It's more than just being tactful. It’s about questions being less catastrophising.

Trauma informed investigations

Interviewee: Kirsten Hartmann, Senior Workplace Relations Adviser/Workplace Investigator

In August 2023, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) released four guiding principles to assist organisations and businesses with their positive duty obligations to prevent sexual harassment and other unlawful behaviours. One of the principles centred around person-centric and trauma-informed approaches to workplace investigations.

That means organisations face an unprecedented need to adopt trauma-informed person centric approaches to workplace investigations as the ‘new norm’ for handling workplace grievances.

In essence, organisations must strive to ensure a trauma-informed approach permeates every aspect of the organisation’s processes and procedures, particularly when conducting investigations into workplace bullying, discrimination, harassment, and sexual harassment allegations.

“I think it would go without saying that allegations of sexual harassment automatically put you in a situation where you’re going to be very mindful about how you navigate through that investigation,” says Kirsten Hartmann, Senior Workplace Relations Adviser/Workplace Investigator.

For instance, Hartmann reflects on a time when she had to adjust her approach to be sensitive and trauma-informed, where the parties involved were subjected to constant bullying, which meant “I could not get 10 minutes in without them being physically and emotionally upset. They were just so traumatised that they could not go on.”

Typically, an investigator would want to get to the bottom of the matter, and ‘plod on through’ to make sure they gather all the pertinent information. However, a trauma informed investigator, “would take one look at that person and say, I do not think today it’s going to be the day we have this discussion, it’s going to be a day when you’re feeling comfortable and up to it. It is about having respect for the person,” she adds.

What qualities make a trauma-informed investigator?

“In a nutshell, it’s an investigation that pays particular attention and care to how an individual (whether they are a complainant, respondent, or witness) is treated, and that the investigator does not do anything as part of that process that could make that trauma worse for anybody involved,” says Hartmann.

One of the biggest aspects to running a trauma-informed workplace investigation is how an investigator handles the process. This includes changes that an investigator can make to the interview setting, the types of questions that are asked, and the careful attention paid to note-taking (to avoid repetition).

A successful trauma-informed investigation involves more than just preparing tactful questions, it’s about building questions that are less catastrophising, delivering them with respect, and not re-traumatising the involved parties.

Traditional vs Trauma-informed investigator

Hartmann points out the three biggest differences between traditional and trauma-informed investigators, focusing on the levels of awareness, respect, and flexibility extended to the individual sitting across the table.

“I don’t want to make the traditional workplace investigators sound like heartless people, but traditionally they were known and taught to be objective and structured, and the goal was to get to the bottom of an investigation.”

In contrast though, “a trauma-informed investigator ensures that the people in the process and the process itself doesn’t cause any more harm,” she clarifies.

In a traditional workplace investigation setup, the processes tend to be quite rigid. This may involve starting the investigation at 1pm with highly structured questions to be addressed methodically or being persistent until the involved party has responded to all questions.

“I am not saying that’s necessarily a bad approach, because an investigator has a role to play. It is more about being balanced, shifting the tone to a less structured approach, applying emotional intelligence, and leaving room for flexibility to find different ways to reach an outcome,” she adds.

While both traditional and trauma-informed investigations ultimately strive and focus on the principles of impartiality and objectivity, the latter reiterates the relevance of being empathetic and prioritising care to remove fear and allow the complainant to tell their story with ease.

“It’s just care and consideration as opposed to a rigidly structured scenario,” she explains.

Trauma-informed investigations done externally or internally?

“I must admit I am a little biased in relation to this question” she confesses.

“I believe that most investigations warrant being performed externally, particularly for delicate matters, as it provides added impartiality, additional expertise to the process, and removes bias and perceptions of bias”.

When deciding on the merits of going internal or external, it sometimes means that an employer should consider the scale of their business as the size of the business itself can increase the potential for bias.

How does the size of the business increase the potential for bias?

“In smaller organisations, being dependent solely on an internal HR investigation team might pose some risks over the longer term, “It may even just be a practical consideration to use external investigators, as workplace investigations are time-consuming and HR may be very busy focusing on business-as-usual activities.”

For example, the smaller teams may be problematic to prove and maintain impartiality if there is an employee that has been a respondent in more than one workplace investigation, and has repeatedly emerged without any allegations substantiated, “what is the guarantee that there will be impartiality if the same person is involved in yet another workplace investigation?” asks Hartmann.

Therefore, Hartmann believes that “an external person has more leeway to take on that ‘impartial trauma-informed role’, rather than an internal HR person or line management who may lack specific training in workplace investigations.”

“They can also solve the issues around size complexities where potentially a HR person could end up having to investigate someone repeatedly that they have inadvertently created a relationship with and potentially affecting the sanctity of that impartiality.”

“I think that for me, unless the issue can be resolved locally, and it’s not even needing an investigation, by all means, choose the in-house option, but if it involves harassment and bullying claims, organisations should consider the option for an external investigator,” she adds.

Hartmann goes on to clarify that involving an external investigator doesn’t necessarily indicate superiority or greater competence over an internal team of investigators. She simply urges organisations to take extra care, remain vigilant and prioritise attentiveness in the light of a serious workplace allegation to ensure added impartiality and experience are brought into the investigation process.

Key steps to consider before conducting a trauma-informed interview

Accommodate a support person

Frequently, during an investigation interview, whether it involves the complainant, respondent or a witness, they may enter feeling overwhelmed and burdened by the weight of responsibility. This is why allowing a support person can significantly improve the overall comfort and humanness of the investigation process.

“Let them [involved parties] bring a support person with them, and if you have to wait for a particular support person, you are going to get a better outcome.”

“Don’t make it difficult for people and instead accommodate the support person in terms of preferred interview times,” Hartmann advises.

Preferred mode of doing the interview

The location and the setting of an interview makes a major difference to help people in vulnerable situations or from traumatising places to open up, feeling secure and confident. Hartmann recommends that investigators consider the following aspects before scheduling an interview with the individuals, allowing them to decide how they prefer to share their story:

Would they like to attend the interview online?

Do they want to go somewhere private, away from the office and people they know?

Do they want to break up the interview into smaller segments instead of one long interview?

“Once again, it comes back to the setting you create and how you make them feel.”

Patience is key

Hartmann emphasises that as an investigator, “you need to realise there is going to be extraneous information involved in the investigation process, and it falls upon you to deal with it patiently.”

In many workplace investigations, the interview phase can be a particularly gruelling and stressful experience for employees. A trauma-informed investigator prioritises listening to ensure they understand what the impacted person has to say.

“The intention of the interview is not to trap individuals, but rather trying to support them to share their story and identify appropriate facts you need to investigate the allegation,” she explains.

Language used by a Trauma-informed investigator

Hartmann begins her investigation approach by posing two crucial questions:

  1.   Are you feeling comfortable to have a discussion with me today?
  2.   Have you got any worries or concerns about this process that you would like to talk me through before we start?

And a reassuring phrase to make the person feel safe and comfortable:

If you need to stop, the process is starting to get too hard, or is upsetting you, then we can do it another day. It doesn’t have to be today.

When the interview tone is encouraging and is infused with empathy, Hartmann has observed that the interviewees visibly relax, their shoulders easing.

“It’s also allowing them to have some control over the process.”

“They can, at any point, say to me I’d like to stop, and I’ll come back another day,” she says.

She also suggests an alternate method to put control back in the hands of the interviewee, which is, substituting a list of interview questions with the query, ‘how would you like to tell me your story’?

This approach proves particularly beneficial when “people have been subjected to trauma, which often makes them feel like they have lost control.” 

“So, a trauma-informed investigator’s role is to empower them as much as they can, while still navigating the interview to reach an outcome,” says Hartmann.

Your choice of language in the investigation report matters

When compiling the findings of an investigation into a report, it is crucial to refrain from using language that is overly emotive.

According to Hartmann, the language needs to be formal and professional, without being overly technical.

“It’s the test of, is there anything in this report that could potentially trigger a traumatic experience for that person.”

Even in cases where allegations are unsubstantiated, Hartmann stresses the importance of using a trauma-sensitive language. Regardless of the outcome, the individual feels that they have experienced trauma, and just because there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate the claim, it doesn’t diminish the person’s suffering.

Hartmann advocates for the use of transparent, unbiased, and professional language that is devoid of personal biases and interests.

Another aspect to consider when finalising the report is delivering it in a timely manner to minimise complications for the involved parties in the workplace.

What actions can an investigator take to become trauma-informed?

In terms of the investigator’s conduct, “they have got a job to do, but I think they need to be extremely adaptable and flexible every step of the way,” suggests Hartmann.

As Hartmann previously mentioned, “investigators should lean towards allowing the complainants, respondents and witnesses more control over the process, and by doing this you are handing some of that control back to the people involved and still achieving what you want.”

Although this may not necessarily align with the investigator’s usual method, it underscores the importance of adaptability and flexibility to ensure the people involved in the investigation feel empowered from the get-go.

Cut out the rework or repetitiveness in the process

“You should always try and prepare as if you have got only one shot at this.”

“I know you can go back, and you can have more interviews, but the whole premise of being trauma-informed is to ensure that people do not have to repeat themselves multiple times in different ways,” says Hartmann.

And it comes back to the timeliness of the report, because the longer the interview process goes, there is obviously a delay in producing the findings in the report.

Therefore, investigators need to exercise mindfulness, be respectful, and considerate as the person “would much rather be having a hot chocolate and doing valuable project work than be in the room with you,” she remarks.

Engage in quality training

Finally, you can always learn more and develop by engaging in workplace investigation training in the form of seminars, conferences, or workshops which can prove immensely advantageous. Such training provides access to a diverse network of practitioners to discuss how to conduct impartial investigations, gain insights into other people’s approaches, real-life investigation experiences to help connect the dots on trauma-informed investigative techniques.

“But with all that in mind, we must make sure as investigators that common sense prevails.”

“You can always take reasonable steps to ensure that you are going to make the experience for someone a lot easier,” she continues.

In fact, many traditional workplace investigator practices, such as timely investigations, being impartial, and objective reporting tend to remain intact, with the understanding to “soften the edges a little to make sure the process itself has not induced any more harm to the person.”

Where to next?

It is imperative for organisations to encourage employees to follow and be made aware of appropriate processes when there is unlawful workplace behaviours. Our public and in house training around grievance handling processes focuses on strengthening your internal team to become:

  1. Contact officers – who is a trusted individual that listens and openly addresses harassment, bullying, and discrimination claims 
  2. Workplace Investigations Officers -who knows the key legislation and guidelines relating to running trauma-informed investigations.

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