One of the most challenging aspects for employers attempting to deal with workplace bullying or misconduct is getting to the truth of allegations, especially in circumstances where the apparent victim's version of events contradicts that of the alleged bully.
Most of the time, this disparity can be put down to differences of opinion or misinterpretation of intentions.
For example, the accused bully may have simply felt that they were performance-managing their subordinate, whereas the victim may have felt denigrated and abused. A purported victim may consider themselves to be the target of sexual harassment, while the accused bully may have simply wanted to ask them out for a friendly coffee.
But occasionally, for whatever reason, apparent victims of bullying tell lies in the interview process and make false accusations of bullying. This could be because they dislike the alleged bully, believe the "bully" should be dealt with by management or simply because they have embellished their story and feel that they need to stick with it now that a complaint has been made.
Regardless of the myriad reasons why a victim may lie during an investigative interview, how should this be dealt with by an employer?
Guarding against bias
Although it is natural to sympathise with a purported victim, and perhaps unconsciously believe their version of events over that put forward by the alleged perpetrator, the most important function of a workplace investigator is to establish the truth surrounding the allegations.
It is therefore imperative that any preferential bias in favour of the apparent victim is removed. If you do not feel that you can adequately perform an interview without such bias, whether because of your relationship with the victim/bully or because you can personally relate to the allegations of bullying, ensure that another person is tasked with conducting the interviews.
Picking up verbal and non-verbal cues
Once the claimed victim is participating in the interview process, ensure that you are observing any cues which may indicate that they are not telling the truth. These could include:
Of course, these can be subjective indicators. It is important to tread carefully when deciding whether a victim is lying about their version of events: making an unfounded and inaccurate accusation can cause even greater distress to an innocent victim.
In this regard it can be helpful to have another person sit in on the interview with you, so that they can provide their own opinion on whether the version of events being provided is accurate, and temper your initial reactions.
The need for corroborating evidence
Once the alleged victim has provided their version of events and it is apparent that this contradicts that of the claimed bully, it is essential to seek corroborating evidence to either prove or disprove the victim's story.
In addition to speaking with third party witnesses, such as other staff members at work at the time of the alleged incident, this could include evidence such as reviewing CCTV footage, checking personnel files for prior complaints or even performing basic checks such as making sure that both employees involved in the complaint were even working together at the relevant time.
Conducting a workplace investigation is a complex task, often requiring specialist knowledge and experience. WISE Workplace can assist with conducting interviews if you wish to safeguard the investigation process by avoiding any allegations of bias or favouritism, or are otherwise concerned that the interviewee may not give the full version of events. Please feel free to contact us for more information.
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