HR Discrimination Investigation & Investigating Harassment Complaints In The Workplace

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What follows is a true story about Ms Svetlana Lokhova, a 33-year-old female Russian bank employee who brought an HR discrimination investigation against her employers in 2012.

When discrimination occurs in the workplace, you don’t want to be hit with a £3.2 million compensation bill, as Sberbank CIB (UK) Ltd were. An employment tribunal investigating harassment complaints in the workplace concluded that the bank’s employee, Svetlana Lokhova, experienced bullying and harassment of a sexual nature and was victimised on the grounds of sex by her manager.

Miss Lokhova said she believed colleagues targeted her for bullying and harassment after she reported a trader for insider dealing, who was later dismissed. Male colleagues commented, amongst others, that she had only been hired ‘because of her tits’ and that she needed to spend time with alpha male Nigerian tribal leaders to help with her stress. It was followed by spurious allegations of sexist discrimination that she was a drug addict and referred to as ‘Crazy Miss Cokehead’ and ‘Miss Dodgy Septum’.

What made the HR bullying investigation worse for the bank is that some of the comments and unwanted conduct made were by her manager; some he made in emails. Yet even worse, they made comments in emails to clients. Despite Ms Lokhova complaining to her employer about how they had treated her and the names they had called her, no internal discrimination investigation got carried out by Sberbank. In effect, the bank appeared to condone Ms Lokhova’s colleagues by not disciplining her manager.

There are many occasions where employees are treated unfairly and discriminated against, including comments made verbally or in writing, insulting pictures sent to colleagues, followed by managers or employers failing to investigate complaints correctly or at all. Still, it doesn’t always have to end in a discrimination investigation and a costly tribunal process. ‘Banter’ in the workplace can often get out of hand, but there are ways to deal with it before it goes too far. Even when someone oversteps the mark, a situation handled correctly can often be resolved.

Learning Points For Employers & Why the HR Discrimination Investigation Process is So Important

The first point is to try to be proactive about the situation, combat discriminatory views and perceptions, and avoid an ACAS bullying investigation so that employees know how to conduct themselves and the consequences of not acting responsibly.

Having an Equality and Diversity Policy in itself is just not enough. I suggest training staff on this crucial topic when new employees commence employment, followed by periodic refresher training to keep them abreast of the importance of equality in the workplace.

In addition, employers wishing to avoid the need to investigate discrimination in the workplace should encourage teamwork and try to combat negative attitudes and comments towards others who are different, for whatever reason. Good working relationships will help minimise the risk of discrimination but will not prevent it.

Take Action By Investigating Bullying In The Workplace

When there are allegations or complaints of discrimination, you must act reasonably, transparently and try to combat the perceived discrimination. The first step is to commence the workplace harassment investigation process.

Investigating Discrimination Complaints Thoroughly

You don’t have to wait until there is a formal complaint to begin investigating workplace harassment. Should you be aware of such issues pre any formal complaint, I would advise immediately starting an HR harassment investigation. If you are the recipient of an email, you can flag the problem to stop it from escalating. Early intervention could save you from a costly payout later down the line. Ignoring issues and not looking into them will only worsen the situation and not assist the resolution.

As part of investigating discrimination in the workplace, each witness should be asked to comment, ideally via a face-to-face interview, so that you can ask them reactionary questions to their answers. If this is not possible, ask them what they witnessed, heard or saw, and get a statement from them. It is crucial to do this with each witness. It may take some time, but it is worth it, especially if the matter does progress from a discrimination investigation into an employment tribunal.

It may even be the case during the discrimination investigation process where an employee gets suspended pending investigation. Suspending the complainant, however, is very unusual and not recommended. If the employee is not fit for work because of the discrimination – they are upset, stressed over the matter and off sick – it may be appropriate to pay that employee their full wage instead of statutory sick pay.

If the matter is more complex than first thought after investigating bullying in the workplace begins, do not hesitate to call Avensure and seek advice before you progress further. It may even be appropriate that we attend your premises and assist with the process.

Next Steps After Investigating Bullying And Harassment In The Workplace

After investigating harassment complaints in the workplace, there could be several options. There may be no evidence to support the allegations or substantial evidence. It is easy to judge the initial allegation/complaint before undertaking the discrimination investigation process, but you should judge on all the evidence. From there, you have various options, including issuing a timely apology to the employee who complained, disciplining those who were discriminatory in their actions or words or no action at all.

In addition, involved staff could receive training or be offered re-training on equality and diversity. It can even form part of the outcome of a disciplinary.

After investigating discrimination complaints, there may be evidence where disciplinary action is necessary. The sanction depends on a variety of issues, such as severity, length of discrimination (a one-off comment made in the heat of the moment and is regretted vs a sustained campaign of discrimination over several months that was calculated and designed to upset the individual or group), effect on the victim, the attitude of the perpetrator as well as what your Equality and Diversity policy defines. The person who chairs the HR bullying investigation disciplinary should ideally be different from the person who undertook the investigation.

Investigating Harassment Complaints In The Workplace

The aggrieved employee needs to see that justice was done after investigating workplace harassment. You can achieve this in many ways. In the most extreme occasion, this may be financial compensation to the employee, but in the first instance, I would say this is rare.

Employers need to handle the matter appropriately. Very importantly, the employee who makes a complaint about the discrimination they receive should not get treated adversely; they should not be suspended or told to go home. An atmosphere of collaborative working and not penalising employees for complaining is best. Each case depends on the circumstances and facts, but you must handle them sensitively and appropriately.

Employers should not be scared to get involved with investigating discrimination in the workplace robustly to try to get to the bottom of the matter. If further action is needed, we at Avensure are always on hand to advise and assist. We can even offer training courses, and we will help you through the process.

HR bullying investigation FAQs

What are the first steps I should take to investigating harassment complaints in the workplace?

Suppose you are faced with an employee/employees complaining about bullying or harassment in the workplace. In that case, you’ll need to gather as much evidence as possible to prove or dismiss the allegations. To begin your discrimination investigation, you’ll need to compile a record of all dates, times, and details of incidents that have occurred. Investigating harassment complaints in the workplace will also require you to compile a list of witnesses who have seen or heard any workplace bullying or harassment. Gathering detailed evidence allows you to put together a picture of moving forward.

How long does an ACAS bullying investigation take?

An ACAS bullying investigation needs to be conducted transparently and fairly, as quickly as possible for all involved. Investigating bullying and harassment in the workplace is a process that must be thorough, and some investigations will take longer than others, depending upon the number of employees and witnesses involved that have relevant information. For example, the workplace harassment investigation process could be straightforward and take one or two days. Still, a more complex HR harassment investigation that is more detailed and involves more employees can take several weeks to complete.        Also, your business may have a written policy that outlines a specific timescale for investigating harassment complaints in the workplace. If this is not the case, you should draft a timeframe so that the employees involved are well informed. After setting a timeline for your workplace harassment investigation process, you may need more time to gather additional evidence. If you encounter any delays in the process, then those involved need to be informed, and you’ll need to include these delays in your investigation report.

As an employer, do I have to inform an employee that I am investigating bullying in the workplace against them?

If you believe that investigating bullying in the workplace can be done without the accused employee interfering with evidence or harassing any witnesses, whoever is conducting the investigation needs to make the accused employee aware that an investigation is taking place as soon as the process begins.


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