Workplace restoration is the act of restoring a workplace after a significant event occurs. Often, such an event gives rise to a workplace investigation. This article focuses on workplace restoration in the context of a workplace investigation, which on its own can be a significant event. Even the best workplace investigations can still result in unresolved tensions at the workplace. For that reason, workplace restoration can be considered by municipal employers to be both a response and an ongoing process, with proactive mechanisms that can be implemented.
Below are some best practices for workplace restoration that an employer may implement before, during, and after a workplace investigation occurs.
1. Workplace Harassment Policy & Program
Workplace restoration starts with a strong workplace harassment policy and program. Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), each Ontario employer is required to have a workplace harassment policy and to post the policy in the workplace.1 The policy should state the employer’s commitment to addressing workplace harassment, consider the sources of workplace harassment, outline responsibilities of workers, and encourage employees to raise concerns. The program must include procedures for employees to report incidents, describe the investigation protocol, explain confidentiality, and how the results will be distributed. In addition to the OHSA requirements, employers can consider providing additional information in its policy for employees. These can include:
Employee Support: Consider providing employees with a list of internal or external resources to utilize during a workplace investigation. Employers will have to consider whether support can be provided internally or externally. Internal support can, for example, be confidential conversations with a member of Human Resources. External support can, for example, be service providers available through employee assistance programs.
Post-Investigation Measures: The policy can include a workplace restoration section which discusses how the employer may work on restoring the workplace after an investigation is completed, if required. Informing employees of what can occur after an investigation will leave employees with less uncertainty after the investigation concludes.
Whether included in the policy or as part of an internal process, employers can consider reviewing workplace harassment policies after an investigation to identify any gaps in the policy and adjust as necessary for future investigations.
2. Investigation Protocols
Courts have demonstrated through damage awards that a poor investigation can be costly for an employer. In addition, a poor investigation can also be costly to workplace morale. Ensuring a workplace investigation is efficient and effective can prevent long-lasting unrest in the workplace. Two factors to consider in this regard are:
Timeliness: Completing an investigation in a timely way is imperative to returning a workplace to a better place. This is especially the case where employees are placed on paid leaves or take leaves of absence pending the conclusion of the investigation. A drawn out investigation can also increase the likelihood that confidentiality will not be maintained. Witness interviews should be scheduled within reasonable timeframes and the employer should communicate to the investigator (whether internal or external) of any prescribed timelines.
Confidentiality: All aspects of an investigation should remain confidential to the extent possible. The more parties involved, the more difficult it is to maintain confidentiality. Employers should ensure that an investigator advises each witness that they are required to maintain confidentiality. Employees should be made aware that breaching confidentiality may impact the integrity of the investigation.
3. Investigation Results & Forward Thinking
The investigation report may signal the end of the investigation, but its impacts can be far reaching. How the findings of an investigation are communicated, and the quality of support provided, to employees afterwards are important to restoring the workplace.
Communicating Results: Under OHSA, employers must inform the complainant and responding in writing of the results of the investigation, including whether the allegations were substantiated. It is also prudent to present the results verbally in a separate meeting with the parties. Consideration may also have to be given to communicating the results to witnesses, depending on the circumstances. As mentioned previously, the impact of an investigation does not always end once the investigation ends. Employers should use this opportunity with the employees involved to consider the supports that may be required and continue an open line of communication moving forward.
Working Together: If the workplace remains fractured after the investigation, it may be determined that a formal workplace restoration plan is required. If that is the case, employers should include employee representatives, or union representatives if the employees are unionized, and all levels of management in the proposed plan. This should include identifying roles that each group of individuals will have in the plan.
Consider Outside Resources: There are professionals dedicated to assisting employers with workplace restoration plans after a significant event. Examples of these individuals include group coaches and workplace facilitators/mediators. In addition, it can be prudent to seek legal counsel before implementing any significant changes to the workplace.
Each workplace investigation is unique and will manifest differently within a workplace. There is no strict formula for a perfect investigation and whether workplace restoration may be necessary or desirable afterwards. Considering how to mitigate risk before, during, and after the investigation will assist with workplace restoration and employee morale.