3 Tips for Harassment Investigations

Investigating complaints of inappropriate workplace conduct is a difficult challenge for any number of reasons. But conducting an immediate and thorough investigation is critical to both preventing lawsuits and to avoiding liability should a lawsuit arise. Human-resource professionals often ask for tips in handling this challenge. Here are three.male female sign_3

First, don’t be shy. An investigation of workplace harassment is not the time to be timid. Ask the tough questions and be direct. Don’t mince words or dance around the questions. Consider writing out the questions that you need answers to and actually check them off your list. If you don’t ask a straight question, you’ll never get a straight answer.

Second, don’t decide anything in advance. This is important because, if you’ve already made your mind up before you ask the question, you’ve already failed as an investigator. In order to get the information that you need, you must truly listen. And the interviewee will know if you’re not listening. So keep an open mind and don’t jump to conclusions.

Third, remember that there may be more than one version of the “truth.” It’s rare that I am presented with a complaining witness who I think is actually “lying.” It’s far, far more common that the complainant misunderstood the events or misinterpreted the meaning. And, frequently, for one reason or another, the complainant has repeated the story so many times in his or head that the story has become the truth. In other words, the complainant truly believes that the events occurred the way that he or she is describing them.

There is a tremendous body of social-science research about this third item. Eye-witness accounts can be, well, dead wrong. If you think you’re the exception, or, if you just want to see how differently people can see the same event, you may want to take a look at the “selective attention test” by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris.  Watch the video and see how many passes you count and then compare your answer to others . . . and then consider how certain you should be about the observations of the employees you’re interviewing.

Taking the Mystery Out of Bad Hiring Practices

Want some free anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training? Well, have I got a deal for you! Mystery Diners is a reality show on the Food Network. The show’s concept involves a father-daughter team who pretend to be employees and/or customers at a target restaurant in order to help the owner uncover the “leaks in the dam” so to speak.

An episode that aired last week, called, “Managing Disaster,” could be used as a workplace best-practices training video. In short, you could use the video to train employees that any of the conduct by the restaurant’s manager should be considered prohibited conduct in your workplace.

Yes, it really was that bad. And I mean bad. Let me take a moment to run through just a few examples of conduct that occurred during the hiring process.

Candidate #1: Sarah the “Old Lady”

Two women are sent into the restaurant to interview for a waitress position. One of the women is Sarah, who is in her mid-30s and has lots of waitressing experience. She interviewed with the bad-guy-manager (we’ll call him “Manager,” despite he did anything but manage the employees).

During the interview, he asked her how old she was. Yes, you read that correctly. When she answered “I’m 35,” Manager nearly fell out of his seat. He quickly sent her on her way and told her he’d be in touch. After she was out the door, he ran over to the bar, where he told the bartender that Sarah “was like, in her 30s–she’d be like a mother in here!!”

Candidate #2: Destiney In a Short Skirt
The second candidate was Destiney, the daughter of the father-daughter team, who I’d guess to be maybe 21 years old. Destiney was young and cute and wore a short skirt to herinterview. As if Manager hadn’t already shown his true colors during Sarah’s interview, he took it to an entirely new level with Destiney. By the end of the “interview,” though, you can be sure that Destiney had been offered the job.

For starters, he made her sit on a couch for the interview, which was not only way too informal but also clearly uncomfortable for Destiney in light of her attire. When Destiney admitted that she had no real experience to speak of, Manager assured her that experience was not important–“as long as you’re cute.”

Ethical Standards Lower than a Short Skirt

Seeing that he couldn’t ask her about anything relevant to the duties of the job, I guess it’s natural that Manager turned to other topics. In this case, Manager chose “partying,” and began a series of questions about Destiney’s after-hour activities, such as whether she liked to “party” and whether she liked to go clubbing, which “they” (presumably, Manager and his creepy friends), “did all of the time.”

The low point of the “interview” came when Manager touched Destiney’s knee as he sat way too close to her on the low-to-the-ground couch and talked about low-life topics like “partying” and assuring her that his standards for hiring were as low as his morals. What a dirt bag. And you can imagine what the father, who sat in a trailer watching the live video stream with the restaurant’s owner, must have thought as he saw Manager Creepy touch Daughter Destiney’s bare knee. Nice.

When Busted, Blame Others
Folks, the take-aways from this episode are, admittedly, obvious to most of us. They weren’t, apparently, as obvious to Manager Creepy, who was shocked and appalled that the owner had secretly videotaped these antics. And, in a demonstration of some of the best blame-shifting skills I’ve perhaps ever seen, Manager Creepy, furious about the intrusion, turned the entire situation around and accused the owner of being an unsupportive boss.

Be sure to catch the show for some free anti-harassment-and-discrimination training.

The Invisible Gorilla’s Lesson for HR Pros

Any human-resource professional who conducts internal investigations of employee complaints (i.e., discrimination, harassment, bullying) would be well advised to read the new book, The Invisible Gorilla.  The book is written by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, the two minds who collaborated on a famous psychological experiment for which they were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology. 

If you haven’t heard of the “gorilla experiment” (also known as a “selective-attention test”), you can (and should) check it out on the authors’ website.  You can watch the video to take the test-but be warned that you may be very, very surprised by the results!  According to the authors:

This experiment reveals two things: that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea that we are missing so much.

And they’re not kidding.  As they explain in the the book, we have an amazing ability not to see what’s going on around us.  And, as also explained in the book, we also have an amazing ability to remember facts incorrectly; in other words, we get the story really, really wrong.  More notable, though, is how convinced we become that our memory is accurate. In fact, we are so sure that our recall of a traumatic event is correct that we can’t be convinced even with documentary evidence.

So how does this potentially affect HR?  At a minimum, the authors’ findings will change the way you conduct your next internal investigation. When you’re interviewing potential witnesses, you will be keenly aware of the tricks that our memories can play on us-and how convinced we can be that our memories are not being tricked at all.

Preparing for the Brain Drain by Hiring Right

By as early as 2010, the Baby Boomers will leave the workforce en masse.  As the “reliable” generation heads towards retirement, employers will be faced with a substantial need for new recruits.  And those employers who have the foresight to plan ahead know that recruiting starts now.  Otherwise, there will be nothing but college grads and retirees.  To prevent the “brain drain,” the need for mid-level managers must be factored into hiring and recruiting decisions now.  social-media-community

More than ever, the hiring process is a critical element of success planning.  But hiring, of course, is no easy thing.  There are obstacles everywhere.  And, frankly, hiring should be a priority far beyond the Human Resources department.  It should be a priority for the C-Suite, too.  If senior management appreciates the fundamental need for good hiring decisions, there will be less resistance to implementing a full-fledged hiring program.  In an ideal world, all companies would have one. 

If you are one of the businesses fortunate enough to get buy-in from executive management, one of the best things you can do is to be highly selective in choosing the hiring team.  The authority to be involved in the hiring process, at any level, should be granted sparingly.  Treat the hiring team with the importance it deserves and don’t let the undeserving join the team.

Select interviewers with purpose.  Not everyone should be permitted to interview.  Interviewing is hard. It involves a great deal of legal exposure. It’s a great opportunity to capture the attention of the best and brightest–or to send them running out the door faster than you can say “signing bonus.” 

Perdue Farms Settles Failure-to-Hire Lawsuit and Laments Failure to Document

Good documentation practices during the hiring process can help employers avoid a failure-to-hire claim.  And that’s a good thing, considering that failure-to-hire claims are costly. Just ask Perdue.  The poultry company has agreed to a pay out of more than $800k to settle a claim of disparate impact arising from what the DOL concluded to be systematic discrimination against non-Hispanic job applicants. 


Disparate Impact Claim

A Labor Department news release states an evaluation in 2005 and 2006 by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) found the Salisbury-based company failed to comply with federal employment laws at its poultry processing plants in Rockingham, N.C., Dillon, S.C., and Monterey, Tenn. (The OFCCP has jurisdiction because Perdue supplies poultry under a federal contract to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

The settlement agreement will require Perdue to pay $800,000 in back wages and interest to 750 women and minorities who were not hired during the relevant time period.  The company also will make employment offers to some of those who were not hired but who are still interested in employment with Perdue.  In those cases, the employees will receive retroactive company service dates for purposes of benefits and promotion rights. 


Documentation Regrets

Perdue officials denied the allegations on the basis that many applicants were unqualified for employment or withdrew from consideration for employment.  They stated that the company agreed to a settlement only to avoid protracted litigation, according to the company. The VP of HR said in a company statement:

Perdue is committed to treating all job applicants fairly. We regret we did not more carefully document our hiring process for production associates, which led to these concerns by the OFCCP and, ultimately, to this settlement.

Perdue has implemented new procedures to ensure it retains all relevant documentation of its selection processes and is also conducting training of its human resources staff to assure appropriate implementation of Perdue’s hiring and employment practices, according to the company statement.

Interviewing Best Practices

Interviewing is one of the most neglected areas in employment law.  When I teach seminars on lawful interviewing, I will inevitably see faces filled with shock and despair as they realize just how many of the best practices have not been implemented in their organization. 

Documentation is key in hiring.  If you keep notes and records only on the people you hired, you will have nothing to refer to in a failure-to-hire claim.  And let’s be honest, the ones you didn’t hire are likely the ones who were the least memorable.  Can you remember candidates you interviewed and rejected in 2005 and 2006? 

Without an established and consistent documentation and record-retention policy for the hiring policy, a failure-to-hire claim can be nearly impossible to defend.  Just ask Perdue.


Source:  Delaware News Journal, Gwenn Garland

How Easy Is It to Ask Off-Limit Interview Questions? As Easy as Buying a Stuffed Toy Schnauzer

Interviews are the usual starting line for pregnancy-discrimination suits and, more recently, FRD claims. I often get questions from clients or seminar attendees about the perils of interview questions.  A common theme is why is it that they shouldn’t ask candidates about their family, i.e., spouse, kids, etc. 



It seems natural. “Oh, I see you volunteer at the North East community center.  My kids take swimming lessons there.  Do your kids take any classes there?” Heck, I can give you a real-life example that happened to me last week. 

I was at the local greeting-card store.  As I was checking out, the [female] employee looks up and says enthusiastically, “Do you have any little ones at home?” 

I nearly choked on my Lifesaver.  I kid you not.  (No pun intended, really).  I stood there, mouth open, speechless. 

She turned around and grabbed a toy Schnauzer from a counter lined with little stuffed animals.  “You get one of these for free for a purchase of $20 or more.”  I lifted my chin off the ground and nodded while she stuffed the toy toy (ok, pun intended) into my shopping bag. 

The employee was probably all of 23 years old.  She had no intention of forming opinions of me based on my answer to to her question.  She was just trying to give me the free toy.  But the question caught me off my guard. 

I can almost guarantee that if you went back to the store and asked her about it, she would have positively no idea who I was–one of many customers she’d seen that night.  She certainly would not recall what she’d said to me. 

It’s that easy.  Despite best intentions, it is so easy for an interviewer to ask a question that leads to a lawsuit.

5 Steps Away From a Failure-to-Hire Lawsuit

Pregnancy Discrimination, Maternal Profiling, Family Responsibilities Discrimination (FRD), and Mother’s Day.  A natural combination.  You can add one more to that list.  Off-limit interview questions. 


When I teach seminars about best hiring practices, I usually get at least a few dirty looks when I talk about interview questions that should be avoided.  Employers and HR professionals often comment that interviews should be conversational to put the candidate at ease so the interviewer can get to know the “real” candidate.  Not a good idea.

Here’s why:

  1. Every candidate that you interview except one is going to be rejected.  Remember that.  Every candidate except one goes home a loser. 
  2. No one thinks they’re a loser.  No candidate who made it as far as the interview thinks that they shouldn’t get the job. Of course they should get the job! 
  3. When rejected, blame-shifting is inevitable.  Do the logic.  If they were sure they were hiring-material but they don’t get hired, what can be the explanation?  Someone else made a mistake. (Namely, you, The Employer).
  4. The interview becomes the target.  Well, what else is there?  The candidate had only one face-to-face interaction with The Employer–the interview.  Every word, every gesture, every question is analyzed to try to find what went wrong. 
  5. Lawsuit. 

Sure, nobody likes a story with a sad ending.  But “it’s for your own good,” ok? 

Interviewers (often untrained in employment discrimination) are just trying to make the candidate feel natural and at ease.  They want to know whether the interviewee will be a good fit, whether they have the technical skills needed, whether they understand the job’s requirements, etc.  They aren’t angling for prohibited information. 

But when a candidate doesn’t get hired, every question becomes suspect and the potential starter for a discrimination lawsuit. 

For those of you who want to know how to solve this problem, the best way to find out is to attend one of our seminars, especially those on lawful interviewing.  For now, I’ll say this: Every interviewer at every interview for every candidate should (no, must) use a script of pre-prepared questions.  And that script should be the same one used by every other interviewer for every other interview (at least for the same position). 

Autonomy in interviewing is a bad idea.