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Workplace investigations make sexual harassment worse.

Picture this scenario: You make a beautiful PB&J, and you lovingly wrap it in some kind of environmentally friendly wrap. You place it in the shared refrigerator at work. Your mouth is watering as you approach the fridge at lunch. You open the fridge door, and your sandwich is gone.

The first time this happens, you are bummed, but you don’t freak out. Those environmentally friendly wraps were expensive, but you have some at home.

The fifth time this happens, you need to do something about it.

You go to HR, and you tell them what’s going on. You tell them how day after day, you bring your PB&J to work, and every day it disappears. You know it’s Melanie who’s taking them because you saw a peanut butter smear on her desk the other day.

The HR manager says, “You realize if you formally report this, we’ll be forced to conduct an investigation, right?”

“What does that mean?” you ask.

“We will interview all of your colleagues and see if any of them saw you actually bring the sandwiches to work. We’ll have to tell Melanie what you’ve accused her of and she'll be allowed to respond. Stealing is a very serious crime, you know.”

“Okaaaay,” you respond.

“Have you talked to the police about it yet? If you can’t produce witnesses or documentation that this happened, we may be forced to close the investigation anyway. It’s up to you whether you want to report it though. These are very serious accusations.”

“Well, I don’t know if I want to go that far.”

“You’re telling me that your sandwiches really were stolen, but you don’t have any evidence? It seems like something else is going on here. Did you actually give Melanie the sandwich?”

It may be you’d want to report anyway, even after that conversation with HR, but you’d definitely be less likely to report. It may be you’d want to talk to the police, but that sounds intimidating.

What if, instead, you reported the sandwich issue, and the HR person said, “Okay, I will definitely send out a reminder email to everyone to be respectful of each other’s personal food. Is there anything I can do for you to help you be better able to store your food safely? I have some concerns about a sandwich thief working in the office, so it would be great if we can correct that, but I also want to make sure you are feeling respected and safe at work. Can I order in lunch for you?”

Now, the second scenario might be a little more friendly than HR often is, but it’s not too far off from the stolen sandwich investigations I’ve seen.

The problem is that with harassment and discrimination issues, supervisors and reporting people immediately go to the questions, “Did this really happen?” A workplace investigation becomes an interrogation of the victim, rather than an opportunity to improve the work environment.

In the sandwich scenario, I have almost always seen an immediate email going out saying, “Don’t eat each other’s food, kids.”

Why not do the same thing with sexual harassment? If someone feels the workplace is inappropriate, you already have the most important information you need – an employee feels the workplace is inappropriate. Not only do they feel that way, but they feel it strongly enough to seek outside help.

This means that employee does not feel that she has the power or authority to deal with it herself. You know there is a problem.

An investigation is not the best first response. An investigation says to the person complaining that you suspect they are lying. An investigation may be necessary, but it should not be the first response. The investigation should only be to determine whether some kind of punishment is appropriate or necessary for the accused – but it does not deal with the issue the victim is facing.

A workplace investigation alone often forces the victim out rather than helping her deal with a stressful situation. We should at least provide as much support to sexual harassment survivors as we do to people whose sandwiches were stolen.

Addressing the workplace safety issue and whether the harasser needs punishment is also important, but a separate issue.

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