In a previous blog, we discussed the tricky issue of anonymous complaints. We set out steps that employers can take to prepare themselves for the inevitable receipt of one, and best practices in communicating with anonymous complainants. In this blog, we do a deeper dive into how to go about investigating such a complaint.
In our experience, there is no one-size fits all approach to investigating anonymous complaints. Often-times the best approach will be one that is tailored to the contents of the complaint so be sure to read and re-read your complaint carefully before deciding on how to proceed. Here are some possible ways to approach such an investigation:
1) Interview the suspected authors of the complaint
Where you have a good idea as to who wrote the complaint (either because of clues left in the letter, and/or because of previous conflicts regarding the suspected author and the respondent), you can start by interviewing this individual. It is best to treat this interview as you would any other type of witness interview – meaning you should ask open-ended questions that become increasingly more pointed if the individual appears to have relevant information (“bull’s eye questioning”). Using this technique will help you avoid revealing any more information than necessary about the complaint.
2) Interview the respondent’s direct reports
Where the anonymous complaint raises issues with a supervisor’s conduct, you could start by interviewing the supervisor’s direct reports. This is a tactic best employed where the respondent has a small number of direct reports. While none of these individuals may be the anonymous complainant, they could give you valuable information that can ultimately lead you to the complainant and/or the root cause of the issues. As with the step above, tread carefully in these interviews and employ the bull’s eye questioning technique.
3) Conduct a workplace review or assessment
Where the allegations in the complaint letter cover a wide range of “bad behaviour” and where the letter suggests that multiple people have been affected by this behaviour (or where the letter purports to be authored by multiple people), then conducting a workplace review or workplace assessment may be the best course of action. A workplace review or assessment is typically conducted using a survey and/or in-person interviews to collect information about how employees are feeling in the workplace, with some form of anonymity guaranteed to participants. The questions can be tailored to get at specific issues raised in the anonymous complaint. For example, if the complaint raises issues about a member of senior management, the assessment can ask employees about their impressions of company leadership, which may then tease out the issues that have been raised in the complaint.
4) Interview the respondent
At some point in the process, consideration should be given to providing the respondent with notice of the complaint and interviewing the respondent with respect to the allegations raised against them. Even if no information was obtained throughout the process that confirmed the allegations in the anonymous complaint, the complaint should still be presented to the respondent in order to provide them with an opportunity to respond and ensure your due diligence.
It may be that the respondent has information as to who wrote the complaint. If the respondent provides you with a name that seems plausible, then you may want to interview this individual as well. We again suggest using the bull’s eye questioning technique when interviewing this individual in order to protect the confidentiality of the process.
At the end of the day, the exact approach you take with an anonymous complaint will vary depending on the content of the complaint. Although these types of complaints are often HR’s worst nightmare, don’t ignore them! As set out above, take solace in the fact that there can be several different ways to go about investigating them.