A female mid-level employee walks into her employer’s Human Resources (“HR”) Department offices and states that she would like to file a sexual harassment complaint against a senior executive. The employee then lays out her story and describes her fears of retaliation from the executive. This situation can be very difficult for in-house counsel because they are presumably concerned about the well-being of all employees, promoting a suitable company culture, and providing a safe and positive environment which hopefully helps the company to thrive.
Given the seriousness of sexual harassment allegations, which has certainly been highlighted by the #MeToo Movement, it is obviously imperative that employers conduct thorough and impartial investigations into allegations of sexual harassment. In order to ensure a proper investigation occurs, employers should address the following issues, among others.
Who should conduct the investigation?
What is the proper scope?
How should the witness interview be conducted?
In what manner and to whom should the conclusions be communicated?
With proper procedures followed by capable HR personnel, in-house counsel, and/or outside counsel, employers can ensure that a fair investigation is conducted and reduce or eliminate the possibility of company liability for an improper investigation.
Who is an Appropriate Investigator?
Many employers utilize HR staff members or in-house counsel to conduct internal investigations due to their understanding of company policies and/or employment law. Although obviously cost-effective, this approach can eventually result in allegations of conflicts of interest because of the employment relationship between the employer and the employee-investigator. This is particularly true when a senior executive is the target of the investigation.
Employing outside counsel to conduct sexual harassment investigations is the safest way to proceed when the allegations are extremely serious and/or one or more senior executives are involved. Consideration should also be given to having outside counsel conduct an investigation when the complainant is a former employee to reduce or eliminate later allegations in the litigation that I believe is more likely to ensue under such circumstances that the investigation was flawed because the investigator was conflicted. Retaining outside counsel also allows in-house counsel and HR employees to focus on other meaningful workplace functions.
What is the Appropriate Scope of an Investigation?
Of course, the scope of the investigation depends on the nature of the complaint and may change as new facts come to light. That said, the investigator(s) must probe the credibility of the alleged harasser(s), victim, and witnesses and evaluate whether the company’s processes and practices for handling sexual harassment claims were followed. In addition, investigators should make recommendations if they believe (i) certain company processes or practices need to be revised, (ii) systemic problems exist, or (iii) an HR audit is warranted.
A preliminary investigation plan should include a description of known facts and specific issues to be explored, a list of possible witnesses as well as other individuals with relevant information, and known or possible documentary evidence. It should also contain a proposed timeline for completion of the investigation. Potentially relevant evidence includes records of prior complaints, witness interviews, personnel files, performance evaluations, compensation records, timekeeping records, emails and other electronically stored information, voicemails, audio/video recordings, employee notes and logs, and background checks. In determining the appropriate investigatory strategy, investigators should be mindful of the potentially disruptive and unnerving effect of a hard-nosed investigation into alleged employee misconduct.
How Should Witness Interviews Be Conducted?
At the outset of employee interviews, in-house or outside counsel must provide Upjohn warnings to ensure the integrity and confidentiality of employee interviews. In the landmark 1981 case Upjohn Co. v. United States, the United States Supreme Court found that a company’s attorney-client privilege protected communications between attorneys and a company’s employees regardless of their seniority and authority. The Court’s holding gave rise to the Upjohn Warning in which attorney investigators hired by a company inform employee interviewees that the attorney-client relationship exists only between the attorney and the employer. Failure to provide an Upjohn Warning has resulted in employee witnesses being afforded the right to claim the attorney-client privilege with respect to their communications with investigative counsel representing the company.
Another issue that sometimes arises is whether to allow employees being interviewed to have their personal counsel or another representative present. In order to protect the privacy rights of the persons involved, among other reasons, it is my view that employers should generally avoid allowing counsel or a representative to sit in on interviews. If it is permitted under unusual circumstances, employers should articulate guidelines in advance to prevent disruptions, questions, and responses made by an attorney on behalf of his or her client or a representative on behalf of his or her principal.
Although efforts should be made to ensure the confidentiality of information obtained from witness interviews, employers need to understand that relying on the propriety of an investigation as a defense in a litigation may eventually result in a waiver of the attorney-client privilege for that investigation.
In many routine investigations, it is perfectly appropriate for in-house counsel or HR employees to speak separately with the complainant and the subject of the investigation, send separate confirmatory emails, and not prepare a formal report. However, if counsel believes that remedial or other actions may or will need to be taken, the target is a senior employee, and/or litigation is reasonably likely to ensue, a written report should be prepared absent extraordinary circumstances. When PowerPoint slides are used to make a presentation of the report, attendees, including Board members, should not be allowed to retain any slides because of possible litigation.
Of course, no single approach will suit all companies or all scenarios when sexual harassment allegations have been made so it is imperative for an employer to give careful consideration to what is appropriate given the particular circumstances. However, there are some universal guidelines I believe employers should follow when choosing an investigator. Employers should try to confirm that the investigator is:
- well-trained on proper investigation procedures;
- knowledgeable about employment and sexual harassment law and company policies;
- disinterested in the particular investigation even if an employee of the company at issue;
- a skilled interviewer who knows how to listen and when to probe to find relevant information; and
- has an acute eye for details since some may eventually prove to be important.
Investigators with these virtues, whether employed by the company or outside counsel, should be able to conduct competent investigations in even the most trying of circumstances. Finally, the form of any report should be governed by the employment status of the complainant(s), the nature of the allegations, and the seniority of the target(s) of the investigation.