend that will include enactment of mandatory harassment prevention training requirements in other parts of the country. But for now, the question is, how do New York employers comply?