How to Properly Investigate a Hostile Environment Complaint in the Workplace

When a complaint is made in the workplace suggesting that there is a hostile environment, HR is called in to investigate – and whilst it’s one of the most unpleasant tasks of an HR officer, it’s a crucial one, one that needs to be handled swiftly and with great care, sensitivity, and deliberation. It requires great people skills and attention to detail.

One of the reasons that make such investigations so difficult is that it’s hard to define what a hostile environment is – and what activities or actions create it. These actions may be discriminating, abusive, intimidating or otherwise wrong, but often of questionable legality. Here’s how to properly investigate a hostile environment complaint in the workplace.

The thin line

There’s a thin line between situations in which the environment is hostile, and situations in which the environment is just annoying and difficult. In most cases, a situation becomes annoying and difficult because of personality differences, rudeness, or petty arguments. For there to be a hostile environment, such behaviour must be consistent, pervasive, disruptive to the victim’s work, and something that has been brought to the employer’s attention before. One incident does not create a hostile environment. Neither do several incidents. The incidents must be attributed to some form of discrimination against a person or group of persons, be it due to race, religion, disability, age, sexual orientation, and so on.

Making a plan

Depending on the circumstances, different measures should be taken in order to conduct an investigation. Special care should be taken when supervisors are involved, as they act on behalf of the employer and can thereby bring serious trouble to the employer. The investigator should be impartial and have no involvement, and they need to make a plan. It’s important to do things right, to follow procedure, and to have a goal in mind.

The interview

Ask the right questions. Ask why the victim believes the environment is hostile. Tell him or her to be specific. How has it affected work? Is there evidence or documentation? Who was involved, and how often? Equally importantly, ask questions that allow you to conclude whether it’s against a certain person or against a certain group of people that are discriminated.

Recording the facts

Recording the facts often helps in clarifying things later on, and it helps to create the report. However, make sure you ask proper permission first. After recording the interview/s, make sure to have them properly transcribed by professional transcription services UK such as Alphabet Secretarial.

Complaints about a hostile environment are probably one of the trickiest to handle. Nevertheless, as much as possible, such issues should be nipped in the bud right away. When handling such situations, be tactful and respectful to all – people’s reputations as well as general staff morale could be greatly affected.

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Author: Zámor Szôllôssi

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